Friday, July 04, 2014

A Weak Hamas Presents an Opportunity for Israel

In 2013, the newly appointed US Secretary of State John Kerry had an energetic agenda that would attempt to kick-start the dormant peace process and mediate the creation of a two-state solution.  This attempt, like its predecessors, has come and gone, leaving only disappointing failure behind. People on both sides are left wondering what to do now, especially considering Secretary Kerry rightfully warned during the 9-month negotiation process that a two-state solution would no longer be feasible if these latest round of peace talks failed.

Despite peace talks losing steam early on, the Fatah-Hamas unity deal was signed in April and it ended up being the final nail in the coffin for the peace talks. The new Palestinian government which was sworn in on June 2nd was condemned by Israel because it is supported by Hamas and the Government if Israel has refused to cooperate with the new Palestinian government on the peace process.

Hamas after some arm twisting agreed to the unity deal with Fatah. The end to the political division of Palestine into two factions is something that has been called for by many. Indeed, major countries and organizations such as the EU, UN, US, China and India have all agreed to work with the new Palestinian government, regardless of the fact that the government has support from Hamas. President Mahmoud Abbas has reiterated multiple times that the unity government recognizes Israel, disavows violence, and is bound to previous PLO agreements. Now it’s Israel’s turn to acknowledge Palestinian efforts for peace. A quid pro quo approach might just resurrect the peace talks.

Hamas is in an increasingly vulnerable position for a multitude of reasons. It is clear by the terms of the Fatah-Hamas unity deal that the deal was a victory for Fatah and a setback for Hamas. In fact, Fatah practically dictated the terms of the deal.

There are no Hamas representatives in the new cabinet of the “unity” government whilst most senior ministers close to President Abbas were retained in cabinet. This is in stark contrast to the 2007 unity government, during the height of Hamas support, when Hamas secured 12 ministerial positions including the post of Prime Minister.

Hamas was forced into seeking a one-sided deal with Fatah because of its momentous loss in public backing. And Hamas failed to resolve the Gaza salary issue in the recent unity deal. 40,000 Hamas-affiliated public sector workers in Gaza have not been paid their salaries, a growing problem within the coastal enclave. Furthermore, the committee set up to vet Hamas employees for full integration within PA institutions has no Hamas representatives. Additionally, this process of integration has yet to begin, exacerbating the salary issue for the Gazan public-sector workers.

Polls in Palestine are notoriously suspect and tend to always over-rate Fatah support. None the less, a poll by the Washington Institute on June 25th indicates that Hamas is falling out of favour with the Gazans fast. Should a presidential election take place, Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashal would get a combined total of just 9% support in the West Bank and just 15% in Gaza. This is in contrast to Mahmoud Abbas obtaining a solid plurality of 30%, seemingly demonstrating Fatah’s resilient support base, though support for Mahmoud Abbas would presumably pale into relative insignificance were Marwan Barghouti, the Nelson Mandela of Palestine, included in the list.

The Gazans also appear to be tired of Hamas’s violent approach. 70% of Gazans agree that Hamas should maintain a ceasefire with Israel. Additionally, 57% of Gazans agree that Hamas should accept the new unity government’s non-violent stance towards Israel. The people in Gaza are losing faith in Hamas.

The fall of the Morsi government during the 2013 Egypt Coup d’├ętat dramatically destabilized Hamas who had close links the Muslim Brotherhood. The new Egyptian government cracked down on the vast network of smuggling tunnels between Gaza and the Sinai, cutting off lucrative and vital sources of revenue for Hamas, devastating them financially. This has led to Hamas being unable to pay its personnel for eight consecutive months. Official unemployment figures (the reality is probably worse) are extremely high at over 40% and humanitarian conditions have worsened significantly. Several PA officials in Ramallah have alleged that Hamas capitulated in the reconciliation process as a result of its now untenable hold over Gaza.

Israel must strive to coordinate and cooperate with the Palestinian government in civilian, economic and defense affairs. The Israelis already coordinated with the Palestinians in the search for the three missing Israeli teenagers but their tragic murders only gave the Israeli government more ammunition to condemn and attempt to bring down the Palestinian unity government. PM Netanyahu alleged that the incident was a consequence of “the partnership” between Hamas and Fatah.

The rescue operation for the Israeli teens morphed into a wider crackdown on Hamas personnel and infrastructure with 400 Palestinians imprisoned and five killed in fighting with Israel’s troops. Tensions remain high.

Secretary Kerry stated after the death of the teenagers that the perpetrators should be brought to justice “without destabilizing the situation”. These words should be heeded by the Israeli government. Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister, Danny Danon, vowed that Israel will not stop until “Hamas is completely defeated” and called on the international community to “end all aid to the PA and its Hamas-backed government.” If this were to happen, the unity government would collapse and a golden opportunity for peace would be lost. The Israeli Finance Minister, Yair Lapid, claimed that his country could be targeted by an economically costly boycott if the peace talks fail. There are concerns within the Israel about the growing international isolation of the country, an issue that has recently moved centre-stage in Israel.

An eye for an eye makes the world blind; retaliation and violence from both sides will only exacerbate the situation and resolve nothing. Israel’s government should not squander this opportunity to negotiate with a Palestinian unity government.

Israel has also said that it would act to prevent Palestinian elections taking place that included the participation of Hamas. This would be unwise. Israel should not interfere in the democratic process of Palestine.

Despite many preferring the untenable status quo or more far-right solutions such as the annexation of settlements in the West Bank, negotiations must continue. It is in the interests of Israel’s government to try and restart the peace talks and get around the table with the Palestine government. Any deal proposed will be endorsed by the majority of Palestinians. This is possible because we now have the unity government supported by Hamas and Fatah. There are still several reasonable avenues to pursue for an eventual peace deal. Israel and Palestine must renew the peace talks as soon as possible to prevent the “Third Intifada” forewarned by Secretary Kerry.

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