Washington watch: Catch-22 with Israeli-Palestinian twist

The only winners in this latest episode are the extremists on both sides who want a one-state solution as defined by them.

Fatah-Hamas talks (photo credit: REUTERS)
Fatah-Hamas talks
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s a classic Catch-22. Can’t make peace with them and can’t make peace without them.
They’re adamantly opposed to the concept of two states, one Palestinian and one Jewish, living side-by-side in peace.
I not just talking about Hamas, the Palestinian extremist group that signed another agreement with Fatah last week to form a national unity government.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has embraced the two-state solution but last week he made an alliance with the terrorist organization, which is on record calling for the eradication of the Jewish state and has relied on violence to carry out that goal.
The Israeli side has its own rejectionists, and many are already in the government. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says he supports the two-state solution but so far he hasn’t asked his own government to endorse that position. That’s because his own Likud party is deeply divided on the subject and if put to a vote in the central committee there’s a good chance he’d lose. Making matters worse, much of his right-wing coalition is adamantly opposed to Palestinian statehood.
Abbas insists the PA unity government will be composed of technocrats and Hamas won’t control any ministries, but it will still be his equal partner in the new government, and that has prompted Netanyahu to suspend any peace talks on the grounds that peace is impossible with the Hamas rejectionists wielding even modest authority in a unity government.
The exact role of Hamas in the new government, which is supposed to be a caretaker until elections can be held later this year, is unclear. Abbas’ own legitimacy is questioned because his four-year term ended in 2009 and he has postponed new elections ever since. In 2006 Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections but after a brief but not-very-serious attempt at forming a power-sharing government Hamas staged a bloody coup and took control of the Gaza Strip the following year.
Hamas is considered a terrorist group not only by Israel but also by the United States and most European countries. Egypt has banned the group as part of its decision to outlaw Hamas’s mentors, the Muslim Brotherhood, although for different reasons; the Cairo military dictators fear the popular appeal of the Islamists. The Gaza economy is in bad shape; Israel and Egypt have enforced an embargo on the strip and Egypt has closed off many of its smuggling tunnels. Hamas is also weakened politically by inept and corrupt government.
This isn’t the first time the rival Palestinian groups have attempted reconciliation. They’ve announced their engagement several times but never quite made it to the altar much less consummated the marriage, and there’s a good chance this time won’t be any different. There may be a desire on the Palestinian street for a union between the two, but the secular Fatah and the Islamist Hamas are philosophically incompatible and a greater threat to each other than to Israel.
Netanyahu immediately suspended the already moribund negotiations with Abbas but didn’t close the door to resumption, presumably when the latest reconciliation becomes irreconcilable.
Meanwhile, settlement expansion continues, fueling more doubts about the Israeli leader’s sincerity.
Without waiting to see if the agreement is actually implemented, some Congressional leaders immediately began calling for cutting off the PA’s $400 million in annual US aid, a move some believe could lead to its financial collapse.
For his part, Abbas said he still wants negotiations but a series of actions raised serious doubts.
He threatened to close down the Palestinian Authority, and he demanded Israel go through with a promised prisoner release, agree to future borders within three months before there could be talks on any other issues and freeze all settlement construction including in east Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, the PLO is applying for membership in 60 additional UN agencies and agreements.
ISRAELI AUTHOR Ari Shavit is a disillusioned believer in peace. “Twenty years of fruitless talks have led to nothing. There is no document that contains any real Palestinian concession with Abbas’ signature. None. There never was, and there never will be.” He called Abbas “the Palestinian Godot who will never show up.”
The Palestinian Catch 22 has been that Hamas’s opposition to peace with Israel lends credence to those who argue that if Palestinians can’t make peace with each other, how can they make peace with anyone else. Abbas’s latest move gives the reluctant Netanyahu a way out of negotiations he clearly doesn’t want and much of his government vehemently opposes.
Abbas insists Hamas recognition of Israel’s right to exist is not necessary to continuing negotiations, but Israel and the International Quartet – United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia – have made it clear that Hamas must endorse Israel’s right to exist, accept all prior PA agreements and renounce violence.
Abbas has tried to shrug off that problem by saying Hamas will “not engage in negotiations or political decision making” in the unity government, but we haven’t heard that from Hamas.
Khalid Mashal, the head of the Hamas political bureau, has repeatedly opposed all negotiations with Israel and over the past weekend again declared Hamas will not stop fighting until it liberates all of Palestine. A Hamas spokesman said Abbas can speak for the unity government but not for each party in the government.
US President Barack Obama called Abbas’s move “unhelpful” but chided both sides, saying their might be a need for a “pause” in the talks and a “look at the alternatives.” He said he is not ready to abandon the peace process but “What we haven’t seen [on both sides] is frankly the political will to make tough decisions.”
And he’s not likely to, either.
Neither leader has shown the will or the courage to make the difficult compromises and show the leadership essential to giving meaning to their rhetoric about wanting peace.
The only winners in this latest episode are the extremists on both sides who want a one-state solution as defined by them.