The infighting in Iran since its contested election has made it a “weaker patron” of Hamas and Hezbollah, the two principal terrorist groups abutting Israel, but it is too early to know the ramifications, according to an Israeli political analyst.
“Iran was weakened by the Gaza war [in January between Israel and Hamas] and Hezbollah’s loss in the Lebanese elections,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “Now Iran is going to be totally absorbed in its own internal issues.
“They may try to foment incidents to create nationalist support in Iran, and some of their targets may be Israeli. But Iran as a source of power behind Hamas and Hezbollah is going to be weakened, and it will
take a long time to see how that plays out.”
His comments came as Hamas and the Fatah Party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prepared to meet in Cairo July 7 for yet another round of unification talks.
“The Egyptians are pushing very hard on the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas to reach an arrangement,” noted Peter Medding, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The PLO is a multi-party confederation in which the Fatah Party is the largest faction.
A weakened Hamas, some observers believe, might be susceptible to Egyptian pressure and Fatah cajoling. This week, Fatah announced plans to release hundreds of Hamas detainees who were held without trial in its West Bank prisons in an effort to resolve differences ahead of the Cairo meeting.
The last talks between the two groups ended when Hamas demanded the release of 700 of its members who were being held without trial.
The Jerusalem Post reported that Egypt was prepared to impose an agreement on both sides if they did not end their differences and form a unity government in coming weeks.
“The better things appear to be in the West Bank, the more pressure there is on [Hamas] in Gaza,” Medding observed. “They see that in Jenin [in the West Bank] a huge mall just opened and that cinemas just opened elsewhere in the West Bank.”
And he pointed out that with Israel saying that it is anxious to resume peace talks, “having Palestinians divided into separate societies in the West Bank and Gaza is not conducive to any kind of arrangement with the Palestinians.”
Medding noted as well that Hamas is anxious to see the partial Israeli blockade of its borders lifted. Israel is demanding in return the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped in a cross-border raid by Hamas and other terror groups in June 2006.
Medding said he believes that “any arrangement about the border will be contingent” upon a Hamas-Fatah agreement.
But Steinberg said he gives the Hamas-Fatah talks little chance of success.
“They have negotiated about a unity government for five years,” he said. “The expectation that at any minute there will be a breakthrough has no foundation in reality. Hamas seizing control of the West Bank is a more likely scenario. … Fatah is trying to strengthen itself with American assistance, but it is still a very uncertain process.”
Although Fatah is releasing some of its Hamas detainees, it also arrested others this week amid fears by Fatah leaders that Hamas is conspiring to violently take over the West Bank like it seized the Gaza Strip in 2007.
In recent weeks, there have been two gun battles between Hamas and Fatah forces in the West Bank city of Kalkilyah that have killed nine, including four Hamas fighters and four Palestinian Authority policemen.
National Public Radio quoted Ahmed Shreen, a Fatah leader in Kalkilyah, as saying that Hamas was stockpiling weapons in the city and that a deal with Hamas was unlikely.
A similar assessment came from a Hamas spokesman, Ihad al-Ghussain, who told NPR: “They [Fatah] are continuously arresting our men in the West Bank. They committed an awful crime against a group who were fighting the Israelis for more than six years. The Israelis couldn’t capture them, so the Palestinian security forces did the Israelis’ dirty work and assassinated them.”
Some analysts believe the renewed raids by the Palestinian Authority on Hamas fighters is an attempt by the group to demonstrate to President Barack Obama that it is trying to comply with his demand that the PA crack down on terrorism before the resumption of talks with Israel.
Another key demand of the White House is that Israel immediately halt all settlement construction. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said all construction except for “natural growth” would be halted.
But Fred Lazin, a professor of government and politics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said he believes Israel should say it will comply with the U.S. demand for six months.
“No settlements would be dismantled during that time,” he stressed. “I don’t think much can happen in six months. It’s a short period of time. He would not be selling the country out.”
“All Bibi would have to say is yes, and that would put the ball in the other court,” Lazin added, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
“Obama is interested in changing the status quo, and he and those around him think that what happens positively with the Palestinians will have a positive effect with U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world,” he said.
Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, proposed that the six-month freeze in settlement construction be used to negotiate with the Palestinians Israel’s exact borders.
“Although the Palestinian Authority will want all issues on the table to reach a final status agreement — including the Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem — it appears that they are willing to discuss borders first once Israel accepts the moratorium,” he said.
Although the U.S. insists that Jerusalem be included in the building freeze, a position Netanyahu this week flatly refused to accept, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert revealed to Newsweek magazine that he had offered to internationalize key parts of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, the Old City and the Mount of Olives.
Olmert said he had hoped that proposal would lead to a breakthrough that could have resolved this thorny issue. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the rest of his leadership team failed to reply to that offer, and another in which Olmert said he offered to have Israel withdraw from 93 percent of the West Bank and compensate the Palestinians with 5.8 percent of equivalent territory.
In addition, he said he offered a direct crossing linking the West Bank with the Gaza Strip and allowing a limited number of Palestinian refugees into Israel as a “humanitarian” gesture to satisfy the Palestinian refugee issue.
Saeb Ereket, the chief Palestinian negotiator, confirmed Olmert’s offer, which Olmert said he made last September. The Palestinians sat on it for three months, and it became moot when on Dec. 27 Israel launched its military assault on Hamas to stop repeated rocket fire into Israel. Israeli elections followed soon thereafter.