The last few weeks have brought some of the biggest news in some time, and shocked many long-term observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas, Fatah and the new Egyptian government have pulled off a coup and negotiated in total secrecy an agreement that would reconcile the two previously warring factions in a unity government.
The plan is startling for a number of reasons. First, because the Palestinians have been unable to agree on anything for the past five years. Nor have they ever been able to keep much of a secret over anything that has divided them. Second, because this new Egyptian government was able to accomplish in a few weeks what the Mubarak regime had failed at for several years. Third, because the U.S. was caught completely flat-footed, having no idea this was coming. Fourth, because the unity government pulled the rug out from under the ballyhooed Netanyahu peace plan to be unfurled before a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress on May 24th.
The news promises to upend the apple-cart of Middle East consensus in a number of ways. Until now, the Israeli prime minister had warned that the Arab Revolution threatened Israel in a radical new Middle East. He forecast a Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt abrogating the Sinai treaty and espousing a more hardline position hostile to Israel’s interests.
Netanyahu has, for the past few months, been quite content with himself for besting Pres. Obama over settlements and arranging a coveted invitation from the Republican Speaker of the House to showcase his new “peace plan” before a Joint Session of Congress. Israel’s leader has now been left to threaten the end of a peace process which only he and Obama found credible. And he has only himself to blame. He warns the PA must decide whether it's for peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. It seems to have chosen the latter. Peace with Israel was, thanks to Israeli filibustering, a bust. So what was the PA's only other choice? If it wanted to present the world community with a united front come September, when Mahmoud Abbas intends to make the case for Palestinian statehood to the UN General Assembly, the PA had no other choice but to reunite with Hamas.
Bibi also made this inexplicable statement:
“I think the very idea of the reconciliation…leads one to wonder whether Hamas will take control over Judea and Samaria, as it did over Gaza
How will Hamas take over what he calls Judea and Samaria if Israel controls them? Or is Bibi claiming there was ever a chance that his government would return the West Bank to the Fatah, so that it could then fall to Hamas. As for that claim of Hamas taking over the West Bank, this is like the kid who cries wolf. He does it one too many times and no one believes him when there really is a wolf at the door. It reminds me of the numerous times he said Iran wanted to destroy not just Israel, but the entire Jewish people?
If Hamas and the PA can succeed in this venture, then they have a much more credible claim for a new state. It remains to be seen whether two movements which hitherto have had nothing but disdain for each other can carry this through. If they did, it would be a major achievement and signal they are ready to create their new nation.
But there definitely needs to be a new leadership, especially on the Fatah side. Abbas has said he will not run for another term. If Obama has any smarts he will pressure the Israelis to release Marwan Barghouti from prison. He appears to be one of the only Palestinian political figures who could unite both factions and lead a new country. Israel will naturally not wish to do anything to encourage such success and will resist releasing anyone who can further derail their plan to maintain the status quo.
The Obama administration’s response so far has been brusque, dismissive…and unhelpful. U.S. policy risks becoming even more irrelevant in the region if it doesn't rethink its approach to the Palestinians. Continuing a policy of not rocking the boat which we have pursued since the failed settlement freeze gambit, will bring him nothing now. The president seems to think there is no penalty for U.S. positions which insult the Palestinians. How else to explain our veto of a Security Council resolution opposing settlements, a position we supposedly support? Did we think we could do this and the Palestinians wouldn't notice? Now, it's the president’s turn to pay the piper.
Netanyahu is calling for the U.S. and EU to boycott the new government. Israel itself is withholding $90-million monthly in Palestinian tax revenue from the PA as a form of punishment. Pro-Israel members of Congress are railing against the agreement, saying we must turn off the aid spigot to Fatah providing funds to train their police and security personnel. That will not take us far in our effort to influence the Palestinian side. It would be like the kid who plays marbles, loses and then take them home in a fit of pique.
To their credit, many foreign governments are not taking Netanyahu’s lead and denouncing the reconciliation agreement and Hamas’ new role in unity government. They’re taking a wait and see attitude, including the U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Hamas’s leader, Khaled Meshal, has made surprisingly pragmatic statements in the past week saying his movement would be prepared to accept a Palestinian state within 1967 borders as long as the Right of Return was included within the agreement.
If the Palestinians do pull off this unity deal (by no means a given), then Abbas' plan to raise the flag of a new Palestinian state at this fall's General Assembly meeting begins to look more and more feasible. A reunited Palestinian cause makes an infinitely more credible argument before the international community.
Egypt too has surprised everyone. Besides bringing the two warring Palestinian groups together, it announced it plans to reopen its border crossing with Gaza, thereby ending the enclave’s isolation from the outside world, which in turn undermines the five-year Israeli siege. With this bold new development, the nation that just toppled Hosni Mubarak declared its plan to stake out a new, independent course.
Predictions by the Israelis and their supporters in Washington were that the “Brothers” were standing by to take over the Egyptian government, along with their army allies. Now we see the new government, in only a few weeks, accomplishing a task Mubarak couldn’t achieve in years. The disgraced former Egyptian president, of course, hated the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom Hamas has some affinity. After the Tahrir Revolution, we see that a more representative government, which incorporates moderate Islamist influences, may have greater success in resolving longstanding conflicts.
It makes you wonder what else democratic Arab governments might be able to accomplish which their autocratic predecessors could not. With this single success, the new governments resulting from the Arab Spring have gained even more credibility than they already had, giving a shot of adrenalin to the movement for Arab freedom.
Much can happen to derail this effort. The Israelis will likely provoke mischief including possibly attacking Hamas leadership or starting a war like Operation Cast Lead. Plus, Palestinians themselves could cause this to implode.
Reports from the White House say the president will pre-empt Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Congressional speech with an address of his own that will encompass the entire Middle East canvas. Though presidential Jewish supporter, Robert Wexler, says there will be no conflict between the two, and Obama’s speech will not offer any new peacemaking initiative, it is no accident that House speaker Boehner declared Netanyahu’s speech would be on May 24th, and the president’s staff has said his speech would be delivered on or before May 23rd. Clearly, there is no trust between the two men and their respective governments. Obama’s goal is to render whatever Bibi says irrelevant. Bibi’s goal is to do an end-around an unsympathetic president and appeal to a more favorable pro-Israel constituency in the Congress. Considering how little likelihood Netanyahu will say anything substantive that would appeal to the Palestinians, Obama shouldn’t have to work very hard to render the Israeli’s remarks irrelevant.
Friday’s announcement that George Mitchell had resigned as special presidential envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations further cloud the administration’s efforts and reinforce the importance of the Palestinian initiative. Mitchell could not gain any traction because of an Israeli position which offered little or no inducement to the Palestinians. And he had a boss who could not or would not put it all on the line for the sake of a peace agreement.
Obama, it seems to me has a fateful decision to make: is he on the train to Palestinian nationhood or is he remaining on the road to nowhere with Netanyahu. Is he going to embrace the Arab push for freedom and liberty or is he going to make his bed with the Old Guard Mubaraks, Assads and Netanyahus? Admittedly, he has a deeply conflicting set of interests to consider including a 2012 presidential election, a Republican Congress and a wily Israeli leader who will try to make him pay a cost for disregarding Israel’s interests. He should also consider other values such as democracy and the mass call for representative government emanating from Arab capitals from Cairo to Damascus to Ramallah.
These are fateful days, Mr. President. Which side are you on, tell us which side are you on?
Richard Silverstein blogs at Tikun Olam, a blog dedicated to Israeli-Arab peace and Muslim-Jewish dialogue. He lives with his family in Seattle.