As though he were a bereaved father, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making the rounds around the world trying to wrest condolences. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he laments, is now lost to him. Actually, Bibi is not really emitting a feeling of mourning; instead, it's more like the anger of someone who has been betrayed by a partner he always claimed never to have, a cunning partner who had seemed weak and dependent, as though his life had been controlled by Netanyahu.
Abbas had always seemed submissive and weak-willed; his way of speaking was soft and hesitant, very unlike the articulate assertiveness of his Israeli non-partner partner. The prince and the pauper went out together, with their non-partner partnership nailed tightly between them. But the problem is that the nails rusted due to the protracted character of the dispute. The two maintained well-formulated, unproductive relations; their ineffectuality was orderly and evident, and this non-partnership was supposed to remain futile forever.
And suddenly, in a satanic-like maneuver, Abbas cashed in his hand, severed the bond with Netanyahu and went off and forged an agreement with Hamas. So Bibi did what any jilted partner would do: He closed their joint bank account, blocked the flow of money, threatened to annex the Palestinians' land, and ran off to tell the world how ungrateful his non-partner partner had become. Never mind ingratitude: At stake here, Netanyahu insisted, is a genuine threat, since how else can we relate to those who break bread with the bin Ladens of Gaza?
Bibi doesn't care whether the two sides of the Palestinian state manage to unite and merge. Nor does he care who will serve as Palestinian prime minister, or whether the Palestinian people really want this Fatah-Hamas union. Slogans printed in blazing red, and bandied by Palestinian civilians in Ramallah and Gaza, declared that the Palestinian people is one; these slogans went in one of Netanyahu's ears and out the other.
As far as he is concerned, this is neither a Palestinian nor an Arab story - it's all about Israel or, more precisely, it's all against Israel. Nothing good can come out of this union, not for Israel. Unsurprisingly, the leader who claims not to oppose the rapprochement made haste to identify the issues that are liable to blow up and destroy the reconciliation. Such an explosion will allow him to take comfort in the fact that the whole thing was just a declaration and not a substantive development.
How infuriating. We've become so accustomed to this split in Palestinian political society that its existence became a cornerstone in Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. The rift guaranteed that, if Abbas chose to go to the U.N. and ask for recognition of a Palestinian state, Israel would have been able to play the Gaza card. It would say that Abbas does not represent all Palestinians in the territories, that he doesn't control Hamas, and that half of the Palestinian state is conducting a real war against Israel. Interestingly, these are precisely the claims leveled against Abbas by Hamas when he conducted fruitless negotiations with Israel.
The Palestinian rift, which Israel believed to be an eternal reality, allowed the Israelis to divide the map of the region neatly: On one side, Syria, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah; on the other, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. This was a good, usable map, and it played well in Washington and Europe. Only Turkey, and perhaps Norway, besmirched it, but that was not important.
Suddenly all of Israel's trump cards are lost. Egypt has left the scene, Syria is busy killing its citizens, Iran won't - Ehud Barak promises - hurl a nuclear bomb at us, and we haven't heard from Hezbollah for several weeks. All Israel has left is to grab Hamas as a symbol of an unchanging reality, except now Hamas has also refused to fall into line.
The fundamental error occurred when Israel decided that the Palestinian people will never unite, and the peace process is being undertaken not with regard to a people and leaders, but relates instead simply to territories. On the West Bank, the Israeli territories (the settlements ) conducted talks with the Palestinian territories. The Israeli government and the PA were merely representatives of these territories, and they conducted negotiations as though they were cartographers, not leaders of peoples. Gaza did not take part in the game; instead it continued to carry out battles of resistance as though the only goal was to block the territorial dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Now Abbas and Hamas' Khaled Mashal have carried out their infuriating turnabout. They want to conduct talks about the Palestinian people's future in its country. They want U.N. recognition of their state; they no longer want talks conducted on the basis of organizations meeting with a state, and instead demand state-to-state talks. Bibi was unprepared for this. Yasser Arafat had a standard remark for the lack of comfort now being displayed by Netanyahu: Whoever doesn't like it, can go drink water from the Dead Sea.
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