Amid reconciliation talk, Netanyahu and Abbas in rare harmony on Hamas
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Amid reconciliation talk, Netanyahu and Abbas in rare harmony on Hamas

Israel’s PM says any unity PA government must recognize Israel, see Hamas disarmed, sever ties with Iran; PA president broadly echoes the sentiments

Dov Lieber

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010 (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010 (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday came out forcefully against the current round of Palestinian unity talks between rival factions Hamas and Fatah.

As the Palestinian Authority cabinet was holding a meeting in Gaza, its first since 2014, he took the opportunity to shatter any doubt over whether Israel was in favor of the developments.

“We expect anyone talking about a peace process to recognize Israel and, of course, recognize a Jewish state, and we won’t accept faux reconciliations under which the Palestinian side reconciles at the expense of our existence,” he said, speaking from the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim.

“We have a very straightforward attitude toward anyone who wants to effect such a reconciliation: Recognize the State of Israel, dismantle Hamas’s military wing, sever the relationship with Iran, which calls for our destruction, etc,” he added.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (C) chairs a reconciliation government cabinet meeting in Gaza City on October 3, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Mohammed Abed)

Netanyahu was either unaware of — or more likely ignoring — comments by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in interviews to the Egyptian press on Monday night. Otherwise he might have noted that the PA leader’s demands for forming a unity government are closely aligned with Israel’s.

Let’s go down the list.

Abbas demanded the PA control the border, ministries, and security in Gaza, and said he would not allow Hamas to keep its military wing. “I won’t accept the reproduction of the Hezbollah experience of Lebanon” in Gaza, he said.

Check “dismantle Hamas’s military wing.”

Abbas also demanded that Hamas come under the control of the Palestine Liberation Organization — the largest Palestinian umbrella group. The PLO has recognized the State of Israel since the late 1980s, largely thanks to Abbas.

Check “recognize the State of Israel.”

(True, while Netanyahu stated only in his demands that the Palestinian government recognize the State of Israel, a moment earlier the prime minister had specifically mentioned recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Abbas and his government have sworn never to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, yet Netanyahu’s government continues to co-exist with the PA and has sat down twice with it at the negotiating table for peace talks.)

Abbas said that absolutely no country would be allowed to interfere in internal Palestinian affairs, except for Egypt, which is facilitating the current unity talks.

Should the reconciliation talks succeed and the PA assume control of the Strip — however unlikely that outcome — politically speaking, Iran’s influence in Palestinian affairs would be greatly reduced as the Sunni powerhouse Egypt, aligned with Tehran’s nemesis Saudi Arabia, becomes the kingmaker.

Moreover, Iran is currently Hamas’s most important military backer, according to the terror group. Yet it is the United States that mostly bankrolls and trains the PA’s forces. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which the PA would give up its military support from the US in favor of Iran’s weapons, if facing an ultimatum by Washington.

Therefore, should a PA unity government be formed, and Hamas’s military wing be disbanded — an unlikely scenario — Iran’s relationship with and influence over the Islamist group and the Palestinians in general would be greatly diminished.

Check “sever the relationship with Iran,” with the caveat that a more symbolic relationship could still continue.

Fears of Hamas gaining international legitimacy

As the Palestinians launch negotiations, Israel fears Hamas, the terror organization committed to its destruction, is using the reconciliation to gain international legitimacy as part of the Palestinian Authority, while still retaining the goal of destroying Israel and seeking to retain the armed forces and weaponry to serve that goal.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a press conference after his meeting with Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi on July 6, 2017, at the Carthage Palace, near Tunis. ( AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID)

A senior Israel official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that “Hamas is trying to gain international legitimacy without accepting Israel’s right to exist, without disarming and without accepting the Quartet principles. Hamas remains a ruthless, mass-murdering terrorist organization that seeks Israel’s destruction.”

Yet Abbas has said he intends to rule “Gaza the same as the West Bank.” Israel seems to be of not comfortable with, then resigned to the situation in the West Bank, in which the Palestinian security forces and IDF work together to stamp out terrorism.

Additionally, the so-called Middle East Quartet — the United States, Russia, European Union, and the United Nations — has said it won’t afford Hamas legitimacy until it renounces terrorism and agrees to accept past agreements between Israel and the PLO.

In a separate statement, on Monday, Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s envoy to the Middle East, reiterated this sentiment, saying that while Washington welcomed the effort to put the PA back in control of Gaza, any resulting unity government “must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the State of Israel, acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties, and peaceful negotiations.”

Abbas and the international community would appear, then, to be on the same page: no legitimacy for Hamas without it giving up its weapons and recognizing Israel.

Currently, the unity talks seem at a fatal impasse, as Hamas has said it won’t give up its arms, and Abbas said that until the PA is in full control of Gaza, he won’t reverse deep financial cuts to Gaza that have worsened preexisting electricity and water crises.

Militants from the military wing of the Hamas terror group take part in a parade against Israel in Gaza City on July 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

These cuts, along with international isolation and pressure from Egypt, are what led Hamas to dismantle its own shadow government and start the reconciliation process.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said on Tuesday that his group is “ready to pay any price for the success of Palestinian national reconciliation.” Except, that is, for meeting those key demands including disarmament.

Meanwhile, Israel’s security establishment has repeatedly emphasized that Gaza is a powder keg, and a fourth round of conflict with Hamas could break out at any moment.

Rather than the reconciliation coming “at the expense” of Israel’s existence, it could be a chance to avoid another round of war. But that would require Abbas getting what he, and Netanyahu, say they want. And that prospect, for all the fanfare and headlines about Palestinian reconciliation, is remote indeed.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report. 

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