Since the announcement of the new Abbas-Hamas deal last week, there has been much speculation over whether the new unity government will be able to achieve international recognition without meeting the requirements laid down by the Quartet after Hamas won the 2005 Palestinian election. There must be a recognition of the signed Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements, a renunciation of violence, and a recognition of Israel. There is also a real question as to whether the new Palestinian national unity government could engage in peace negotiations with Israel under any circumstances, and whether Hamas will permit the current PA prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who is widely credited with building up the credibility of the Palestinian Authority as a functioning government, will be allowed to continue in that role.
Another serious question is what effect the national unity deal will have on the effective cooperation which has developed between the PA’s security forces in the West Bank and Israel, which has served as the foundation for much of the improvement of the economic situation and the quality of life in the West Bank over the past four years.
TRAGEDY AT KEVER YOSEF
The incident in Shechem during Chol Hamoed Pesach, in which PA police opened fire on a car containing unarmed Breslover chassidim who were coming back from an unauthorized visit to Kever Yosef, killing one of the occupants. The victim was Ben-Yosef Livnat, Hy”d, a 24-year-old father of four from Yerushalayim. He was also a nephew of Limor Livnat, the Likud minister of culture.
Israeli authorities sought to downplay the incident, by putting part of the blame on the chassidim for failing to coordinate their visit to Shechem with Israeli security forces. Such coordination is the standard procedure for any Israeli citizens seeking to enter PA-controlled areas of the West Bank.
The shooting incident was a disturbing reminder of the kind of attacks on West Bank roads which were common during the intifada. It also came following a spurt of fatal terrorist attacks on the West Bank. Taken together, there is a growing fear that the relative peace and security which has reigned in the West Bank in recent years may be coming to an end, and that, with Hamas now working in partnership with the PA, at least on paper, the security situation in the West Bank may soon deteriorate.
Aside from questions over whether this second national unity deal between Abbas and Hamas will work, or last any longer than the first deal between them did, Israeli strategic analysts are expressing more serious concerns over the new stance of the interim Egyptian government. The most important single consideration is whether the new permanent Egyptian government will continue to keep the peace along Israel’s southern border.
AN EGYPTIAN REALIGNMENT
While it is not yet clear whether the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood will play a dominant role in the new government, it certainly will have a lot more influence than previously over Egypt’s attitudes towards Israel. In addition, the interim Egyptian government is simultaneously signaling that it seeks to distance itself to some extent from Egypt’s long-standing alliance in support of US interests and policies in the region.
A certain amount of re-alignment with the advent of a new Egyptian government is inevitable, given the internal political realities in Egypt, and the ongoing turmoil due to the continuing spread of pro-democracy demonstrations across the region. The US hurt its popularity with the Egyptian people, both by identifying with Mubarak so closely for so long, and by hesitating to come out in support of the Egyptian pro-democracy demonstrations until Mubarak’s regime was already teetering.
The expressed desire by the interim Egyptian regime to repair its relations with Iran and with Islamic terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, may be an even more serious concern for US policymakers than for Israel.
AN ALLIANCE COMING UNDONE
For the past decade, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been the main US partners in the trying to counter the growth of Iranian influence in the region. In addition, the failure of the US to give its full backing to Mubarak when the Egyptian street protests first began, angered the Saudi rulers, and cooled their traditional support for US policies in the region as well.
From this perspective, the Abbas-Hamas deal may be more significant as a reflection of the many more fundamental re-alignments now taking place in the region than in its own right. The bigger strategic concern is the changing stance of Egypt, and whether the US and Israel can count upon its new government to continue serving its role as a positive force for preserving peace and stability in the region.
The entire Israeli-Palestinian peace process was based upon the concept that Israel’s external borders, especially with Egypt, were secure. Without that assurance, Israeli leaders can hardly afford to make any new security compromises in trying to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and may even be forced to review some of the concessions they previously made in the Oslo accords.
From a diplomatic perspective, Abbas’ agreement with Hamas puts him in a more difficult position with the US. On one level, it has already threatened US financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. Many friends of Israel in Congress, including both Democrats and Republicans, are now on record opposing any further US aid to the Palestinian Authority once its national unity deal with Hamas goes into effect. There is also an open question whether US support for training and equipping PA security forces in the West Bank would even be legal if those security forces include members of Hamas, which is still on the official US list of terrorist organizations.
The US has already come out in strong opposition to the Abbas-Hamas agreement, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has warned Abbas that he must choose between peace with Israel or peace with Hamas.
It is clear that from their point of view, Hamas leaders see no need now to give in to the three requirements set down by the Quartet six years ago for recognition. They believe that they have the upper hand, and expect to dominate the new national unity government.
WHY THIS IS NOT THE RIGHT TIME TO RESTART PEACE TALKS
Abbas and Hamas leaders have already issued conflicting statements over whether the new national unity government would be authorized to conduct peace negotiations with Israel, even if Israel were to agree to Abbas’s demands for a construction freeze in the West Bank and Yerushalayim.
By repeatedly demanding the freeze as a pre-condition for renewing peace talks, Abbas has painted himself into a diplomatic corner. He is also on the defensive because of the revelations in the Palestinian Papers of the concessions which he discussed with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert before breaking off those talks before Olmert announced his resignation in 2008. These revelations have seriously undercut the credibility of the PA with the Palestinian people.
There have been renewed discussions recently in the Israeli media of the terms of Olmert’s offer, and Abbas’ failure to respond to the offer at the time. However, given the ongoing changes in the region, and the possible ramifications to Israel and the US of a strategic realignment by the new Egyptian government, any talk about starting to negotiate terms for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement before the new strategic relationships in the region become apparent would seem to be both premature and unrealistic.
That is especially true with the growing unrest in Syria. With the long term stability of the Assad regime now clearly in question, Israel must now face the potential need to reassess its strategic position along its borders both to the north and the south, at the same time that Iran continues to move toward a nuclear weapons capability.
A NEW REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE
If there is one thing that the upheavals of the “Arab spring” has already proven, it is that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is definitely not at the core of the region’s problems today. For 60 years, the so-called “Palestinian issue” has served as a convenient diversion for the despots of the Arab world to distract their people from the fact that were being denied their fundamental human rights, and being left behind as the rest of the world moved forward. Now the people of the Arab world are finding a new cause to support, their own, rather than the self-manufactured and artificial “Palestinian problem,” which has now largely been pushed to the sidelines, where it belongs.
With a civil war raging in Libya, a regime teetering in Yemen, brutal oppression of demonstrations in Syria and Bahrain, and audible rumblings of discontent in other states across the Middle East and North Africa, the “Palestinian problem” has at last been reduced to its proper relative perspective.
Part of the motivation for both Hamas and Abbas in reaching a unity agreement may well have been the realization that they have both been upstaged by the spread of the democracy movement across the region, in which they have virtually no role to play. If Hamas does force PA Prime Minister Fayyad out of his current role as the only Palestinian leader that the West can really trust, even the European supporters of the Palestinians may think twice about supporting UN recognition as an alternative to seeking a peace agreement with Israel.
ISRAELLIKELY TO STAND PAT
The prospect of legitimizing a Hamas presence in the West Bank gives Netanyahu a compelling reason for continuing to insist on security guarantees before making any further territorial offer to the Palestinians. It also reduces the likelihood that his invitation to appear before the Republican-led Congress later this month will result in his offering any stunning new concessions to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.
Even if the UN General Assembly does vote in September to formally recognize the Palestinian Authority, not much would change. At this point, the Palestinians are already a de facto member of the United Nations. The General Assembly does not have the legal power to impose borders on Israel, and it would be foolish to try.
Furthermore, as the 2012 US presidential race begins to heat up, Obama is unlikely to repeat his prior ill-advised attempts to pressure Israel into accepting a new construction freeze on the West Bank and Yerushalayim, or to dictate terms for a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
There are too many other, more important strategic issues in the region in play at the moment, and Obama does not have the domestic political capital to risk on another fight with Israel’s supporters.
Israel’s leaders also recognize that they, too, are very much spectators on the sidelines as the unrest in the Arab world continues to play out, even though the results of that process are likely to be of more vital interest to Israel than to the United States. That is why Israel took the recent spurt of missile attacks from Gaza in stride. Israel must be careful not to allow itself to once again be used as a diversion as momentous events continue to unfold all around it.