Israel always accused Yasser Arafat of controlling the height of the flames: If he willed it, the West Bank would burn, and if he so desired, the flames would die down. At least there was an address one could turn to. Today in Ramallah there is an elected president who does not exert such control. His position is like that of a lawyer whose bargaining chips have been taken away.
The person who currently controls the height of the flames and holds the monopoly on continuing the peace process is Khaled Meshal, the Hamas political leader based in Damascus. The illusion that negotiations about the West Bank may proceed while Gaza burns is gradually collapsing. With children, women and those firing Qassams being killed, with the Israel Defense Forces poised to enter the Gaza Strip with all its might, even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had to phone Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar to console him over his son's death.
Can a situation be imagined in which Abbas signs an agreement, even a shelf agreement, while a war is being waged against half his kingdom and a merciless blockade is in place against a million and a half Palestinians? Not only can Abbas not conduct negotiations under these circumstances, the Arab countries understand that as long as there is no peace between Abbas and Meshal, no Arab initiative will help.
In November 2006, the Arab countries decided to break the economic boycott against the Hamas government, which the Arab countries had joined under American pressure. This boycott had held for six months, until 19 Palestinians were killed in an IDF operation and the United States vetoed a resolution to censure the IDF action. Last week, Arab League head Amr Moussa called on Arab leaders "at least to raise their voices" against the blockade of Gaza and the IDF attacks. In the Arab media there is again talk of "the massacre in Gaza," of "the murder of Palestinians" and of course, of the terrible distress the siege is causing. Arab public opinion is increasingly pressuring its leadership "to do something."
The enmity that Arabs have for Hamas becomes less relevant when Israel is perceived as killing children - not only those who set off rockets. It is not at all certain that this time, as in 2006, the Arab countries will make a similar decision. Even if that decision has no practical significance because Israel will not allow money or goods into the Strip, it will be a significant political turning point. The decision will tie Abbas' hands and turn Meshal into an ally, also with regard to all diplomatic activity in the West Bank. And this time it will be with broad Arab support.
There is a huge difference between a situation in which Israel boycotts Hamas and again tries the failed policy of economic pressure on part of the Palestinian public as a means to generate a political upheaval, and a situation in which Israel is perceived as waging a full military campaign against all Palestinians in Gaza. All attempts by Israel to show that this is a legitimate response to the unceasing barrage of lethal rockets toward Sderot will be useless.
In the face of an Israeli attack, every Qassam is sacred, and anyone who fires one does it in the name of the Palestinian war of liberation. The Lebanese government was also forced to support Hezbollah as long as it was fighting a "war of liberation," until Israel withdrew in 2000. At the same time, on the Israeli side it is difficult to imagine widespread support in the diplomatic process as long as a war is underway in the Gaza Strip. Thus Hamas manages to control the Israeli mood, and in this lies its power.
To neutralize Hamas' veto power over the peace process, there will be no choice but a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, between Abbas and Meshal. Because even if a new opportunity presents itself to reach a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas - an opportunity that currently seems distant - it will not be enough to neutralize the explosion that will generate the next clash. "Private" negotiations with Hamas will also deny Abbas the ability to reap the credit for creating calm.
Israel should not conduct separate negotiations with Hamas, but it needs to encourage the establishment of a united Palestinian leadership. Without this, Israel will lose not only its partnership with Abbas, it will give Hamas the political monopoly.
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