Tel Aviv — A day after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas swore in a new cabinet backed by Hamas, both Israel and the Palestinians opened a diplomatic public relations battle over how the new unity government would be received by the international community.
And at first glance it seemed that Israel is fighting the battle alone, without its most important ally. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Associated Press he was “deeply troubled” by the U.S. announcement that the administration would work with the new government, though Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer tweeted thanks to Congress members who came out against the alliance.
And in a telephone conversation with French President François Hollande, Netanyahu said it was “mistake to give legitimacy” to a Hamas-backed cabinet because it is a “Palestinian step against peace and in favor of terror.”
But once Israel lost the U.S. — State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday it planned to keep funding the Palestinian Authority — other leading Western diplomats followed suit, and on Tuesday Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah boasted of congratulations from the United Kingdom and the United Nations Special Coordinator.
“Netanyahu has insisted on presenting a rejectionist and sour position,” wrote Ben Dror Yemini, a centrist columnist in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.
“He has given the new Palestinian unity government extra points — to Hamas and to Abu Mazen,” he continued, referring to Abbas by his nickname.
Yemini wrote that Netanyahu should have instead accepted the new unity government, and shifted pressure to Hamas to foreswear terrorism, accept peace treaties and recognize Israel.
But Kobi Michael, a political analyst and former official in Israel’s strategic affairs ministry, told reporters that Israel had no choice to but to reject the unity government. Hamas’ participation in the PA is a violation of the peace accords that form the legal basis for its operation, he said.
“It will indicate that there is no meaning to agreements,” Michael said. “The idea that the unified government of the Palestinians …. will be supported by the international community,” he said, would indicate “support for Hamas as a terrorist organization.”
Despite the rhetorical hardline taken by Israel, Netanyahu’s government took a more nuanced approach on sanctions: Though Israel canceled VIP passes for Palestinian politicians, the prime minister didn’t immediately order a complete cutoff in Palestinian tax revenues that Israel collects on the PA’s behalf, or cancel the all-important security cooperation with the Palestinian security services.
Michael tried to explain the seeming discrepancy: “The basic strategic interests of the State of Israel [are] that the PA will continue to function; otherwise it will be very bad for Israel,” he said. “On the formal level, it [the Israeli government] will not cooperate, but the daily coordination will continue on the ground.”
For years, talk of a reconciliation among Hamas and Fatah has stirred up cynicism at the notion that the bitterly estranged Palestinian rivals might ever figure out a way to mend their ideological rift and end the seven-year political separation of Gaza and the West Bank.
But after the swearing-in Monday of a Palestinian cabinet endorsed by both Abbas and Hamas — the most meaningful step since Hamas kicked Abbas out of the Gaza Strip in 2007 — everyone is taking unity seriously.
And even though the Palestinians are far from a unified government — Hamas and Fatah are expected to rule separately until general elections scheduled for December at the latest — there is a sense among analysts that the unity government could signal a game-changing shift in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
It certainly seems like the final nail in the coffin of peace talks and a shift to a potentially more confrontational dynamic between the two governments.
Unless Hamas dismantles its armed brigades in Gaza — something highly unlikely in the near future — the Palestinians might start to resemble Lebanon, which has Hezbollah as a player in politics and operating its own military force. That is very likely a recipe for escalation: Israel’s security cabinet decided that that Israel will hold the Abbas responsible for any rocket fire into southern Israel.
“I have little doubt that we’ll see more rockets fired from Gaza, and more friction on the Gaza-Israel border, and the question will be: Does this have strategic significance in the Israeli-Palestinian context?” said Yossi Alpher, a former negotiations adviser to Israel’s government.
“Netanyahu has declared Abbas responsible: What happens then? Will this government hold? Will it be understood that it has no authority in Gaza? Or will it exercise authority? It could have a new dynamic of its own. It is a new situation,” he said.
While Abbas is a strong supporter of security cooperation with the Israeli army, Hamas considers this to be collaboration with the enemy. It also occasionally backs rocket strikes on Israel.
“We know that that real powers of the Ministry of Interior will be in the hands of the security apparatuses in Gaza and West Bank,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza City. “We aren’t going to see a unified security apparatus.”
Clashes between Israel and the Palestinian unity government over Gaza could eventually erode the cooperation between Israel and the PA forces in the West Bank as well.
Some Israeli analysts are saying that Israel’s government could use the unity government to its advantage by pressing the Palestinians to reinstate PA-led rule over the Gaza Strip. Such a situation could lead to the reinstatement of a united Palestinian government, which would give peace talks a boost.
“I believe that there are some opportunities here as well: but it is much to early to judge whether the pros are outweighing the cons,” said Gilead Sher, a former Israeli peace negotiator. “There are a lot of concerns, but there are also some openings that need to be contemplated.
He said Israel should urge the PA to further unify, to become “one government, one army,” which “might open some doors for the renewal of the cooperation” between Israel and the Palestinians.
That also hinges on whether Hamas is ready to moderate. The Islamic militants came to the unity deal with the weaker hand because of a blockade on the Gaza Strip by the Egyptian military government, however Hamas hasn’t shown signs of ideological moderation.
Al Azhar University’s Abusada said he’s still skeptical whether steps toward unity will advance, asserting that the new government was formed because of external pressures on Hamas and Fatah rather than genuine desire to put aside their rivalry.
“We hope that we are entering a new era, [one that will] restore unity, but I still doubt it that the division is behind us,” he said. “It wasn’t a sincere agreement to put aside differences in favor of unity, it was an agreement to avoid economic and political problems for both Hamas and Fatah.”
Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist who writes for the website Al Monitor, was more optimistic, saying that Fatah is preparing the ground for new elections and Hamas is too weak to pull out.
“Hamas can’t stop things now — Egypt, Syria, Iran, and even Qatar are all pushing them to reconcile,” he said. ‘They have no friends and no money, and they have lost public support and will lose more if they renege now.”