Senior official in Jerusalem: 'Americans need to tell Abbas this is a red line - he can't associate with Hamas.'
Israel is disappointed with the 'weak' American reaction to the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, and demands a clearer, more resolute response, a senior Israeli official involved in the dialogue with Washington told Haaretz on Thursday.
Government ministers discussed the international response to the unity agreement at the five-hour security cabinet meeting that dealt with the Palestinian pact that was reached on Wednesday. According to the senior official, ministers were in full agreement that the American response was "insufficient, weak, merely for show and didn't include enough exclamation marks."
After the reconciliation deal was announced, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psakicalled the deal "troubling" and said the United States was "disappointed" by it. She added that Washington would ask the Palestinians to provide clarifications.
The senior official said Israel made it clear to the Americans that they were disappointed with their response and asked that they take a sharper, clearer tack, as they did when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's threatened to disband the PA. At the time, the State Department issued a public warning to Abbas that such a move would have serious implications for U.S. relations with the Palestinians.
"We expect that the American statement be much more decisive and determined," a senior Israeli official said. "The Americans need to make it clear to Abbas that this is a red line – he just can't associate with Hamas. We don't accept that the Americans are talking about the policy of the unity government once it is formed, and are ignoring the fact that this is an alliance with Hamas. The Americans need to tell Abbas that he allied himself with a terrorist group and that they cannot accept this."
Against a background of these Israeli protests, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Abbas on Thursday of his "disappointment" with the timing of the deal he reached with the Hamas. Psaki said Kerry made it clear to Abbas that any unity government that emerges from the deal would have to accept the Mideast Quartet's conditions: Recognition of Israel, repudiation of violence and the honoring of past agreements with Israel.
Nevertheless, the Americans haven't toughened their public stance toward the Palestinian reconciliation, and have even softened it compared to their initial statement. In the daily State Department press briefing, Psaki said the United States wasn't categorically opposed to the existence of a Palestinian unity government, but was focused on the policy that such a government must implement. Kerry, for his part, didn't express his position on the agreement between Fatah and Hamas, only on its timing.
Psaki made it clear that both Israel and the Palestinians were responsible for the dead end in the peace talks. "There have been unhelpful steps taken by both parties," she said. "We view it as essential that both sides exercise maximum restraint and avoid escalatory steps." Psaki also spoke on the disagreement with the Israelis, saying, "We have our position and the Israelis have theirs. Nothing has happened on the ground other than the statement. We will see what happens."
Security services question likelihood of elections
Most of the inner cabinet's discussion was devoted to surveys by Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen, Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories General Yoav Mordechai, National Security Advisor Yossi Cohen and Foreign Ministry director general Nissim Ben Shitreet.
Two ministers who attended the meeting said both the Shin Bet and Military Intelligence chiefs doubted the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas would be carried out. The two said there is a "certain likelihood" a unity government consisting of technocrats would be formed, which would serve as a caretaker government until future elections are held.
But both Cohen and Kochavi reportedly told the ministers the likelihood for holding elections for the Palestinian parliament and presidency was "extremely low."
The last presidential and parliamentary elections were held in 2005 and 2006 respectively.
The ministers argued over Israel's policy following the reconciliation agreement, especially regarding the continuation of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Ministers Naftali Bennett and Gilad Erdan demanded ending the peace talks once and for all.
Ministers Tzipi Livni, Israel's co-negotiator at the talks, and Minister Jacob Perry insisted on only a suspension pending clarifications about the prospective Palestinian government. They said it was important to enable a return to the talks in the future.
After a discussion of more than an hour on this clause alone, a compromise was reached. The cabinet decision reads as follows: "Israel will not conduct negotiations with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas, a terrorist organization that calls for Israel's destruction."
However, it was decided to maintain the security coordination between the IDF, Shin Bet and the Palestinian Authority.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who suggested taking measured steps, reportedly attempted to calm the ministers' spirits, telling them there was no need to "rant and rave," and Foreign Ministry officials who attended the meeting expressed a view before the ministers that Israel would gain nothing- and could cause itself damage- by declaring the negotiations annulled.
Palestinian reconciliation: Real unity, or tactic?
Abbas may be using the agreement with Hamas to pressure Israel and the U.S. by demonstrating that he has other options.
While the Hamas and PLO delegations in Gaza were preparing to declare reconciliation on Wednesday, in Ramallah the diplomatic business of the “state of Palestine” was proceeding as usual. Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour arrived for a visit, meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and signing various economic, health and security cooperation agreements with PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.
Almost simultaneously, the Hamdallah government’s foreign minister, Riyad al-Malki, was meeting with his Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz and at a joint press conference said the Palestinians were committed to continuing the talks with Israel beyond the original target date of April 29, and that Israel had nothing to fear from the internal Palestinian reconciliation, which would not undermine the talks. (These remarks came, of course, before Israel cancelled Wednesday’s planned meeting of the negotiating teams.)
The Palestinian news agency Wafa, which answers to the PLO Executive Committee headed by Abbas, reported the reconciliation agreement in a dry, businesslike fashion, while the Gaza government’s information department made a festive and emotional announcement. Wafa stressed that this was a deal “to begin implementing the agreements that the parties had reached in Cairo (2011) and in Doha (2012).” These two agreements had been preceded by efforts at reconciliation between 2008 and 2010, and came close to being implemented in the weeks following Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in the fall of 2012. But in all those earlier rounds, the various committees tasked with implementing the deals’ provisions became deadlocked, and hostile language returned to the discourse between the two sides.
This latest round of Palestinian reconciliation, like those before it, was the result of several honest if contradictory motivations, as well as political realities. The Palestinian public and its two rival factions – Hamas and Fatah – understand that the internal rift serves Israel first and foremost, and that the disconnect between Gaza and the West Bank is congruent with Israeli policies. The vast majority in Fatah and all the other PLO member groups are convinced that a fair agreement signed by Israel of its own free will is no longer possible. Only Abbas and some of his close associates continue to believe in negotiating.
The reconciliation, therefore, is a way to strengthen the Palestinians internally in preparation for the next confrontations with Israel (popular, diplomatic, political, and perhaps even military, if and when Israel chooses the military escalation option).
Reconciliation is also consistent with the increasing demands to hold public elections for the PLO’s legislature. The rival movements have come to realize over the years that neither can bring about the absolute political downfall of the other, as had been hoped at various stages after Hamas won the 2006 elections. At the same time, the dual-government arrangement was being increasingly perceived as a petty fight over government positions and narrow personal interests rather than a battle of differing worldviews, and this was causing a steady erosion of confidence in the existing Palestinian political system. Both sides understand this, which is why reconciliation efforts were always welcomed by the general Palestinian public, both here and abroad. All these factors bode well for the success of the new reconciliation effort.
But there are other motivations at work that might undermine the unity pact. Malki’s remarks on the Palestinian commitment to negotiations reflect Abbas’ position. There is reason to believe Abbas is using the reconciliation (like his repeated announcements about dismantling the PA and the tactical applications to join various UN conventions) as a way to pressure Israel and the United States by demonstrating that he has other options, even if he isn’t thrilled about using them.
There is reason to believe that the Hamas regime, which has suffered several severe political and economic blows this year, is using reconciliation as a way to soften Egypt’s policy toward it, and perhaps gain some easing of the blockade that Cairo has imposed on the group and on the Gaza Strip. Many Palestinian observers predict that the collapse of the PA – assuming Israel sticks to its policy of weakening it – would help strengthen the position of Hamas and its government. If Hamas joins the PLO, it will become a major force within it, and if it doesn’t join, it will be perceived as a true and legitimate representative of the Palestinians. These mutual suspicions about the motives of the other party could end up scuttling reconciliation once again.
The announcements on Wednesday bypassed the security questions: The reconciliation agreement will demand far-reaching changes in the security cooperation between the PA and Israel, on the one hand, and on the other will obligate Hamas to stop using weapons in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. A halt to PA-Israel security cooperation, however, is liable to lead to an Israeli military escalation that will force Hamas into the position of having to choose between its commitment to armed resistance and its obligation to the principle of “uniformity in setting policy.”
Beyond the political issues, and despite a trend of increasing religiosity among the Palestinian public, the PLO and Hamas have different, if not contradictory, worldviews. The nationalist PLO will continue to suspect Hamas of being more committed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic principles than to national and social Palestinian interests. Hamas will go on being hostile toward the secular culture that has always been part and parcel of the PLO, and see it as the result of negative Western influences. The reconciliation agreement is a way for each side to bring more adherents to its ranks and grow stronger.
The Palestinians welcomed the declaration of the agreement (or the agreement to implement an agreement) with skepticism and caution. They know, or at least sense, the obstacles to its implementation. They know that Israel may take revenge for the reconciliation efforts, and that the United States also opposes them. But if they believe that both sides are honestly taking this step as a way to strengthen the Palestinians internally, they will be willing to bear the consequences of any Israeli or American punishment.
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