For Netanyahu, another excuse to miss an opportunity

The PM fears real Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, perhaps because it would force him to acknowledge that Abbas is a true partner

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks to the international media after the announcement of a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation pact, Thursday, April 24, 2014. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks to the international media after the announcement of a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation pact, Thursday, April 24, 2014. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

The internal Palestinian rapprochement, or what seems at least like a unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas, gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an excuse not to advance talks with the Palestinian Authority. Here was further proof that PA President Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t want peace and seeks a pact with the terrorist group Hamas. That was also the reason for Netanyahu canceling a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators Wednesday night.

And still, if Netanyahu weren’t so busy looking for excuses to not talk to the Palestinians, he would discover a few interesting things about the agreement.

First, Abbas has potentially brought Netanyahu and the international community what they were demanding: a government, with no Hamas representatives, made up only of technocrats, without politicians and with Abbas himself at its head. The government is supposed to deal not only with the West Bank, but also with the Gaza Strip.

And maybe that is what is making Netanyahu nervous. If the agreement does go into effect, if a government presiding over the Gaza Strip and West Bank is created, and if elections are held, Netanyahu could find himself facing a real partner in the person of Abbas. All the “no partner” claims, citing the fact that Abbas doesn’t rule the Gaza Strip, will cease to be relevant.

Israeli panic over the creation of the Palestinian technocratic government sounds like something of a joke. For years, Netanyahu and his people have been complaining that Abbas couldn’t deliver peace even if he wanted to, because of the split between Gaza and the West Bank. And now, just as Abbas is showing the first signs that he can deliver, Netanyahu is again claiming that there is no partner.

But there is another point that could calm Netanyahu somewhat — the chances of reconciliation efforts succeeding are comparable to the chances of success in talks between Israel and the PA. In the past, representatives of both organizations signed similar agreements, with the same terms, and virtually nothing happened — the split remained in place. It is hard to imagine Hamas or Fatah agreeing either before — or after — elections to give up the control each has over its own turf. Would 20,000 armed men in Hamas’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades simply hand their weapons over to Abbas if he were to win the presidential elections?

But for the Palestinians, the “no partner” argument is as relevant as ever — referring, of course, to Israel’s government. It began with Jerusalem refusing to fulfill a commitment to release a fourth batch of prisoners, and continued with Netanyahu’s indignant response Wednesday night. The sense among senior PA officials is that Netanyahu is paralyzed politically by his fear that, if he budges, his coalition will fall apart.

Still, as far as the Israeli public — and even the US administration — is concerned, the Palestinian leadership has failed in its attempt to paint Netanyahu as the main culprit in the collapse of the talks. “It’s hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday evening, despite the fact that the technocratic government would not include Hamas.

The Israeli press largely swallowed — hook, line and sinker — statements from the Prime Minister’s Office, while ignoring unequivocal statements from the Palestinians to the effect that Abbas was ready to find an agreement that would end the conflict. Even Abbas’s threat to dismantle the PA if talks failed became a way for Netanyahu’s office to bash the PA president in Israeli newspapers. The fact that senior PA officials, one after the other, denied that there was any intention to dismantle the PA didn’t interest anybody.

A meeting that Abbas’s office organized in the Muqata’a this week for Israeli journalists is a perfect example of this reality. For an hour-and-a-half, Abbas presented a moderate policy. He spoke about his desire to meet Netanyahu “at any place and at any time.” He said that cooperation with Israeli security officials, including Shin Bet security agency head Yoram Cohen, was excellent. He described the daily meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officers, and repeated, like a mantra, that his intention was to maintain the security coordination “whether the talks succeed or fail. Whether or not there are negotiations.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday, April 23, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday, April 23, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/Abbas Momani)

Abbas also gave a convincing explanation of his decision to turn to 15 international treaties and organizations. He attempted to calm Israel’s fears, and explained that the threat to turn to the International Criminal Court was irrelevant for the time being. And he repeated that the PA is asking for a complete settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for three months, during which time the borders of a Palestinian state will be drawn up.

His most important comment was about the “day after” the end of the nine months of negotiations, or April 30. The PA president explained that talks with Israel would continue anyway. “This might not be under the umbrella of ‘negotiations,’ ” but he said discussions with senior Israeli officials would be held even after April. The upshot was that peace talk would continue.

These statements didn’t interest Netanyahu and some Israeli media outlets. The latter focused on a minor comment by Abbas that if the talks failed entirely, he would “give the keys to the PA” back to Israel. He said Jerusalem would be responsible for paying the salaries of PA clerks, and the move would be coordinated with Israel.

And again, despite all the conciliatory and moderate messages, it was this statement that became the headline of the meeting in the Israeli press, and Abbas was presented as threatening to dismantle the PA — a threat that clearly isn’t realistic.

Senior Israeli officials who follow the Palestinian issue closely are aware of this. One hundred and sixty thousand Palestinian clerks receive their salaries from the PA, and Abbas has no intention of cutting off their livelihood and adding their hundreds of thousands of family members to the ranks of the poor and unemployed.

A senior PA official told me simply and directly: “If we cut off their salaries, they will look to other sources for their livelihood — Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, etc.”

The official presented facts and figures that led to a clear conclusion: Dismantling the PA would lead to a strengthening of Hamas at the expense of Fatah. It is almost unnecessary to mention that Abbas and his colleagues in the Fatah leadership are not interested in making that happen.

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