strange bedfellows_521 (do not publish again).
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
ISRAELIS HAVE THEIR OWN TYPE OF PHRASE FOR DÉJÀ vu: Hayeenu b’seret ha zeh. We’ve already seen this movie. Having first reported on this story when the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, I’ve noticed that politicians have certain scripts that they repeat over and over. Living and working here sometimes feels like being a never-ending B-film, our own private “Groundhog’s Day” – the absurdist film in which a journalist finds himself covering the same insipid story over and over again.
The script reads something like this:
Israeli politician: We can’t have real peace with our neighbors, because they don’t live in a democracy.
US president: Well, we support the growth of democratic institutions in the Middle East, and want to see free and fair elections.
And, action! The Palestinians have a democratic election, not for the first time. But this time, in 2006, the results are not so favorable to Israel. Enter Hamas.
Israeli politician A: We don’t negotiate with terrorists. Like we said, there’s no one to talk to.
Israeli politician B, sitting in the same cabinet: Shouldn’t we at least keep talking to the guys who signed the peace deal with us?
Israeli politician A: Fine. But the fact that Palestinians would elect Hamas proves there’s no partner for peace.
Now the car chase. Specifically, the fast-moving, violent 2007 coup in which Hamas attacks and overruns all offices of Fatah in Gaza. The result is what Palestinians call the “state of divide,” in which the West Bank and Gaza are not only separated territorially – despite the Oslo pact having declared that the two be considered as one contiguous territory – but have virtually become different countries. Palestinian aspirations of statehood are drifting like a dingy off the coast of Gaza.
And then the actors rattle off the next lines.
Palestinian politician: We can talk with the Israelis all we want, but for now, it’s a waste of time. No national decisions can be made until Fatah and Hamas reconcile.
Israeli politician: We’re ready to talk to the Palestinians again, as long as they isolate Hamas.
Major international player: Agreed. (Off-the-record, to journalists like me: But what’s the point of trying to reach a peace deal if Gaza – with its rockets and refugee camps – is totally left out of the equation? Eventually, Hamas will have to play a role. We can’t just wish Gaza away.)
Palestinian man-on-the-street: Bizzabt. (Exactly.) We need to come together. In fact, we’re not happy with Fatah or Hamas. But only when they work together are we going to get ourselves out of this mess.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership is stuck. If it tries to move forward with Israel – recent Wikileaks suggest there were serious, compromise- minded efforts – nothing bears fruit. Local and international pundits cast doubt on PAPresident Mahmoud Abbas’s power, citing first and foremost the state of divide. “But can he deliver anything?” they ask. “Is he even legitimate?” Abbas’tenure, after all, expired in January 2009. Elections for parliament should have been held in January 2010. Keen to boost his democratic credentials, Abbas announced a few months back that a new date would be set, but Hamas said it wouldn’t participate. Only with Hamas, it turns out, will he have a mandate to hold new elections and pursue a political solution with Israel.
Now the unexpected twist: Hamas and Fatah announce April 27 that they will ink a reconciliation deal. And now the dialogue sounds like this:
Palestinian politician: We’re finally getting our house in order. We’ve reached a unity deal with Hamas!
Israeli politician: With those terrorists? Unacceptable. We knew you guys never renounced terrorism.
Palestinian politician, to his neighbor: You see? The Israelis don’t want peace. They just want to divide and conquer. The rift only benefits them and they exploit it.
Israeli politician, to major international player: Look, we tried with these people, and now they’re joining hands with our enemies. Soon the whole West Bank will be another Hamastan.
Watch for the sequel, coming soon to a political theater near you.
Israel once called itself a democratic island in a sea of dictatorships and regularly laments, “If only it were different.” Suddenly, a tsunami of change is washing over the region. Perhaps we’ve reached a day when Palestinians, too, need coalition governments. They, too, must make strange bedfellows out of people they hardly consider their friends.
Certainly, Israel has legitimate concerns when considering how it should proceed with a government built on a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal. And Hamas’s condemnation of Osama bin Laden’s assassination May 1 doesn’t bode well for its desire to be recognized as a political movement and not a terrorist group.
But Abbas says he will maintain the peacemaking portfolio. (Hasn’t PM Benjamin Netanyahu said virtually the same about his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and others on the far-right?) Abbas says the Palestinian unity government will be responsible for preparing new elections in 2012, reuniting forces and rehabilitating the Gaza Strip.
There are credible reports that Hamas’s move toward Fatah was sparked by the faltering of the Assad regime in Damascus. Suddenly, having Syria on your side doesn’t look like such a sure thing after all, the thinking goes. Maybe it’s time to take Fatah up on their make-up offer.
There is much internal skepticism about whether the deal is really doable, and many average Palestinians and mid-level political players are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Wouldn’t it be wise if, for a change, leaders tried that too, instead of jumping in with their gut reactions and hackneyed lines? Wouldn’t it be wise if they tried writing a new script?
Within hours of the headlines, Netanyahu declared that “the very idea of this reconciliation shows the weakness of the Palestinian Authority.” If you were serious about treating someone as your peace partner, would you constantly degrade them as “weak” in the eyes of his would-be supporters?
Netanyahu was awfully quick to defend Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, too. And we know how that movie ends.