A group of Israeli and Palestinian businessmen arrived on Thursday evening at one of the halls in the U.S. State Department in Washington. A few leaders of the Israeli economy, several of the Palestinian Authority's wealthiest residents, Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair, the heads of a few of the world's largest corporations, and one U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry.
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The invitations - which were sent out a few weeks ago - were for a festive dinner, during which Kerry would be launching a grandiose plan to fire up the Palestinian economy. The plan was put together by Tim Collins, an American millionaire who is a good friend of both Kerry and Blair (and who has contributed money to both men in the past). It included the investment of billions of dollars in projects and infrastructure by giant multinational corporations, who were enlisted to lay down the foundation of a future Palestinian state.
But only a day before the festivities, news of the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas arrived. Kerry, who was caught completely off guard by the move, was furious. He was personally insulted. One of those invited to the dinner said that Kerry had even considered cancelling the entire event. Some of the guests, in transit in London awaiting their flight to Washington, had already began checking on tickets back to Israel.
In the end, Kerry decided to hold the event as planned. We can safely assume it was a particularly sad evening. It's a bit strange to discuss the economy of the future Palestinian state while Fatah is signing an agreement with Hamas and after Israel announces a suspension of the peace talks. And if that wasn't enough, Israel's security cabinet also decides to impose additional sanctions against the Palestinian Authority. Economic sanctions, of course.
Kerry was not the only one surprised by the Palestinian move. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also inattentive. One could say this has been happening to him rather often recently, as far as the Palestinians are concerned. A few weeks back he was caught off guard when Abbas signed requests to join 15 international conventions on live TV. And after Netanyahu thought this was nothing but a symbolic move by Abbas - he was again surprised on the following day.
At the security cabinet meeting on Thursday, which focused on the Palestinian unity agreement, defense establishment officials and heads of its intelligence agencies provided a number of learned presentations. A minister who attended the meeting wondered how it could be that Israel, whose intelligence coverage of everything that happens in the PA is almost absolute, did not know what was cooking right under its nose.
One of the ministers described Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi as awkwardly trying to explain that the matter had been followed over the last month, adding that the information may have been poorly distributed. "We had knowledge that the Palestinians were working on it, but we didn't know in advance that it would happen on Wednesday afternoon," Kochavi said.
Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen came to Kochavi's defense, telling the ministers that "in the Palestinian Authority, too, there more than a few senior [officials] who were surprised."
A senior Israeli official who is has intimate knowledge of the negotiations with the Palestinians says that Palestinian reconciliation only came up at the sidelines of a trilateral meeting last Thursday between U.S. envoy Martin Indyk and the Israeli and Palestinian negotiation teams, and was only discussed in general terms.
"The Palestinians mentioned there was a delegation leaving for Gaza, but that wasn't the crux of the meeting," he said. "During that session, [chief Palestinian negotiator] Saeb Erekat was threatening us that Abbas would dismantle the Palestinian Authority - nobody was even thinking about a reconciliation agreement," he added.
Abbas' move shocked both Israel and the White House mostly due to its timing – only several days before April 29, the date when the agreed-upon time allowance for negotiations runs out. In addition, last Tuesday - only a day before the deal was announced – the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators emerged from a session feeling optimistic about progressing towards a deal that would allow the talks to continue.
"Abbas made the move at the most critical moment, and against the direction of the traffic," the Israeli official added."Why didn't he wait one week to see if the talks are extended? We have no answer to that question."
While Kerry was fuming over the Palestinian move, the mood at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem was of fury mixed with panic, mixed with a hunger for revenge. Yet Netanyahu quickly realized that the developing crisis called for caution and refrained from making any irreversible decisions that would officially nix any chances of a return to the negotiating table.
This caution was on display in the security cabinet's decision. Israel is not burning any bridges; it avoided making extreme decisions, such as a wave of construction in West Bank settlements or in the controversial E-1 zone between Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumim. Israel's current objective is to drive its point home to Abbas: The price of actualizing the agreement with the Hamas will far outstrip its benefits.
The moves announced by Israel in response to the deal are all reversible, as are the sanctions it decreed. The flow of tax monies can be renewed at any point, and the decision to suspend talks can easily be annulled. If in one week's time it becomes apparent that the deal between Hamas and Fatah is nothing but talk, the Suite at Mt. Zion hotel in Jerusalem will quickly find itself booked for another meeting of Livni, Erekat and Martin Indyk.
Netanyahu opted to let out his steam over Abbas' move in his favorite fashion – interviews with American media. The national PR squad at the Prime Minister's Office quickly manned the battle stations: videos disparaging Abbas were shot out on Twitter and talking points were distributed to government representatives and Israeli embassies the world over; all aimed to strike down the reconciliation and describe it as no less than a deal with the devil himself.
But few were lining up to buy those wares. The American administration is refusing to denounce the deal with the vigor Israel is expecting. Rather, they only expressed concern and stressed their position that both sides have made unhelpful steps.
The European Union, meanwhile, were voicing their support of the move, and consider it a positive toward a two-state solution.
Hamas is listed as a terrorist organization in both the U.S. and the EU, but in the past two years - on the backdrop of the Arab world's unrest - both entities are in contact with more than a few organizations which are no less shady, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, Islamic rebel groups in Syria, and even the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Europeans and the Americans also make it a point to remind Israel, whenever occasion arises, that it was Netanyahu himself who signed a deal to free the captive soldier Gilad Shalit and the Gaza ceasefire agreement – both with Hamas.
The five coming weeks, in which Fatah and Hamas will attempt to implement the agreement, will be a sort of limbo. The rage in Netanyahu's offices will abate, a bit; and perhaps, so will the Abbas and Haniyeh's eagerness to set up a unity government and agree on a date for elections.
After all, it is a well-known fact in Ramallah and the Gaza Strip, too, that when you enter elections, you have no idea how you'll come out.