Israel Pulse

Why Hamas should thank Netanyahu

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Article Summary
The Netanyahu government has done its fair share to strengthen Hamas as part of its efforts to weaken Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and distance the possibility of peacefully resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When Hamas celebrates the 30th anniversary of its founding in December, it really should invite the Israeli government to take a place of honor in the VIP gallery. No one has contributed more to the creation and growth of that organization than Israel's right-wing government, and it has been doing so from the time the first intifada erupted in December 1987, up until this very day. The motivation remains the same: to weaken Fatah and eat away at popular Palestinian support for reconciliation with Israel based on a two-state solution. Whenever Hamas finds itself in trouble, Israel is there to extricate it. Whenever it seems like the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has succeeded in resuscitating the Oslo Accord, Israel sends it scurrying back to its place of permanence — to nowhere.

Though Hamas does want to reach a reconciliation agreement with Fatah, this is not the result of some ideological shift within the religious organization. Hamas continues to reject any arrangement that includes recognition of Israeli sovereignty on any territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. The warm reception organized in the Gaza Strip on Oct. 2 for the delegation from the Palestinian Authority (PA) is no evidence of Hamas having accepted Fatah's diplomatic approach to resolving the conflict with Israel either. Israel's longstanding economic blockade on Gaza and the diplomatic blockade of Hamas' financial provider Qatar by Egypt and Saudi Arabia have coalesced to force Hamas into opening the gates of Gaza to its archnemesis. Political and economic distress were also behind Hamas’ decision to accept Egypt’s invitation for continued talks with Fatah. A high-level delegation arrived in Cairo on Oct. 10, in an attempt to resolve the issues still pending ahead of reconciliation between the two movements.

The reason that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to open the gate from the Israeli side of the border and allow the Gaza meeting to take place was a desire to indulge the patron of these reconciliation efforts, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The photo of the PA's leadership sitting together with the leaders of Hamas will serve Netanyahu well on his next visit to Capitol Hill. After all, the United States considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization.

The experience of the 24 years that have passed since the signing of the Oslo Accord indicates that the Hamas leadership took a very calculated risk when it decided to take a photo with their rivals from Ramallah. They showed magnanimity and a willingness to pay a price for Palestinian unity and to improve the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. Hamas knows that Israel will do all the rest. The Netanyahu government will continue to settle Jews on lands that Fatah promised to turn into territory of a free Palestine. Israel will continue to sabotage negotiations over a permanent settlement, clearing Hamas of responsibility for the failure of any potential diplomatic solution. By removing Abbas as an impediment to Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh in the West Bank, Israel will be removing the risk of peace from reaching Netanyahu's threshold.

And in fact, once again, Netanyahu did not disappoint his Palestinian partners in the struggle against a two-state solution. During the reconciliation talks Oct. 3, Netanyahu showed up in the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, which divides the West Bank into north and south, impeding its territorial integrity. While there, he pledged enhanced development momentum, the construction of thousands of new housing units and the expansion of the local industrial zone. In addition, he declared his support for the "Greater Jerusalem law," under which Ma'ale Adumim would be incorporated into the Jerusalem municipality and annexed unilaterally to the State of Israel.

That same day, Kan News reported that the state is paving a new road for Palestinians in the contested E1 area between Ma'ale Adumim and Jerusalem. The road is supposedly intended to create "continuity of transportation" in the West Bank, to allow Palestinians to travel between its northern and southern sections. However, according to Peace Now, Netanyahu's real goal was to eliminate the argument that the annexation of the E1 area and Israeli construction there would split the West Bank into two disconnected parts.

Hamas could not possibly imagine better news at a better time. What else is needed to prove to the Palestinian public that Fatah's diplomatic approach is paving the way for more settlements, and that Hamas is not the group preventing an end to the occupation?

In an interview with Army Radio on Oct. 3, Education Minister Naftali Bennett warned that the reconciliation agreement being cobbled together in Gaza will bring about the creation of a "terrorist government throughout all the territories." And what is the leader of HaBayit HaYehudi proposing to do in order to prevent such a catastrophe from occurring? Does he suggest renewing negotiations with the Palestinian government, headed by a leader who publicly declares his opposition to terrorism and maintains security cooperation with Israel? God forbid! Does he deign to allow Abbas to build a handful of houses in the small territory that Bennett is already willing to leave for the autonomous Palestinian region, made up only of West Bank Areas A and B (and not of Israeli-controlled Area C)? Of course not! All that Bennett will announce is that "the perilous Qalqilya plan is dead and buried." He was referring, of course, to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman's initiative to construct thousands of housing units for Palestinians west of that West Bank city. "There is a consensus on it [the plan's demise] in the Cabinet," Bennett made a point of noting.

The situation in the Middle East changes in the blink of an eye; wars and new alliances, crises and economic interests all converge to create new opportunities. So, at the end of Operation Protective Edge, on Aug. 20, 2014, Netanyahu convened a news conference, stating, "In light of the very dramatic changes taking place in our region … I also add [to Israel’s list of goals] achieving a new diplomatic horizon for the State of Israel." Netanyahu asked, "Who supports Hamas?" — only to respond immediately, "Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and that's all. The Arab world opposes it." It often seems as if the Israeli government could be added to the list of supporters.

It is possible that the "diplomatic horizon" that Netanyahu spoke of really did flit about momentarily over the skies of Aqaba in early 2016, when the prime minister met for a diplomatic summit with US Secretary of State John Kerry, King Abdullah of Jordan and Sisi. At the time, Netanyahu seemed to support a regional outline based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, as it was presented at the summit. Everyone knows how that sad story ended.

At the conclusion of his first meeting Feb. 15 with US President Donald Trump at the White House, Netanyahu spoke again about changes in the region. He congratulated himself on the fact that for the first time since independence, the Arab states consider Israel an ally, rather than an enemy. He then turned to the president and said, "I believe that under your leadership, the changes underway in our region will offer an unprecedented opportunity to bolster security and advance peace." Fortunately, that opportunity is still waiting for some Israeli leader or other to take advantage of it. But it will not wait forever. Hamas is already on its way from the Gaza Strip to the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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