Mere minutes after first reports of a breakthrough in the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation talks on ending a seven-year rift began to emerge, the prime minister’s bureau launched a broadside attack on the development on all fronts. Talking points were distributed to the ministers, reporters’ phones bombarded with text messages, and fire and brimstone began pouring from the prime minister’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Arabic media liaison, Ofir Gendelman, has surpassed himself and issued tweets with fiery declarations that wouldn’t have embarrassed the Friday sermons delivered by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in one of Gaza’s mosques. In one of his tweets, Gendelman wrote in Arabic that Israel could “crush” both Fatah and Hamas, if only it so chose.
The belligerence of Netanyahu and his people was expected. It was another Pavlovian response of the Israeli government to the changes happening in the Middle East. As with the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Hassan Rohani’s election victory in Iran or the interim agreement between the world powers and Tehran on the latter’s nuclear program, Israel’s response once again was negative, broadcast panic, and related any change of the status quo as a threat, rather than an opportunity.
The Israeli government response was not only expected, it was hypocritical. For the five years in which Netanyahu has been sitting in the premier’s chair, he has negotiated with Hamas for more time, with more seriousness and with far more good will than with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. For those who have forgotten, Netanyahu reached at least two written agreements with the Gaza terror group; one in the 2011 deal in return for the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, and the second confirming the cease-fire that ended Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012.
Netanyahu, who squeezed Abbas hard in exchange for freeing 80 pension-age prisoners who had been sitting in Israeli jails for more than 20 years and who broke up negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over the release of 14 Arab Israeli prisoners, was prepared to give Hamas 1,000 young and healthy terrorists, among them Arabs Israelis. While Netanyahu refused to allow Abbas any sign of Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank, he did not hesitate to recognize Hamas as sovereign in Gaza.
Breaking the record for hypocrisy was chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni, who added another layer of carpenter’s glue to the chair she occupies in the Justice Ministry. Livni toed the prime minister’s line, and with an impressive show of eye-rolling argued that the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation pact “undermines peace efforts and the opportunity that was only recently created.” What Livni forgot to say was that even if the negotiations are temporarily resuscitated, they will merely continue the fruitless talks she had been conducting during the past eight months.
An Israeli government that really wanted to advance the two-state solution would have been pleased and seen the reconciliation agreement not as a threat, but as an opportunity. After all, it was Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and their colleagues in the cabinet who argued that Abbas doesn’t really represent the Palestinian people and no progress could be made so long as the PA didn’t control Gaza. The reconciliation agreement, if implemented, could provide a response to exactly these arguments by creating a government that represents all the Palestinians.
The reconciliation agreement is also an opportunity because Hamas’ serious problems might force the organization to change direction, as happened with Yasser Arafat and the PLO after the 1991 Gulf War. The unity deal calls for Hamas to join the PLO and accept its principles – which includes the recognition of Israel and acceptance of the Oslo Accords and the Road Map. The significance of this agreement is also that for first time, Hamas seems willing to give up some of its grip on the Gaza Strip in favor of a unity government.
Implementation of the agreement will also mean elections for president and the Palestinian parliament, which have not taken place for years. Given the precarious condition of the Hamas in Palestinian public opinion, especially in the Gaza Strip, new elections will almost certainly decrease its political power. New elections will also renew Abbas’ mandate – or bestow greater public legitimacy on whoever might be elected in his stead – making the Palestinian leader a stronger, more stable and more reliable partner for Israel.