Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza City on March 18, 2007. Photo by AP
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The surprise reconciliation agreement initialed on Wednesday in Cairo by representatives of Fatah and Hamas is largely the outcome of pressure from the Palestinian public. In the Middle East of spring 2011, no Arab leader - and that includes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas' Khaled Meshal - can completely disregard public opinion.

Indeed, it was not another revolution or more mass demonstrations against a dictator (like those still in progress in Libya, Syria and Yemen ) in the region that provided the big news of the week, but the Palestinian accord - however fragile, partial and conditional it may be.

Abbas and Meshal were also probably influenced by ongoing events in neighboring countries. Hosni Mubarak, who as president of Egypt was highly critical of Hamas in recent years, is out of the picture. Syrian President Bashar Assad currently has other issues on his plate.

Barring any further surprises (and there will undoubtedly be many ), a year from now, the Palestinians will hold a free election for their president and parliament. According to the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, a Palestinian organization, Fatah enjoys the support of 34 percent of the Palestinian population - and Hamas, 15 percent. Abbas personally has the backing of 17.9 percent of the population, as compared with 11.4 percent for Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

The lopsided disparity in favor of Fatah could change before the election for any number of reasons. The first is Abbas' declaration that he does not intend to run for another term. At the moment, no successor has emerged on the Fatah horizon. But Abbas might - and not for the first time - retract his planned retirement. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is not a member of Fatah, could become a consensus candidate, but only if the movement's senior members overcome their hostility toward him.

Another scenario is also possible: that fear of suffering a humiliating electoral defeat will spur Hamas to present quick achievements. Since support for the armed struggle against Israel is not currently running high among the Palestinian public, an alternative option is to try to complete a deal for the return of Gilad Shalit to Israel. Hamas will need a "victory photo-op." Hundreds of prisoners being released from Israeli prisons would definitely make for a winning image.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a statement to the effect that the emerging agreement attests to the PA's weakness, and urged its leadership to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas - the organization that seeks Israel's destruction. Netanyahu is right, of course. Hamas has no interest in a permanent settlement and refuses even to discuss the Quartet's demand that it recognize Israel's right to exist. Its co-option to a unity government, not to mention the possibility that it will lead the Palestinian people if it wins the election in a year's time, reduces the chances of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Still, it is not clear why it was so urgent for the prime minister to speak little more than two hours after the first reports emerged from Cairo. It's not only his stiff body language that is a problem; it's also the sourness that wafts from Jerusalem in response to every Arab move.

Less than three months ago, when Mubarak's regime began to wobble, Netanyahu instructed his ministers to say nothing, though he himself, in a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, warned that Egypt was in danger of becoming a new Iran. He was immediately seen to be pinning his hopes on regional developments turning into an excuse for political inactivity. This time, too, Netanyahu would have done better to wait and let the Palestinians mess things up themselves, instead of rushing to interpret their intentions to them and to the world.

Crisis at Joseph's Tomb

The Cairo agreement includes a clause about joint Fatah-Hamas security activity. Its implementation will create a serious obstacle to future Palestinian coordination with the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service, which has improved dramatically ever since the end of 2007, and in the more recent past, has been based on a high level of mutual trust and readiness to allow considerable operational latitude.

A series of recent violent events - the massacre of the Fogel family at the settlement of Itamar, the explosion of a bomb near a bus stop in Jerusalem, the shooting of an ultra-Orthodox man at Joseph's Tomb by Palestinian policemen during Passover, and to some extent, even the murder of actor Juliano Mer-Khamis in Jenin earlier this month - call into question the degree to which the PA controls its territory and is seriously commited to calm.

In the Joseph's Tomb affair, a group of Hasidim ignored Israeli army directives and entered Nablus. On Sunday afternoon, a meeting was held in which the IDF insisted that the Palestinians investigate the incident and draw the necessary conclusions. The Israeli officers carefully avoided labeling the event as "murder" and emphasized the importance of continued security coordination.

Behind the scenes, the Palestinians acknowledged their mistakes and promised a detailed report. Publicly, an article in the official PA newspaper, Al-Hayat al-Jadida, justified the shooting at the cars carrying the Bratslavers. And senior PA officials in Nablus competed with one another - in interviews with the Israeli media, of all places - in presenting fabricated and unfounded descriptions of the event. They claimed, for example, without any basis, that the worshipers had thrown stones at the policemen.

'Summud in Daraa'

"According to Dr. Haitham Manaa Awdat: The families are living under a criminal siege, the roads to the city have been blockaded in a manner far worse than what Israel does in the West Bank. The authorities are trying to push the people to defend themselves by violence in order to justify the serious crimes committed by the security forces. But the people are organizing a fabulous civil resistance and are moving food and light [electricity] to areas under siege. We will continue the intifada by peaceful means ..."

This is one of the testimonies posted this week on Internet sites run by the Syrian opposition. It refers to the events in Daraa, in the south of Syria, the heart of the uprising against Assad. Comparisons to the Israeli enemy recur in many reports, notably in the context of claims that the Syrian army has demonstrated far more brutality in suppressing the opposition than the IDF have done in cracking down on the Palestinians. Earlier in the week, when Assad's 4th Division entered the city, the imam of Al-Omari Mosque in Daraa called on the residents through loudspeakers to demonstrate summud - a term often used by the Palestinians that means steadfastness - against the Syrian army.

According to photographs depicting events this week across Syria, Assad's security forces are carrying out massacres against opponents of the regime. On Wednesday morning, opposition websites carried the names of 416 civilians who had been killed by the security forces in the past few weeks. Hundreds more were wounded and arrested.

Still, the demonstrations are apparently limited in scale, and even though more than a month has gone by since they began, Syria's two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo, had been barely affected as of yesterday. According to Prof. Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria from Tel Aviv University, the middle and upper classes make up a far larger proportion of the population in the big cities than in the periphery. (Daraa is located in Horan, the poorest district in the country. ) "Civil servants and businessmen have a lot more to lose," he notes.

As of now, defections from the army are not widespread. Most of the soldiers - Alawis, Sunnis and others - continue to obey orders and to shoot the demonstrators. The question now is what will happen first: Will Assad succeed in suppressing the demonstrations before massive defections begin or before the killing of civilians finally breaks the army?

Assad made the decision to massacre the demonstrators when his declarations of reforms failed to halt the protest movement. Washington claimed this week that Iran is providing Syria with military aid to quell the disturbances. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi scolded the Syrian regime but explained that only a UN Security Council resolution - something that is not on anyone's agenda at the moment - can put an end to the murder of demonstrators.

The anonymous videographers in Daraa who courageously documented the quashing of the protest sounded simultaneously proud, desperate and ironic. "Here is Bashar bringing his reforms to Daraa," they said, as the tanks advanced and mowed them down with machine-gun fire. The immediate associations were Prague in 1968 and Budapest in 1956. There, too, the world watched and did nothing when the Soviets invaded.

As every Friday, demonstrations will be held today throughout Syria, even though Assad's forces have taken the cities of Daraa, Doma and Banyas. "The use of the army certainly does not end the affair," says Prof. Zisser. "Assad has not addressed the motivation people have to topple his regime. That still exists."

If Assad's advisers were to provide him with translations of the warnings being issued by experts and commentators in the Israeli media about the dangers lurking ahead for the Jewish state should he disappear from the stage, he might yet be tempted to seek political asylum in one of the B&Bs on the Golan Heights.

Galant's return

Next Tuesday evening, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, the man who was almost chief of staff, will be the keynote speaker at a symposium organized by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. Galant will address the protracted struggle between Israel and Iran to mark the publication of "Israel against Iran" by the journalists Dr. Yoaz Hendel and Yaakov Katz.

Galant's position on the Iranian issue is of particular interest. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is considered, like Netanyahu, a hawk who is likely to back an attack, and many conjectured that Galant's support for the military option (an issue he never addressed in public ) improved Galant's prospects to be appointed chief of staff.

In contrast to Galant, Benny Gantz - the man chosen in the end to be chief of staff - is considered a moderate, apparently also when it comes to Iran. The question of how Israel should respond to Tehran's nuclear project (which continues to advance ) is apparently no longer a top priority in light of the recent instability in Egypt and Syria.

Galant, in the meantime, remains on leave from the army. A few weeks ago, a ceremony was held marking the completion of a training course of the naval commandos. When the emcee of the event announced that Galant was present, the audience honored him with a standing ovation. It can be assumed that the Bar-Ilan talk will also not be his last public appearance. After all, the state comptroller is still investigating who was behind the forged document issued last summer that was meant to hurt Galant's prospects of becoming the next chief of staff - what has become widely known as the Harpaz affair.