The most unsettling aspect of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s flat rejection of the Fatah-Hamas agreement, signed this past Wednesday in Cairo, wasn’t the substance of his critique. It was the desperate and amateurish haste with which he rushed to pronounce judgment and slam the book.
The “reconciliation agreement” between these feuding Palestinian factions is a vague document, whose text leaves many more questions unanswered than resolved. The identity of the next Palestinian Prime Minister has yet to be determined. The control of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, is not fully addressed. And the agreement’s meaning in practice for Palestinian diplomatic policy still has to be seen.
But, unmindful of the agreement’s fuzziness and of the intricacies of intra-Palestinian political life, Mr. Netanyahu was eager to shoot it down instantly, issuing an ultimatum to Palestinian President Abbas within hours after news of the surprise deal was released last week: ‘Choose Israel or choose Hamas.’
Had Mr. Netanyahu even seen the text of the agreement before reacting? Did he pick up a phone and call Palestinian President Abbas before issuing his strong-armed response? And with what experts did Mr. Netanyahu consult on the Israeli side before going on record? Certainly not with journalist Yossi Melman, who specializes in intelligence and security affairs. Melman told CNN that the, “reconciliation agreement deserves a chance. I think it was wrong of … Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reject this before even knowing the details…Instead of Hamas using this deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to enhance its position and to expand its power base from Gaza to the West Bank, as the Prime Minister fears, I believe the opposite may take place.”
Presumably, Netanyahu did not reach out to former Mossad chief, Efraim Halevy, either. Had he done so, he would have heard what Halevy told the New York Times last week: “There will be no serious progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without some way of including Hamas in the process so as to transform them from being part of problem to being part of the solution.” And apparently Netanyahu did not even consult with his own Foreign Ministry analysts, whodefined the Fatah-Hamas deal as, “not only a security threat but also a strategic opportunity,” for Israel.
But Netanyahu did not only talk the talk. He was also happy to endorse the steps taken by his equally rash Finance Minister, Yuval Steinitz. Last week, even before the Fatah-Hamas agreement was signed, Steinitz froze the transfer to the Palestinian Authority of $90 million in tax revenues that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians under the 1994 “Paris Agreement” – a breach of Israel’s commitments.
Most likely, neither Steinitz nor Netanyahu asked for the input of Yuval Diskin, the outgoing head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). No closet peacenik, even Diskin argued that reactions to the Fatah-Hamas deal were ‘out of proportion’, and that Israel’s own strategic interest mandates a transfer of the tax money. Rather than grandstanding with populist rhetoric, Diskin offered a dispassionate approach: “As long as the [Palestinian] security forces do not change their policies and action on the ground there is no reason for us to change our policy.”
None of this is meant to suggest that Mr. Netanyahu should have greeted the Fatah-Hamas deal with bells and whistles. Despite the occasional hints of moderation from some of its leaders, Hamas still has much to prove before even its political wing can be regarded as a pro-peace element. So its entry into a shared government arrangement with the Fatah needs to be carefully monitored – even if, as President Abbas told Israel Defense Forces radio, the new government’s mandate will be limited to Gaza reconstruction and preparations for new Palestinian elections.
Luckily, some of Israel’s backers, such as Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair, have taken a more sober, empirical approach to the latest developments. Clinton left the door open, noting that the US is, “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.” An unnamed American official told the NY times that the US did not want to preclude a genuine shift by Hamas. And Blair, the representative of the Quartet, similarly remarked that while the international community must support Palestinian reconciliation, “the central question … is, ‘Does this mean a change of heart on behalf of Hamas or not?'”
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, some of Israel’s friends in the American Jewish community were content to take off their thinking caps, and instead parrot the latest talking points from Jerusalem. AIPAC conveniently chose to ignore the words of President Abbas, who said this week that he would continue to pursue a negotiated peace with Israel, claiming on its website that the Palestinian Authority had “chosen to break from its peace commitments with Israel” . And the American Jewish Committee stated that the agreement was a, “major setback for peace prospects in the region”.
Both organizations would better serve Israel by listening to the concerns of both sides, as did the participants in the recent Meretz USA Israel Symposium. During our talks in Ramallah and East Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority figures showered no love on Hamas, but indicated that reconciliation and a unified government were necessary elements in the PA’s statehood drive – not only to satisfy the UN when the Palestinians request membership in that body in September, but simply so that they can run their country in an effective manner once statehood arrives. Rather than a blow to peace, Palestinian moderates look forward to the new elections that the deal promises as a way of reestablishing their dominance in Palestinian politics and unseating Hamas democratically.
Mr. Netanyahu’s job is to achieve peace and security for Israel. Caution is certainly part of the required qualifications. But so is an understanding of how Israeli policy factors into the larger equation. Israel can’t dictate or micro-manage developments within Palestinian society, but it can, and must, maintain a policy that encourages the Palestinian public to conclude that the moderates have it right – that diplomacy and non-violence are the keys to ending the occupation, not rejectionism and terror. One place to start would be an end to Israeli settlement expansion.
Rather than reflexively rushing to talk tough, Netanyahu needs to take a deep breath, to “count to ten” as Opposition leader Tzipi Livni counseled this week, and devise a policy that truly promotes the survival of a democratic State of Israel, whose 63 years of independence we celebrate next week.
May 6, 2011