WEST BANK – Prior to the outbreak of the 29-day war between Israel and Hamas and despite the failure of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly was a happy camper having survived unscathed in the blame-game. Arguably, and fortunately for Abbas, in the eyes of most, the Kerry mission imploded when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reneged on his agreement to release the final group of 104 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails.
“Netanyahu’s sole aim was for the blame to fall on the Palestinians, which he failed to do,” said Dan Goldenblatt, Israeli Co-Director of Israel-Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives (IPCRI), a bi-national think tank. Indeed, despite Israeli pleas and admonitions, it appeared that Abbas had at least outwardly ended the bifurcation between the Fatah-held West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, putting an interim unity government in place and beginning the trek toward long overdue elections.
“His public rating improved after he ended the nine month negotiations with Israel,” said political analyst Ghassan Khatib, who asserted that Abbas’s popularity also received a boost from his “in your face” gesture to Israel and the United States of joining fifteen United Nations agencies and treaties.
As well, Abbas’s esteem seemed strengthened by Washington’s tacit approval of the unity government rather than, as feared, the Americans balking over the fact that Hamas is named on the State Department list of terrorist organizations which, according to many, should have been an absolute legal impediment to any US-PA contact. Once the American position was clear, Netanyahu’s campaign to rally world opinion against Abbas for “choosing Hamas over peace” fell flat. Meanwhile, Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fatteh Al-Sisi, remained adamant in his treatment of Hamas as an extension of his nemesis Muslim Brotherhood, forcing the newfound cooperation by Hamas with the PA and encouraging the growing belief that Hamas was losing popular support and predictably, the elections slated for December as well.
What President Abbas could not have known was that his newfound support would be undermined by the kidnapping and subsequent killing of three Israeli teens who were snatched while hitchhiking in the West Bank. As the saga of the weeks-long massive search for the boys played out, Abbas was being accused by his critics of collaborating with the Israeli military rather than praising the kidnappers Prime Minister Netanyahu was insisting were members of Hamas. Anti-Abbas sentiment grew as Israel arrested almost 500 Palestinians in the course of the manhunt. The fervor reached a peak when Abbas failed to cut off all cooperation with Israel after a Palestinian teen was tortured and murdered by Jewish extremists in a revenge killing after the bodies of the three kidnap victims were discovered. This time the result was violent rallies in the streets of Ramallah and elsewhere in the West Bank.
Khatib agrees. “Because of the way Israel handled the kidnapping, it exposed [Abbas] and the security coordination to a great deal of criticism,” Khatib said. Fadi El-Salameen, a senior adjunct fellow with the American Security Project, goes further, telling The Media Line that the Palestinian people use terms like “absent,” “abhorred,” and “ineffective,” to describe Abbas because “before the Gaza invasion occurred, Abbas had one foot in the presidency and one foot out.”
What followed was the brutal and devastating 29-day war between Israel and Hamas that was fought in the streets of the Gaza Strip at a cost of 1,800 dead; more than 9,000 wounded; and an estimated $6 billion in damage on the Palestinian side. Abbas’s prestige is presumably a casualty as well, as respect, if not support, for Hamas grew measurably by the time the eighth ceasefire – the one Hamas finally decided to observe after breaching seven others --- was enacted. El-Salameen says “Abbas is only going down from here.”
For Hamas, its ability to fire more than 100 rockets into Israel in the 28th day of the conflict was nothing short of a major victory. That the Islamist group killed more than 60 Israeli soldiers is further proof of its achievements. Military analyst Wasef Uraqait, a retired major general, argued that Hamas and Islamic Jihad “shook Israel both militarily and politically.” He told The Media Line that, “Each side is blaming the other. The political leadership is accusing the army of not implementing its goals, while the military leadership is blaming the politicians for not taking appropriate, timely decisions.”
According to Khatib, although Abbas and the Palestinian leadership engaged in diplomacy to get Israel to end its assault on Gaza, the people in the street viewed him as not being able to do anything, marginalizing Abbas and his leadership, politically.
“This war had the effect of shifting the balance of powers in the internal Palestinian politics to the favor of Hamas against the favor of Fatah and the PLO,” said Khatib. But, he says, the bump in political power and popularity Hamas received from the war will not last. “Soon after this war, the public in Gaza will realize there were no achievements and the popularity Hamas gained during the war, part of it at least, will be lost.”
Khatib says that looking at the big picture, “Hamas does not stand a chance against Israel due to their poor relations with Egypt. Hamas thought that by fighting they would be able to change the balance of power with Israel, but I don’t think that happened… [Hamas] became more significant in terms of internal Palestinian politics, but as far as their relations with Israel, I don’t think there will be any fundamental changes.”
As for the truce reached after 28 days, Khatib says he is happy that a cease-fire has been reached although it’s “justifiably late.” Like the sentiment on the Israeli street, one has to be aware that it can still go either way once the indirect negotiations brokered by Egypt get underway. But Khatib’s strong belief is that there will be no dramatic changes: “the Israeli siege will continue and Hamas will remain in charge of Gaza.”
El Salameen agrees, opining that “the only way this war can truly end is by lifting the siege and opening the borders.” He told The Media Line that, “Only a political solution could end this fight. There is no military solution.”
As for prospects of peace between two sides, he says he still believes there exists several channels of communication between the Palestinians and Israelis, but that’s not the issue. “It’s not a lack of communication between them; it’s a lack of political will to move forward toward a Palestinian state.”