Opportunity missed, opportunity made

To take full advantage of the Fatah-Hamas unity deal, Netanyahu must reiterate that Israel is willing to make peace with any state or authority that will accept its existence.

“The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
This well-worn quote from Israeli diplomat Abba Eban can be trotted out once again in light of the recent “reconciliation” between Fatah and Hamas.
Just last month, PA President Mahmoud Abbas had Israel on the diplomatic ropes, harnessing stability in the West Bank and growing international pressure on Israel to virtually ensure recognition of an independent Palestine by the UN General Assembly in September. By (re)joining forces with the Islamists of Hamas, Fatah has almost surely sacrificed its hardwon advantage for a transient show of Palestinian unity. What’s more, this “missed opportunity” presents Israel with its own chance to score diplomatic points and advance peace negotiations from a strengthened position.
Some analysts view the Fatah- Hamas unity agreement as a positive step for both the Palestinians and for the possibility of peace. If the two groups can set up and maintain a joint government of the West Bank and Gaza, and if Hamas can be convinced to moderate its eliminationist stance toward Israel, then the PA will be able to proceed with UN recognition – or even negotiations with Israel – as a unified authority, thus fulfilling a clear prerequisite for true independence.
THIS PROSPECT, however, is extremely unlikely. First, the bloody rivalry between Fatah and Hamas has been ongoing since the PA’s violent schism in 2007, which resulted in a Hamas-ruled Gaza and a Fatah-ruled West Bank. Each faction’s security forces have repeatedly cracked down on the other side, arresting or assaulting party leaders and members, displacing elected officials, shutting down affiliated media outlets and civic groups, and breaking up – often violently – gatherings and demonstrations.
Meanwhile, PA soldiers in the West Bank have received US training and have been coordinating their anti-Hamas efforts with Israel. In this context, peaceful coexistence between Fatah and Hamas – never mind the creation of a unified Palestinian security force, a core objective of the agreement – is simply too tall an order.
This is particularly true given that the make-up of the unity government –charged with organizing elections next year – remains subject to contentious negotiation. In fact, Hamas is already demanding that the PA’s new “technocratic” cabinet exclude Palestine’s most competent technocrat, West Bank Prime Minister (and Abbas ally) Salam Fayyad.
Second, the PA’s chances of securing General Assembly recognition for Palestine are actually reduced without Fayyad and with Hamas on board. While Abbas and Fayyad received supportive signals from the European Union and other powerful international players before the agreement, many GA members will be hard-pressed to support statehood for a Palestine governed by an organization whose raison d’etre is the destruction of another member.
And while some observers assume that Hamas’s decision to reconcile with Fatah – facilitated by Egyptian interlocutors – means it is prepared to soften its stance toward Israel, this is a reckless assumption to make. If anything, regime change in Egypt has strengthened Hamas by removing an enemy in Hosni Mubarak and increasing the influence of its parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. While Hamas may be looking to move its headquarters out of a suddenly unstable Syria, now is not the time for it to eliminate its rockets and recognize Israel.
Moreover, even if Hamas did opt to “recognize” Israel – perhaps to gain access to the copious foreign aid on which the PA depends – such recognition would be meaningless without a corresponding renunciation of the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees to (historic) Palestine. Given Israel’s already delicate demographic balance between Jews and Arabs, any but the most token influx of Arab refugees would destroy Israel as a Jewish state.
As a result, any pledge to recognize Israel that doesn’t address the “right of return” is simply not credible.
INDEED, IN order to take full advantage of this latest “missed opportunity,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu must set his sights beyond Middle Eastern politics-as-usual. Instead of simply reminding the world that Hamas is a terrorist organization, and explaining that the PA is not ready for peace, he must now reiterate that Israel is willing to make peace with any state or authority that will truly accept its existence. Such acceptance must go beyond simple recognition or “normalization” of relations, as offered by the Arab League’s 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
And it must go beyond Netanyahu’s own insistence that Israel be recognized as a “Jewish and democratic state” – a formulation that implies Israel should be defined by its former adversaries.
Rather, accepting the existence of Israel means giving up – permanently – on the “right of return.”
In return, Israel must be willing to leave most of the West Bank and accept an independent Palestine next door. Israel needs peace to survive – its occupation of over 2.5 million Palestinians is clearly not sustainable – and it can’t afford to miss opportunities as recklessly as the Arabs.

The writer is the Israel, West Bank and Gaza analyst for Freedom House.