online 29.04.14

talking politics

Abu Mazen shuffles the deck

by Yacov Ben Efrat

For one short moment, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has managed to bring everyone together – not merely reconciling Fatah and Hamas, but completely uniting the Israeli government which, many thought, was on the verge of collapse. People still remember Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying he’d prefer new elections over the release of Arab-Israeli prisoners, and Economics Minister Naftali Bennett threatening that his party, Habayit Hayehudi, would leave the coalition if any of these were freed. Day and night the teams negotiated – Tzipi Livni, Saeb Erekat and US mediator Martin Indyk – seeking the magic formula which would enable the talks to continue and ensure the government coalition’s unity. Commentators regurgitated the official line that this was impossible, because Abu Mazen was not only insisting on the release of all prisoners as promised, including Israeli Arabs, but also added two new conditions: talks on the future borders and a three-month freeze on settlement construction. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response was immediate: “Abu Mazen doesn’t want peace!”

Only last Tuesday, Abu Mazen unequivocally announced to Israeli reporters that if peace talks fail, the Palestinian Authority will “hand back the keys.” Once again the television studios filled up with commentators giving learned opinions about what would happen if the keys were indeed “handed back” to Israel, what this extreme step would cost, and why Israel must uphold its obligations to release the prisoners to avoid the approaching catastrophe. Meanwhile, the representatives of the settlers went on the offensive, claiming Abu Mazen’s words were not said in earnest. They entreated their fellow Israelis not to take fright, assuring them there was no chance that Abu Mazen would take such a step, and if he did, taking us back to pre-Oslo days, that wouldn’t be so bad either. It seems the settlers knew what they were talking about. And indeed, it was not long before Saeb Erekat contradicted Abu Mazen, telling the Associated Press there were no plans to dismantle the PA.

And then, just as the tension reached a peak – as Livni quarrelled with Bennett, and Yair Lapid declared he would not sit in a government that was not holding peace talks, and opposition leader Yitzhak (“Buji”) Herzog pushed for early elections – Abu Mazen reshuffled the deck: he reconciled Fatah with Hamas. A week before the scheduled negotiation period was due to end, when Secretary of State John Kerry had just surprised all at the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee by placing the blame at Israel’s door, Abu Mazen decided to bring Hamas back into the picture – a thing he had avoided for years. For Netanyahu, this was a gift from heaven. The Israeli government had passed the peace test. Even the rival newspapers Israel Hayom and Yedioth Aharonoth could agree that the villainous Abu Mazen preferred Hamas over peace.

Why did Abu Mazen do this? Why did he not wait a week? Why did he rush to throw Bennett the lifeline he was so desperate for? Why did he not join the efforts to cause early elections in Israel and isolate Netanyahu?

The secret of Abu Mazen’s rash decision lies with Hamas. It was Hamas that desperately wanted reconciliation: it was ready to make far-reaching compromises and pay the political price. To understand this, we need to look at who was present in the reconciliation meetings. All participants came from the Gaza Strip or the West Bank except for Mousa Abu Marzuq, a member of the Hamas political bureau who lives in Cairo. The Egyptian authorities recently rescinded his residency permit after Egypt added Hamas to its list of terrorist organizations. Clearly, without General El-Sisi’s consent, Abu Marzuq would not have been able to pass through the Rafah Crossing that connects the Gaza Strip to Egypt. The consent was granted because Egypt backs the reconciliation deal.

An opportunity Abu Mazen can’t miss

Neither is the timing by chance. True, Abu Mazen could have prolonged the negotiating period by another nine months, but if this had happened, the reconciliation would not have taken place. Hamas thinks an agreement with Israel would be an unmitigated disaster which would only deepen the rift between it and Fatah. In theory, Hamas could have bided its time during another nine months of barren talks, letting Fatah fall into its hands like rotten fruit, but it seems Hamas has no time to wait. Its clock is ticking, and the situation in Gaza is explosive.

Egypt has not only declared Hamas a terrorist organization, it has closed the Rafah Crossing and destroyed the “tunnel economy” (the smuggling of goods through tunnels into the Gaza Strip). Denied the passage of goods or people, Gaza is completely dependent on the mercies of Israel. Egypt and Saudi Arabia close it off in the south, and Israel in the north. Even the alliance with Syria and Iran has collapsed. Hamas has no choice but to return to the PA and accept the explicit condition: Rafah will be opened only if the PA has control over it, since El-Sisi’s government does not recognize the legitimacy of the Hamas government.

This situation created an opportunity that Abu Mazen could not afford to miss. He had to choose: either continue talking with Israel (thus losing whatever political credibility he still has) or freeze the peace process to give talks with Hamas a chance. Abu Mazen knew he would get nothing from Netanyahu regarding borders and settlements, while in Gaza he had a chance to retrieve a degree of control and rebuild the PA’s status as the sole representative of the West Bank and Gaza alike. It is clear that the rift between the West Bank and Gaza had played into the hands of Israel’s right wing, strengthening Netanyahu’s claim that “there is no partner.” If Abu Mazen manages to exploit Hamas’ difficulties and regain influence in the Gaza Strip, he’ll both overcome Hamas and push Netanyahu into a corner.

A smart move – but with slim chances of success

This is undoubtedly a smart political move. It is no surprise that the Quartet’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, Tony Blair, expressed satisfaction in the name of contributing states regarding Abu Mazen, while the US - to Israel’s disappointment - made do with a weak reproof. However, the chances that the move will bear fruit are slim, because the hostility between Fatah and Hamas continues.

It is unlikely that Hamas will give up its assets, particularly its security apparatus, but Abu Mazen has promised continued security cooperation with Israel, which stands above any political consideration. Abu Mazen will continue to imprison Hamas members in the West Bank in coordination with Israel, and in return Hamas will continue to imprison Fatah members in Gaza. Abu Mazen is liable to find himself stymied on all fronts: he will be unable to regain control over the Gaza Strip and he will also be compelled to return to negotiations with Israel under even more difficult terms. So it seems that the reconciliation stems from the despair of both Hamas and Fatah, both of which are failing to lead the Palestinian people to the Promised Land.

The reconciliation comes at a time when the state of government in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is in advanced stages of decay, and the authorities are unable to meet the most basic needs of the people. It may be that Abu Mazen’s declaration that he would “hand back the keys” was merely for show, but if a political vacuum does indeed develop in the West Bank, it will lead to chaos and a humanitarian crisis, forcing Israel to retake control of the area. Hamas-Fatah unity is not enough to compensate for Israel’s blockade on Gaza or its Separation Barrier and military roadblocks in the West Bank. The moment of truth is drawing near, and when it arrives, the Israeli right wing will wake up from its delusion that the current situation can be maintained forever.