If Prime Minister Netanyahu were more interested in the security of Israel’s citizens, particularly those in Sderot who have been exposed to Hamas’ rocket assaults, than in holding on to Israel’s colonial project in the West Bank, he would have welcomed the reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas and their decision to rely henceforth on diplomacy and nonviolent resistance to the occupation for the achievement of a Palestinian state.
As pointed out by Akiva Eldar in Ha’aretz, the unity agreement provides for a Higher Security Committee that will determine the integration of Palestinian security forces under the new government. This committee of experts is to be formed by President Mahmoud Abbas, whose commitments to nonviolence and to close collaboration with Israel’s security forces have been tested by Israel these past four years. The agreement also allows the Palestinian president to continue peace negotiations with Israel.
Given the history of Fatah-Hamas relations, skepticism about the ability of Abbas and Khaled Meshal to successfully implement their agreement is justified. But an Israeli government that is sincere in its proclaimed desire for a two-state solution—and that has been publicly dubious about concluding a peace agreement with Abbas, who represents only a part of the Palestinian people—would have waited to see the details of the Fatah-Hamas accord which are not yet fully known, holding off its judgment of the new Palestinian unity government until it had a chance to prove the seriousness of its proclaimed commitment to democracy, the rule of law and nonviolence in its relations with Israel.
That Netanyahu rushed to discredit the Fatah-Hamas accord even before the ink dried on the unity document tells us that what he and his government fear is not that the agreement will not be implemented. Were that to happen, Israel’s capacity to counter resumed Palestinian violence with its overwhelming military superiority would have remained undiminished. What they fear is that the unity government will adhere to its commitments and expose Israel’s rejection of a two-state solution that it has sought to hide behind the cover of its rejection of Hamas.
Netanyahu and his government see the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation as an extraordinary gift, for it not only provides them with a pretext to refuse to make concessions to Abbas but also enables them to counter the Palestinian intention of gaining the UN General Assembly’s recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.
Netanyahu knows that Palestinians are likely to obtain the necessary votes in the General Assembly for their resolution, but what he cares about is retaining U.S. support for Israel’s refusal to deal with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. That support, he believes, will facilitate Israel’s continuing defiance of the international community’s will.
However, it may well turn out that the formation of a unity government will actually strengthen support for the Palestinian UN initiative in September and make it more difficult for the U.S. to vote against it. The participation of Hamas in a Palestinian unity government that eschews violence and adheres to the rule of law is likely to soften the party’s image sufficiently to allow Western powers, including the U.S., to deal with it.
Since the new Palestinian unity government remains under the authority of the PLO—which explicitly recognized Israel’s legitimacy—Hamas’s membership in that government constitutes an implicit repudiation of its own founding charter. It also calls into question its previous refusals to accept agreements with Israel.
In fact, changes in the policies of Hamas were underway well before the unity accord was signed. In May of last year, Khaled Meshal said on the Charlie Rose program that his organization will renounce violence against Israel if it agrees to a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders. As noted by the independent Palestinian politician and analyst Mustafa Barghouti, Fatah and Hamas no longer have major differences: “[I]n practical terms both sides are ready to accept non-violent resistance.”
True, Hamas leaders have stated even after their reconciliation agreement that they will not recognize Israel. But does that disqualify a unity government in which Hamas participates as a partner for peace? The answer is clearly no.
Because state-to-state recognition is the responsibility of governments, not individual political parties, Hamas’ refusal to recognize the State of Israel does not prevent a Palestinian government of which it is a part from granting such recognition. An exact parallel is Israel’s current government.
Although Netanyahu declared his support for a two-state solution in June of 2009, his own Likud party remains officially opposed to a Palestinian state in any part of the West Bank. Not long after his two-state announcement, senior members of the Likud and Likud ministers in his government announced the formation of a thirty-nine-member “Land of Israel Caucus” in Israel’s Knesset, the largest of the caucuses in that body. The cochair of the caucus is Ze’ev Elkin, who heads the Likud’s parliamentary delegation, and includes the Likud’s Reuven Rivlin, the Knesset Speaker, and Likud minister Benny Begin.
The official goal of this parliamentary caucus has been and remains to “strengthen Israel’s grasp on the entire Land of Israel.” Yet no one in Israel—or in the U.S., for that matter—suggested at the time that it is necessary for Netanyahu to dismiss the political parties in his government, including his own Likud party, that officially oppose Palestinian statehood in any part of Palestine if Israel is to qualify as a partner for peace.
As Israel’s former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami has said, the Fatah-Hamas agreement is “good news for anyone truly seeking a peace deal, and an excellent excuse to say Abu Mazen has made a pact with terror” for those like Netanyahu who seek to avoid a peace deal.