Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

Netanyahu Under Pressure to Negotiate with Hamas

In visits last week with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu came under heavy pressure to submit to Palestinian demands for the imposition of a construction freeze in the West Bank and Yerushalayim. The Israeli leader was warned to restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians this summer, or face the likelihood of seeing both France and Britain supporting a UN General Assembly resolution in September recognizing a Palestinian state with pre'67 borders. Netanyahu tried to make the best of the situation. He told reporters in Paris that Sarkozy had agreed that the Palestinians “must recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

“I heard from President Sarkozy…that anyone who wants to make peace with Israel must state in the clearest manner that he is committed to peace with Israel…to peace and not to terror.


“I heard similar things yesterday in Britain and I think that in Paris and in London there’s an understanding that whoever wants to make peace must commit to peace and not to the complete opposite.”


Sarkozy’s office responded to Netanyahu’s declaration by saying: “France’s position is known. It supports the solution of two nation states living side-by-side in peace and security, within safe and recognized borders.” In other words, France, like Britain, seems determined to force Israel to accept a two state solution


But Netanyahu’s optimistic assessment fooled nobody. His European visits had to be counted as a major diplomatic setback for Israel. They were the latest sign that Israel has become increasingly isolated in the international community.


The meeting with Cameron came on the same day that PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the leaders of Hamas signed a new national unity deal in Cairo. The deal had been brokered in secret by Egypt’s interim military government.


Netanyahu told reporters in London that the Fatah-Hamas agreement was a “tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism. Three days ago, terrorism was dealt a resounding defeat with the elimination of Osama bin Laden; today, in Cairo, it had a victory.”


Netanyahu said that in signing the unity agreement with Hamas, Abbas had “embraced” an organization that condemned the killing of bin Laden and called him a “great martyr.”


“When he [Abbas] embraces this organization, which is committed to Israel’s destruction and fires rockets on our cities, this is a tremendous setback for peace and a great advancement for terror.


“What we hope will happen is that we find peace – and the only way we can make peace is with our neighbors who want peace. Those who want to eliminate us, those who practice terror, are not partners for peace.”




In a separate interview, Netanyahu said, “If [Palestinian] national unity is unity for peace, then we would be the first to support it. But if it is unity to move away from peace, pursue the battle for Israel’s eradication, then obviously we oppose it and so should everyone else.


“If Hamas adopted positions of peace in the unity government I would say great, let’s negotiate, but in fact the opposite has happened,” Netanyahu said.


Israel reacted to the signing of the PA-Hamas accord by postponing the transfer of $105 million in customs duties and VAT (value added taxes) it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.


The move was met with predictable condemnation from UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and a group of countries that make donations to the PA.


In response to the suspension of Israeli payments, the EU announced an extra aid payment to the Palestinians in response to a request from PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for money to cover salaries and welfare payments.




Norway, which chairs the committee of donor states to the PA, asked Israel to transfer the funds, and offered to create a financial “firewall” to ensure that none of the money Israel turns over reaches Hamas. However, if Hamas is given a say, as a partner in the PA government, over how all of its money is spent, such an assurance is meaningless.


Israel blocked the transfer of the tax revenues to the PA during the second intifada and again after Hamas won the parliamentary elections in 2006. After the first joint PA-Hamas government collapsed, Israel forwarded the funds to Abbas’ government with interest.


Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev, acknowledged that under the Oslo accords, “It’s Palestinian money, but we can’t transfer it to a terrorist organization.” He added that the only action taken by the Israeli government has been to postpone a monthly meeting with the PA at which the transfer of the money usually takes place. “No decisions have been taken but there have been preliminary discussions,” he added.


Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak said that he was opposed to the withholding of the tax funds, because, “they belong to [the PA] according to international agreements.”


Israel justifies withholding the funds because Hamas leaders insist that they still reject the three demands for international recognition set down by the Quartet in 2006 after Hamas won a majority of the seats in the Palestinian legislature. Those demands are for recognition of Israel, a renunciation of terrorism, and an agreement to be bound by the signed Oslo peace agreements. Britain and France both cautiously welcomed the power sharing deal, even though those conditions were not met.




The new Palestinian national government is supposed to be made up of non-political administrators, and its goal is to pave the way for new Palestinian elections, which have not taken place for five years. If fact, Abbas’ term as the elected PA chairman expired two years ago.


The composition of the new Palestinian unity government, as well as its mandate, remains unclear. Abbas claims that in the unity government, he retains the authority to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel. Hamas leaders claim that no negotiations can take place until a new government is installed after the elections. Nevertheless, the diplomatic pressure, especially from the European countries, remains entirely on Israel.


Relations between Europe and Israel have grown increasingly strained as a result of Netanyahu’s refusal to agree to Abbas’ demand for the imposition of a housing freeze as a precondition for renewing peace talks.


Britain, France, and the rest of the EU seem clearly inclined to give Hamas a pass, in the hope of using the UN General Assembly threat as leverage to force Netanyahu to agree to Abbas’ demands for the construction freeze. The Europeans continue to cling to the idea that the peace talks themselves are a solution, rather than merely a means to an end. This is the attitude, confusing the process with the goal, which doomed the Oslo peace process to perpetual failure.


With regard to Hamas, France and Britain stated that they will judge the new Palestinian unity government by its “actions”, which was interpreted to mean that they would be satisfied for the time being as long as Hamas did not launch any further attacks on Israel.


A senior French presidential source said Paris was waiting for the makeup and direction of an emerging caretaker Palestinian government to become clearer.


“We shall see in the coming days if we get useful clarifications which will allow progress,” he said.




The problem with that thinking is that by continuing to put pressure only on Israel for further concessions, the Europeans are encouraging Abbas and the Palestinians to move the goal posts for restarting peace talks once again. Abbas has already indicated that he will no longer be satisfied with forcing Israel to impose a construction freeze. He is also now insisting on prior agreement to the one condition that no Israeli leader could ever accept, recognition of a Palestinian right of return, which even the Israeli left wing recognizes is a euphemism for national suicide.


Coupled with Abbas’ new alliance of convenience with Hamas which still rejects the Quartet’s basic requirements, any sign of weakness by Netanyahu under pressure could have disastrous consequences.


British and French leaders refuse to recognize the dangers inherent in the Palestinian demands, while insisting that they are still Israel’s friends. After meeting with Netanyahu, Cameron said, “Britain is a good friend of Israel and our support for Israel and Israel’s security is something I have described in the past, and will do so again, as unshakeable. We are strong friends of Israel.”


But then the British leader added,


“We think, though, now there is a real opportunity – with the end of bin Laden, with the Arab Spring, with all that’s happening in the world – we think this is a moment of opportunity… to push forward the process of peace between Israel and Palestine,” referring to the latter as if it already exists.


The next day, Sarkozy told Netanyahu that France would back UN recognition for the Palestinian state under joint PA-Hamas control if peace talks had not resumed by September. British diplomats said their country shares France’s view.




A report in the British newspaper The Guardian quoted unnamed government officials as saying, “Britain’s clear and absolute preference is for a negotiation to take place between Israel and the Palestinians which leads to a two-state solution which everyone endorses. But at this point Britain is not ruling anything out. The more Israel engages seriously in a meaningful peace process, the less likely it is that this question of unilateral declaration would arise.”


Asked what would happen if Netanyahu refuses to join substantive talks with the new PA-unity government, the source refused to give a specific reply. He said that under those circumstances, “Europe would be asked a very difficult question and we don’t know yet what the answer to that question will be.”




Netanyahu acknowledged that such a resolution, if put to the world body’s General Assembly when it convenes in September, would most likely be passed.


“Can there be an automatic majority in the UN? The answer is yes,” he said. “They can say the earth is flat and pass it.”


His strategy at this point is to try to make it clear to Western leaders that any effort to try to impose a solution on Israel by threatening UN recognition of a Palestinian state without a negotiated agreement would destroy the peace process rather than save it.


“A serious quest for peace can only happen through negotiations. It can only happen in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and not through a UN diktat,” he said in Paris.


However, Netanyahu failed to get Britain and France to accept his position. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has said that Germany will not recognize a Palestinian state before it reaches a peace deal with Israel, said last week, after meeting with Abbas, that, “Germany and France both want quick progress. We want a two-state solution. We want to recognize a Palestinian state. Let us ensure that negotiations begin. It is urgent.”




Netanyahu’s last hope is to get a strong show of support against UN Palestinian recognition from the US. He is due to visit the US on May 20, where he will meet with President Obama and address both houses of Congress. While Netanyahu will find many friends on Capitol Hill, particularly among Republicans, his greeting at the White House is likely to be chilly.


The US has warned the PA against seeking recognition from the UN, but it has not said that it will oppose the resolution if it is offered in September, and has taken a “wait and see” position on the new unity deal between Hamas and the PA.


However, with that deal now a reality, the fact that Hamas is still listed by the US as a terrorist organization makes it legally and politically problematic for Obama to keep providing the PA with US aid, as well as equipment and training for PA security forces in the West Bank.


Before the unity deal was signed in Cairo, 29 US senators wrote President Obama demanding that US aid to the PA be frozen if Hamas members join the PA government. Such a move, they said, “threatens to derail the Middle East peace effort.” At the very least, the unity agreement imperils $550 million in US aid scheduled to go to the PA this year.




The White House has not said what it will do in September if peace talks have not yet been resumed, and the Palestinians press their resolution in the General Assembly. Unless the US comes out strongly against the resolution, and persuades Britain and France to join it in trying to sideline the initiative, Israel is likely to be facing its gravest diplomatic crisis in decades.


Superficially, the US position on the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement is similar to that adopted by Netanyahu. Obama administration officials say they remain open to including Hamas in the Mideast peace process, provided it meets the Quartet’s 2006 conditions.


But instead of insisting on a positive statement by Hamas accepting those principles, which Netanyahu has demanded, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “we’re going to wait and make our assessment as we actually see what unfolds from this moment on.”


At a press conference in Rome, where she was attending a meeting on Libya, Clinton said cautiously with regard to the Fatah-Hamas unity deal, “we are going to be carefully assessing what this actually means, because there are a number of different potential meanings to it, both on paper and in practice.”


The US has also warned the Palestinians to ensure that the implementation of their unity deal advances the prospects of peace, implicitly rejecting Israel’s view that the unity accord only advances the agenda of terrorism.




US officials also said they are studying the deliberately vague comments by the Damascus-based international leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, following the ceremonial signing of the unity agreement with Fatah in Cairo last week. In a number of media interviews, Mashaal reserved the right of Hamas to attack Israel, but said that all decisions on “negotiations with Israel, domestic governance, foreign affairs, domestic security and resistance and other field activities” against Israel, would now be reached in consensus between the Palestinian factions.


He also acknowledged that in order to succeed, the unity deal needs approval and support from the EU and the US, both financially and diplomatically. “We are waiting for action from the Europeans and the Americans that would support our position and to not interfere,” Mashaal said.


When asked directly whether Hamas would ever agree to recognize Israel, he dodged the question, insisting that international recognition of a Palestinian state had to precede any consideration of recognition of Israel. The statement implied that Hamas believes that it has already succeeded in turning back the clock to before 1948, when the world formally recognized Israel’s independence.


Mashaal also made believe that the Quartet conditions no longer apply to Hamas, saying, “the international position, especially that of the Europeans and the Americans, is still unclear, but we hope they respect our will and decision. This is an internal Palestinian issue that no one should delay or place conditions on.”


He urged the international community to continue pressuring Israel for concessions as the only way to force it to withdraw. He again ignored the fact that Israel has made steadily more generous territorial withdrawal offers to the Palestinians since the 2000 Camp David summit, and as recently as September, 2008, when the Palestinians broke off the talks, without ever responding.




Asked if Hamas was ready to recognize Israel as part of a permanent peace deal, Mashaal said, “first allow the Palestinian people to live on their lands freely… to establish their independent state… then ask the Palestinian people, its government and leaders about their position towards Israel.” In other words, he was insisting that Israel agree to all of the Palestinian demands, with no assurance of peace in return.


Despite this lopsided approach to peacemaking, Nabil Shath, an aide to Abbas, said that in the negotiations leading up to the signing of the Cairo agreement, Meshaal had said that Hamas was prepared to adopt a strategy of “nonviolent resistance,” for the time being.


The Israeli view is that the inclusion of Hamas into the Palestinian Authority undermines the credibility of the PA as a partner for peace negotiations. “We don’t buy that. Its actions prove otherwise and Hamas’s charter clearly calls for the destruction of Israel and all-out jihad.” an Israel official said, and urged Abbas to annul the newly signed agreement with Hamas.




It was not immediately clear how well Hamas and Fatah have worked out their new unity deal. In the short-lived 2006 power-sharing agreement between them negotiated by the Saudis, they were not required to take decisions jointly. Instead, each faction was delegated different responsibilities, with Hamas overseeing domestic affairs while Fatah and Abbas handled peace negotiations with Israel. That arrangement quickly fell apart as each faction tried to use their areas of authority to weaken the other.


Unless Hamas and Fatah come up with a new formula for sharing power and quickly learn how to really cooperate with one another, their new unity deal won’t last any longer than the first one did.


That is the assessment of outgoing Shin Beth head Yuval Diskin. In a May 4 briefing, Diskin said he doubts that Fatah and Hamas will be able to share power, or even cooperate long enough to hold elections in 2012.


He believes that the only reason Hamas agreed to sign the deal with Fatah was to get the interim Egyptian government to agree to re-open the border crossing at Rafiach. He believes the agreement was “mostly for the sake of appearances,” and cannot be implemented on the ground. He also says that the chances for a true reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas in the foreseeable future are “slim.”



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