In a much underplayed comment Wednesday to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation pact would unlikely come to fruition.
Just two days after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas head Khaled Mashaal met in Qatar, Ya’alon said his assessment was that “Hamas and Fatah will not succeed in bridging their gaps, and therefore there will not be elections.”
According to the Fatah-Hamas pact signed two weeks ago – a pact which led Israel to suspend negotiations with the PLO just a week before the ninemonth deadline for the US-brokered talks that began last July – an interim Palestinian unity government was to be established by the end of May, and elections held within six months of that.
Unlikely, said Ya’alon. But while that Fatah-Hamas marriage may indeed not be consummated, the wedding itself has already closed the ranks inside the Likud.
On Wednesday night the Likud held its convention, but hardly anyone noticed. The hall was not overflowing, the speeches were not fiery, the local press did not give it prominent coverage, and the foreign press did not pay attention.
That, of course, would not have been the case had Fatah and Hamas not signed a unity pact. Rewind for a second, therefore, back to the last week of March.
Had everything gone according to what seemed at the time to be the trajectory of events, the following would have happened: Israel would have released 26 Palestinian terrorists, the last tranche of 104 that were to be set free as part of the agreement that led to the restart of negotiations with the Palestinians last July, and it would have also agreed to release another 400 Palestinian prisoners without “blood on their hands.” In addition, Israel would have “restrained” settlement construction beyond the Green Line – except in Jerusalem.
The US would have, at long last, set Jonathan Pollard free. And the Palestinians would have agreed to continue talking for another nine months, and refrained from taking their case to international forums around the globe.
The original date for the Likud parley held Wednesday was March 31. But that was postponed, apparently to distance it from the scheduled March 29th release of the last batch of pre-Oslo terrorists.
Had the convention been held on that date, after a release of Palestinian prisoners and declaration of “restraint” in settlement construction, it would have been a madhouse.
THE RIGHT flank of the Likud would have been up in arms. Likud central committee chairman Danny Danon would have flexed his political muscle and challenged Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, likely accusing him of selling out the party. The scene would have been reminiscent of old-time Likud conventions: of microphones shut off, of passionate speeches about party loyalty, direction and leadership, and Eretz Yisrael.
The Likud, in short, would have been in disarray, and Netanyahu would have been on the brink of having to make one of those “difficult decisions” that US leaders – such as President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry – are always urging him to make. He would have been on the brink – as was Ariel Sharon before disengagement from Gaza – of having to choose between the diplomatic process and his party.
But none of that happened on Wednesday at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds.
Israel did not release the final tranche of terrorists, and then announced 700 new housing units in Gilo; the Palestinians applied to 15 international treaties and conventions and then opted for Hamas-Fatah unity talks; and as a result, the Likud convention was a very mellow event, void of any high political drama.
The convention was so mellow, in fact, that it did not make the front page of Yediot Aharonot. Industrial quiet inside the Likud is not news for Yediot; news is a Likud divided, on the verge of collapse. A Likud not tearing itself apart is not news.
The Likud did not have to tear itself up from the inside on Wednesday because Abbas took the proverbial coals out of the fire for Netanyahu, by opting for unity with Hamas. The much discussed and anticipated showdown between Netanyahu and Danon was avoided because – with the diplomatic process on the rocks – there is nothing now to really fight over. Even in the words of Kerry and Obama, the diplomatic process had been suspended. So why fight over a suspended process inside the party? Without the anguish awakened by freeing Palestinian terrorists, without the emotion of having to decide whether Israeli-Arab terrorists should be let go, without the passions aroused over whether construction should be frozen in Shilo and Beit Hagai, the Netanyahu and Danon camps were able to agree even before the convention on some of the procedural issues dividing them.
Danon got some of what he was looking for – three additional central committee meetings by the end of the year to discuss policy, as well an end to the advancement of unity talks between Likud and Yisrael Beytenu. Netanyahu got some of what he wanted, first and foremost reducing Danon’s power to set the rules of the party, and keeping the Danon-led central committee from being allowed to dictate policy to Likud officials. And the Likud got internal peace, at least for the time being.
THOUGH NOT overly sexy, and full of procedural lacunae, the internal fighting that has taken place over the last few months between Netanyahu and Danon was not without significance. Party rules, as confusing as they may be, can go a long way toward structuring policy.
Likewise, neutralizing those potential land mines is not without significance.
Furthermore, internal Likud fights impact on Netanyahu: they take up his time and mental space, and influence his actions, rhetoric, timing of announcements and room to maneuver. It is no coincidence that just now, a week before the Likud convention, Netanyahu backed a basic law characterizing Israel as a Jewish state, something that has been floating out there for months without the rock-solid endorsement he gave it last week. This was something relatively painless that he could give the Likud faithful before the convention.
Netanyahu, who has now served as prime minister longer than any other leader except for David Ben-Gurion, understands well that it is impossible to lead if you don’t have your own political house in order – not only the coalition, but first and foremost the most fundamental building block of power: the political party. The Likud is now in order, at least for a little while, at least until – as Ya’alon predicts – the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation falls through.
But even more than the party, Netanyahu also has – as a result of the Hamas-Fatah dance – gained a degree of coalition quiet.
No longer are there threats, as there were just a few weeks ago, by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett to pull his Bayit Yehudi party out of the government if Netanyahu releases Israeli-Arab prisoners, or freezes settlement construction.
No longer, either, is Finance Minister Yair Lapid threatening to bolt along with his Yesh Atid faction because of a lack of a diplomatic process that he could blame on the prime minister.
True, the diplomatic process is stuck, suspended. But Lapid is not blaming Netanyahu, unlike unnamed senior US officials, widely believed to include US envoy Martin Indyk, who were quoted in Yediot last weekend as essentially placing the blame for the impasse on Israel’s doorstep.
No, Lapid is holding the Palestinians – especially the Hamas-Fatah pact – responsible.
And Hatnua head Tzipi Livni, who is justice minister and also chief negotiator with the Palestinians? Livni won’t bolt for two reasons: First, her leaving the coalition would not bring it down. And second, if she did give up her cabinet seat and role as chief negotiator, she would – as head of a party with only six seats – lose the relevance she now enjoys. As one political observer said, “Livni is punching way above her weight. If she left the coalition, no one would feel any of her blows.”
Much of the world may eventually blame Netanyahu for the breakdown of the talks, but for the time being he has put his own house in a semblance of order – an important place for him to be if, and when, the international pressure on Jerusalem begins anew.