Yesterday was April 29, the US deadline for the Israeli-Palestinian talks that began nine months ago. Instead of marking the achievement of a peace agreement as planned, the deadline passed with the talks dead—for now, at least.
They were officially suspended by Israel last week after Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah signed a unity pact with Hamas, the explicitly jihadist-terrorist group now running Gaza. The Obama administration has given Israel’s response to that move lukewarm, tentative support.
Where things will go from here is not certain; the present state of affairs raises some questions.
First, is the Fatah-Hamas agreement authentic, and will it really lead to a Palestinian unity government? If one goes according to precedent—three previous Fatah-Hamas unity deals in 2007, 2011, and 2012, each of which collapsed quickly—then the chances are not high.
Among Israeli Arab-affairs commentators, Khaled Abu Toameh sees the agreement as
a tactical move [by Abbas] aimed at putting pressure on Israel and the U.S. to accept his conditions for extending the peace talks after their April 29 deadline…. [There is no] sign that Hamas is willing to allow the Palestinian Authority security forces to return to the Gaza Strip, which fell into the hands of the Islamist movement in 2007…. Neither Hamas nor Fatah is interested in sharing power or sitting in the same government…. Abbas is now waiting to see what the U.S. Administration will offer him in return for rescinding his plan to join forces with Hamas….
Avi Issacharoff, however, suggests that Hamas—now in difficult shape with Iran having scaled back support, Egypt having closed its smuggling tunnels from Sinai, and Israel pressuring it to put a stop to rocket attacks by small, even more radical Salafist groups—has decided to gamble by hitching itself to Fatah and hoping to win the Palestinian elections envisaged by the unity agreement in about another six months, thereby regaining rule in both the West Bank and Gaza.
That Hamas, a totalitarian movement, is really prepared to act with such self-abnegation and restraint, accepting a subordinate role in some “unity” framework, all in the hope of winning elections while risking a sharp decline in its fortunes if it loses them, does not seem likely. Issacharoff also does not explain what would be in it for Abbas. “Unity” with rambunctious Hamas has always failed him in the past, most dramatically in 2007 when it led to Fatah’s ouster from Gaza.
In other words, the two Palestinian groups distrust each other and for good reason.
If, then, the current ostensible Fatah-Hamas rapprochement is destined to unravel—which, in the erratic Middle East, is not certain but probable—where will that leave the “diplomatic process” and U.S. and Israeli policy?
One possibility is that Abbas’s brinksmanship will succeed, with the U.S.—loath to see the “process” end—pushing for and eventually obtaining terms that Israel and the Palestinians—both of which want to stay in Washington’s good graces—will agree to as a basis for further talks.
If so, further rounds of pointless, sterile talks will be held, attended by the usual U.S.-Israeli frictions as Washington publicly berates and threatens Israel, until it turns out—once again—that even by agreeing to once-inconceivable concessions the Netanyahu government cannot get the Palestinian side to reciprocate in coins of peace, compromise, and acceptance of Jewish sovereignty that it simply does not possess.
The other possibility is that, whether because the Obama administration is discouraged or because, even if it keeps trying, it can no longer bridge the gaps between the sides, the talks will not revive and all those—Washington officials, the Israeli left, and so on—for whom the “process” is an addictive lifeline will somehow have to survive without it.
Israel could then try emphasizing that the Palestinians in the West Bank already have autonomy, have rejected a state so many times that contemplating another massive effort to get them to accept one is madness, and that, given the condition of already-existing Arab states like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, and others, to think that creating yet another such state, this one on the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, would somehow be a boon to Israel, the U.S., or the West does not pass the reality test to put it mildly.
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