Israel Should Wait-And-See On PA-Hamas Unity


Hamas practically begs the Palestinian Authority to return to Gaza. The PA talks tough on reining in Hamas arms. The developments of recent days in Palestinian politics aren’t run-of-the-mill — and the Israeli response has struck the wrong chord.

Fatah, the dominant party in the PA, met with Hamas in Cairo on Tuesday, continuing their reconciliation process aimed at ending a decade-long feud.

Things are happening which, if predicted to me a year ago, I would have found difficult to imagine. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has squeezed Hamas by stopping salaries to its people, cutting its electricity supply, and waiting for a political impact.

Such a scenario would have seemed even more farfetched if outlined to me in February, when Hamas had just chosen Yahya Sanwar as its new leader in Gaza. A hardliner, he looked set to consolidate power and unleash terror.

But we’ve seen Abbas squeeze and Hamas squeal. Last week, Abbas’ Minister Rami Hamdallah visited Gaza, which his Fatah party was chased from a decade ago. There, he spoke to members of Hamas, the party that chased his people away, about having the PA resume powers in Gaza. Soon after the meeting Hamas announced to Palestinian journalists that that the “Palestinian National Consensus Government” had officially replaced it as the administrative authority in Gaza.

In Israel, commentators thought that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was keeping an open mind. But then, during a settlement visit, he poured scorn on the reconciliation.

His criticism was confusing. Israel is “not prepared to accept bogus reconciliations in which the Palestinian side apparently reconciles at the expense of our existence,” he said, leaving his audience confused as to why the reconciliation is both “bogus” and endangering Israel’s existence.

Nobody expected Netanyahu to endorse the reconciliation at this stage — especially as internal Palestinian peace initiatives are famously ill-fated and have collapsed many times. But at least to wait and see, and, if the process survives, after more details emerge, assess.

This time, it could be worth waiting. (And if reports Wednesday morning from the Arab press are right — that Israel has sent a delegation to the talks in Cairo — Netanyahu may be doing more than waiting simply waiting; it could signal a shift to a more pragmatic, rather than knee-jerk approach.)

Abbas is talking tough with Hamas about weapons, and standing firm despite Hamas’ protests. Hamas will need to surrender its weapons to the PA to complete reconciliation, he said, throwing out a warning that made things clear to its leaders. “We will not agree to the Hezbollah model,” he said, referring to the fact that Hezbollah has political power and its own forces in Lebanon.

Abbas was saying that Hamas can have a stake in Palestinian politics, but can’t maintain its own forces. If he is serious, either the reconciliation process falls apart or this could result in the neutralizing of both Hamas’ military threat and political strength.

The second major reason that Netanyahu should wait to check the fine print of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation before passing judgement is that Egypt is in the driver’s seat.

Egypt has a reliable peace treaty with Israel, and has shared security concerns which have led to thriving relations since Cairo’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi fell in 2013. It is asserting new sway over Hamas, now that Qatar, previously a key patron of the group, has been sidelined in the Arab world.

Talks on the future of internal Palestinian politics are always going to be unsettling, but having Egypt, a responsible adult of sorts, involved, is a good scenario for Jerusalem. Stability next door in Gaza is important to Egypt. So is the Cairo-Washington relationship — especially under Trump, who President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has pinned hopes on to “breathe a new spirit into US-Egyptian relations.”

A year ago, el-Sisi said that Israel-Egyptian peace could serve as a model for an Israeli-Palestinian deal. Last month, el-Sisi met with Netanyahu for the first time on record. Just now, el-Sisi has described Palestinian reconciliation as “preparation for a just peace between Palestinian and Israeli sides, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state to meet legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people for a secure, stable and prosperous life.”

This latest statement is, of course, almost utopian in its optimism — but at least he is a leader who talks in these terms, keeping peace with Israel on the agenda, and maintaining open channels of communication with Netanyahu. This was certainly not the case in previous reconciliation attempts when the likes of Qatar were in the driving seat.

There are difficult questions that need answering in relation to Palestinian reconciliation, like what exactly the process would be for bringing Hamas arms under PA control, who would be controlling borders with Israel, what formal powers Hamas would have in government. Not all answers will be satisfactory to Israel, yet it needs to wait and see.

But perhaps Israel also needs to answer a difficult question, too. Bringing Gaza under PA control is widely seen as the key to conducting peace negotiations for a two-state solution covering both the West Bank and Gaza. Netanyahu has committed himself to this two-state solution in the past, but recent comments, promising to never evacuate settlements, cast this in to doubt. Is a two-state solution still on the agenda, or does some of the opposition to Palestinian reconciliation stem from the idea that Gaza-West Bank disunity has been a convenient factor preventing serious negotiations, and the sense that a call for such talks could soon be made?

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.