online 22.07.13

talking politics

Abu Mazen’s failed gamble

by Yacov Ben Efrat

On July 19, 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the resumption of talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The announcement did not come from Jerusalem or Ramallah, but from the Jordanian capital Amman, which has become the US State Department’s front line in the region. In the present tour, Kerry did not meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, because it was clear to all that Netanyahu was not the one who must make the decision. The ball was in the court of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen); he’s the one being asked to accept Israel’s familiar terms – talks with no preconditions, or in other words, talks for the sake of talks, as has been the norm since the Oslo Accords were signed.

For the last three years, Abbas has been against resuming negotiations with Israel as long as Netanyahu does not commit to halting the settlement project and to recognizing the pre-1967 borders as a basis for talks. Netanyahu, as we all know, rejected the Palestinian terms. This raises the question: has something changed in Israel’s position which opened its way to negotiations? For the answer, we must look to the changes in the region, especially the revolution in Egypt.

Saudi Arabia, Abu Mazen and the Egyptian revolution

Before Abu Mazen made his decision, Kerry met with 11 Arab foreign ministers, mostly from the Gulf states, in order to receive their blessing for the move. If we look at the details of that meeting, which received scant media coverage, we see that the agenda included the situation in Egypt. If we want evidence of this, note that immediately after Kerry’s announcement Jordan’s King Abdullah visited Cairo – the first leader to do so since the coup that brought down President Morsi. What’s the link between the situation in Egypt and the resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority?

There is certainly a link, and it is very well known, but now the events in Egypt must be added to the equation, especially the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood. Consider the following:

In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has managed to overcome the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria by forcing its own man, Ahmad Assi Jarba, onto the Syrian National Coalition. It was Saudi Arabia, likewise, that planned and funded the overthrow of Egypt's elected leader, Morsi, helped by its bosom friend the Salafist al-Nour Party, which ditched its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Just as the fall of Mubarak was a blow to Abu Mazen, so the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood is a blow to Hamas. Just as Abu Mazen lost his most important regional ally in Mubarak, now Hamas has lost its major card. Hamas was banished from Syria after expressing reservations about the massacres ordered by Assad, and it is now besieged on all sides: in the south by Egypt, in the north by Israel, and now by the Palestinian Authority, which has waited long to settle accounts with it.

Hamas faces an unusual wave of incitement from the leaders of the Egyptian National Salvation Front, which supported the military coup. This group is using Hamas to undermine Morsi’s legitimacy; the Front accuses him of being too tolerant towards terror in the Sinai Peninsula, harming Egypt’s national security. The Tamaroud movement has also opened a front against the Brotherhood entitled “the war on terror,” thus endorsing the Egyptian security forces’ suppression of Brotherhood activists and leaders. At the same time, the Egyptian army is annihilating the “smuggling tunnels” between the Gaza Strip and Sinai, which constitute an important economic lifeline for the Strip.

Saudi Arabia sacrifices Palestine

When the Brotherhood leadership in Egypt sits behind bars, and when the Hamas leadership is besieged in the Gaza Strip, the time is ripe for Abu Mazen to tighten the noose on Hamas by cooperating with Israel. It will be remembered that Morsi took advantage of the last war in Gaza to get US support by brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas; immediately afterwards he made the famous declaration that put himself above the constitution (this declaration, by the way, marked the beginning of the end for his regime). In the same way, Saudi Arabia today is taking advantage of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to gain US support for the shady military coup in Egypt. Just as Morsi sacrificed Hamas to win US support for his totalitarian declaration, so Saudi Arabia is sacrificing the Palestinian cause to gain US support for its status in the region and the new regime in Egypt.

This strategy is doomed. With all due respect to the US, governments are dependent on popular support. If Morsi failed the aspirations of the Egyptian people, it’s clear that the military regime, with liberal support, will also fail. As for the Palestinians, all Abu Mazen achieved was (1) the release of 100 prisoners who were supposed to be freed when the peace accords were signed 20 years ago, and (2) some long desired financial aid. All this in exchange for worthless negotiations.

Abu Mazen’ agreement to renew talks is another plank in the US axis for the region, which was revived with the Egyptian coup. Thus Egypt returned to the bosom of “moderate states” by bringing back old leaders from the Mubarak era. Moreover, this is a golden opportunity to deepen the internal Palestinian rift and strike Hamas from behind. These steps have no connection to a Palestinian state or the end of Israel's settlement project, because the settler government in Israel has no intention of yielding. The Palestinians squandered 20 years of barren talks which served as a cover for expanded Israeli settlement in the West Bank and continued occupation. All Netanyahu wants is to rid himself of the pressure of international opinion and certain sectors of Israeli public opinion. Abu Mazen has no problem in helping him struggle free from this mess.

The fate of the Palestinians remains tied to regional agendas, which at times increase the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood under Qatari tutelage, to Hamas’ joy and the PA’s sorrow, and at other times lift up the Egyptian army with Saudi assistance, thus granting the PA a reason to celebrate. Meanwhile the Palestinian people choke under the burden of the occupation, which brings poverty, an average yearly income of just $2,000, and unemployment rates of 20%. This situation only becomes worse as the population grows and the Israeli settlements swallow up ever more Palestinian land and natural resources.

The resumption of negotiations is not news, because there is no connection between the political motivations behind it and the future of the Palestinian people. It serves the PA and Fatah on the one hand, and Netanyahu’s government and rightwing party on the other, but it does not serve the Palestinian people and, in the final count, neither does it serve the Israeli people. Every opportunity missed undermines future opportunities and merely increases the lack of trust between the peoples, thus nurturing the chain of mutual recriminations.

Abu Mazen could have put an end to this dangerous game, dismantled the PA and given the keys of the occupation back to Israel, so it would be forced to contend with Palestinian anger directly. Unfortunately, some people have found themselves a small paradise in Ramallah, even if the rest of the West Bank and Gaza have become a hell of internal strife, occupation from above, and lack of hope for the future. Abu Mazen made a grave mistake when he gambled on Mubarak, just as Hamas erred in gambling on the Muslim Brotherhood. The truth is, neither is gambling for the sake of the Egyptian or Palestinian people, and this is the real reason their plans have failed.