Israel Needs Palestinian Unity

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a press conference in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Jan. 6, 2016.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a press conference in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Jan. 6, 2016.Credit: AP

Jibril Rajoub, a member of the Fatah central committee, had harsh words for his movement’s leadership. In an interview on the Palestinian government television station, he mocked those who purport to speak on behalf of the Palestinians: “One goes to meet with the president of Tunisia, another speaks in English on behalf of the Palestinians – we need a person who will speak Palestinian.”

Discord in Fatah is nothing new, and the talk about who will succeed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has gone public. In the “important speech to the nation” that he delivered in Bethlehem last week, Abbas did nothing to dispel the haze.

“The PA is a Palestinian achievement, and we will not let it come undone,” he promised, in what seemed to be a response to the Israeli assessment – reported recently in Haaretz – that the authority is on the verge of collapse.

But Abbas did not offer any concrete solutions to the crisis in his movement’s leadership. Rajoub, for one, is not pleased with the lack of clarity.

Rajoub, a member of the Fatah central committee. Mocked those who purport to speak on behalf of the Palestinians.Credit: Nir Keidar

“The peace process has collapsed, and what’s the substitute? We just sit and deliberate – over whether to convene the national council, over our relations with Hamas, over implementation of the decisions of the central council,” he complained.

The PA is in a state of inertia. While Abbas promises to continue his efforts to obtain international recognition for a state, he is trying to separate security cooperation with Israel from the political struggle, while simultaneously vacillating over how to relate to the violent events taking place as part of the so-caled lone-wolf intifada.

Holding new elections, as Hamas and Fatah decided upon in September 2014, is not something Abbas wants right now, although Hamas is ready to go ahead with them. Abbas rightly fears that an election could bring Hamas back to power and lead to the disintegration of Fatah, which is riven by internal disputes.

Meanwhile, the PA is not managing to solve key problems affecting the lives of the 1,800,000 inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, who are dependent on Israel’s good graces.

Last week, the heads of various Palestinian organizations met without Hamas and Fatah, and formulated an initiative for opening the Rafah crossing at the Gaza-Egypt border. The proposal calls for a joint administration to be established, comprised of Hamas representatives who would operate the crossing and PA administrators, under a director acceptable to both parties, with security handled by members of the Palestinian Presidential Guard.

Internal Palestinian agreement for this proposal is a prerequisite for Egypt consenting to open the crossing. For his part, Abbas announced that he accepted the principles of the initiative, but Hamas is still “studying it.”

Palestinian officials predict that Egypt will accept the idea, given the current move toward rapprochement between Israel and Turkey: Egypt fears that Turkey would assume patronage over commercial traffic in Gaza and infringe on Cairo’s exclusivity in that realm. But even here, there is still disagreement over issues such as who decides what, and what exactly will be permitted to pass through the crossing.

Agreement to establish a joint authority to operate the Rafah crossing could be the first stop toward a broader Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement. Such reconciliation is not merely an internal Palestinian matter. Saudi Arabia recently extended an offer to Abbas to sponsor a dialogue between Hamas and Fatah, but Palestinian sources say he responded that Egypt is in charge of handling the reconciliation, and Saudi Arabia must coordinate its moves with Cairo.

Saudi Arabia, which put together the Sunni coalition against Iran, could pressure Egypt to be more flexible in regard to Hamas, but it would first want to ensure that Hamas won’t end up embarrassing it. Interestingly, however, Hamas spokespeople have not rushed to voice support for Riyadh’s position in the crisis with Iran.

“We are not for one side or the other,” said Hamas official Ismail al-Ashqar. “We are a Palestinian liberation movement and we need the Arab and Islamic powers to galvanize the public for the sake of solving the Palestinian problem.” That’s not what Saudi Arabia wants to hear, though it could at least take solace in the fact that Hamas is not backing Iran either.

The question is where Israel stands among all these developments. It apparently remains convinced that economic gestures toward the PA could sustain the Palestinian status quo and halt Hamas’ empowerment. A few more trucks entering Gaza, or permission for Turkey to finish building the hospital there, along with easing of restrictions for West Bank residents, is about as far as Israeli creativity goes.

The ideas the Israel Defense Forces presented to the government for “improving the standing of the PA," including security cooperation and recommendations for limited gestures toward the PA (as Amos Harel reported in Haaretz on January 7), indicate that while the army may be ready to show more openness, internal Palestinian infighting is still being ignored.

Reconciliation between Hamas, which is maintaining relative quiet in the south, and Fatah, which is cooperating with Israel, is in Israel’s interest. But in order to see that happening, Israel will have to remove its political blinders.