Netanyahu and Abbas
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
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To paraphrase Abba Eban’s famous platitude, the Israeli government never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity – at least as far as its own image is concerned. So it was that the Israeli cabinet volunteered to help Palestinian propaganda on Monday by shifting attention away from the problematic reunion of Fatah and Hamas: “Israel won’t allow”, “Israel rejects”, “Israel threatens” “Israel will impose sanctions” – these were the headlines affixed to many international reports on the swearing in of the new Palestinian government.

Let’s assume that the macho declarations issued by the Israeli cabinet do not stem from a basic disconnect from reality or from delusions that its serial “no’s” will somehow improve Israel’s international image. Hopefully we can also discount claims that the cabinet was whistling past the graveyard and trying to calm itself. Which leaves us with the conclusion that the cabinet’s tough-guy pronouncements were aimed at the two groups that would appreciate them most: public opinion in Israel and Republican lawmakers in Washington.

It took only minutes after the swearing in ceremony in Ramallah for senior Republicans to launch their first salvo: Majority leader Eric Cantor and House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Ed Royce demanded that the Administration suspend financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. That paved the way for the next act in this entirely predictable screenplay: the administration refused to comply, Israel declared itself “deeply disappointed” and the Republicans will soon accuse it of “capitulating to terror” or something to that effect, possibly connecting the dots from Hamas to the Taliban and the controversial release of captured U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl.

And Israel, once more, will find itself at odds with the U.S. administration and will be cast as an actor and perhaps even as an instigator in the right wing’s eternal war against Barack Obama.

In theory, at least, there were other options available to Israeli decision makers.

The cabinet could have maintained relative silence, adopting a wait and see attitude and, if their projections about the Gaza-West Bank rapprochement are correct, allowing the Palestinians to undo themselves. After all, Israeli experts are convinced that the inter-Palestinian détente is flimsy and won’t last, or that Hamas is bound to undermine the new alliance with rash and extreme statements or that it will increase terror and hostilities against Israel in response to criticism being levelled by its even more extremist rivals in Gaza. Israel would have been cast as the responsible adult who was willing to give peace a chance, no matter how remote.

It’s a matter of basic approach: the international community prefers to see the new arrangements in Ramallah as a potential change for the better, in the hope that it will be Hamas that grows closer to Ramallah, as Mahmoud Abbas suggests, and not the Palestinian Authority that hankers after Gaza, as Israel predicts. Jerusalem prefers to paint the Palestinians in black while its punitive measures spark suspicion that it is trying to create unrest in the territories that would weaken Abbas and turn its dire assessments into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even though he has the weaker hand, Abbas has succeeded in running rings around the Israeli government, pushing it into a corner and driving yet another wedge between Jerusalem and Washington. By establishing a “technocratic cabinet” that abides by the Quartet guidelines of recognizing Israel and negotiating with it, Abbas has laid a sophisticated trap at Jerusalem’s doorstep.

Unfortunately, Israel’s cabinet ministers rushed in to get caught and must now rely on Hamas violence and extremism to extricate them. All this from a prime minister considered a whiz in hasbara and a country that attaches strategic importance to maintaining its standing and image.