The Netanyahu government’s approach to maintaining segregation between Hamas and Fatah and between Gaza and the West Bank is detrimental to Israel’s long-term goals, which are Israeli-Palestinian settlement, normalization and regional stability. The process of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and the possibility of holding elections for Palestinian institutions, which are part of a positive regional trend, are opportunities that we cannot not give up.
There is not much enthusiasm among Hamas and Fatah for the reconciliation process and the upcoming elections. The hatred between the two organizations has not abated, and there are still many disagreements about the format of the election. Yet, the two organizations have realized that responding to the internal pressure of the Palestinian population and the international expectation of one legitimate address representing the Palestinian people is inevitable.
The current timing is also related to the change of administrations in Washington, which has already led to regional changes, the most notable of which is the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Trump administration tried to take credit for the reconciliation, but it actually happened due to Trump’s loss in the election. The embargo on Qatar on the part of Saudi Arabia and its allies began immediately after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia; this made the Saudis believe they had American backing to do whatever they wish, both in Yemen and in Qatar.
The Israeli tendency to label all players as good or bad causes us to miss opportunities. Israel has interests to promote with all players – with the pro-Western Sunni alliance, with Qatar, with Turkey and with Hamas. The concept of frenemies, a combination between an enemy on certain issues and a friend on other issues, is necessary for effective diplomacy.
The Israeli right prefer Palestinian segregation because they see it as a justification for avoiding agreement with the Palestinians and the territorial compromise involved. Our recent governments have been very comfortable saying that there is no Palestinian partner due to the split between Hamas and Fatah and whenever there was an attempt at reconciliation, they acted to thwart it.
The ceasefire agreement with Hamas, aided by Egypt, Qatar and the UN envoy, was tactically correct to prevent bloodshed, but strategically wrong. There is no solution for Gaza being detached from the West Bank, and there is no way to reach demilitarization and rehabilitation in Gaza without the Palestinian Authority having status in the Gaza Strip as well. The Palestinian Authority can’t have such status in the Gaza Strip without Hamas’ consent.
On the other side, the expectation in the Israeli left that Hamas will be marginalized and we will be able to move forward with the more secular and moderate elements in the PA ignores the fact that Hamas represents a very significant public among the Palestinians and is not about to disappear or surrender.
In order for Hamas to change to a more pragmatic approach, it needs a “ladder” to justify the ideological change. Such a “ladder” could be created as part of the reconciliation process if international players influence Hamas to refrain from using violence in order to promote their cause; thus, can begin a gradual process in which the military arm of Hamas passes on to the control of the elected Palestinian institutions. A document passed by the Palestinians to the Biden administration presents an agreement among all factions based on the principle of two states and to non-violent opposition only.
Such a process would lead to Hamas eventually accepting the terms of the “Arab Initiative” as already agreed in the “prisoners document” and it will become a political movement. There are examples of movements of the Muslim Brotherhood that have moderated and became political movements – as we see this currently in Tunisia. In the Egyptian context President Morsi honored the peace agreement with Israel when the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt after the election following the Arab Spring.
Reconciliation and elections are desirable Israeli interests as they may lead to a clear Palestinian address for us to achieve a settlement and also for deterrence. A prominent example of the lack of such an address is the tragic failure of the Israeli attempt to bring back home to the Israeli civilians and the bodies of the soldiers held by Hamas. As things stand now, we have no levers on Hamas to return Avera Mengistu, Hisham A. Sayed, and Hadar Goldin And Oron Shaul – may their memory be blessed.
The attempt to create levers on Hamas by inflicting suffering on the Palestinian population in Gaza is neither moral nor practical, as it is exploding in the face of the residents of south Israel time and time again, and brings us closer to the criminal court in the Hague.
We all have bad memories from the previous elections of the Palestinian Legislative Council, which led to the victory of Hamas. Also, currently there are fears that the election will lead to a strengthening of the representation of more radical elements, but there is no escape from the need for internal and external legitimacy that require elections. The State of Israel cannot engineer the election results as we failed in an attempt to engineer Lebanese politics in alliance with the Christian “phalanges”.
Therefore, we should avoid the pressure on Hamas members in the West Bank to not run as was recently reported or to not allow the residents of East Jerusalem to participate in the elections as agreed in the Oslo Accords.
In order to help the victory of the moderates, who expressed their readiness for an agreement based on a two-state solution for two peoples, it is better that we avoid interfering and instead demonstrate that the moderate approach of diplomacy bears fruits.
This is in contrast to our actions in recent years, in which we “dried” up Abu Mazen and provided achievements to Hamas either by Qatari money or in the release of Hamas prisoners.
The success of the Palestinian reconciliation will provide the Biden administration and the post-election Israeli government the tools to promote a process that will prevent the binational catastrophe that lies ahead. It will also help the removal of the barriers to complete the process of regional normalization that will include Saudi Arabia. It was the Saudis that led the “Arab Initiative” and by adding them and Qatar to the normalization, it will lead to a dramatic change in Israel’s situation in the region. The Israeli public has already proven that they prefer normalization over annexation.
Regional normalization, which leads to regional stability and prosperity, also requires Palestinian normalization, so we must see in the process of reconciliation and the Palestinian elections an opportunity and not a threat.
**The article was published on The Times of Israel, 18 March 2021