Ten days ago Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took advantage of a meeting of the Likud party’s Knesset representatives in the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim to launch a harshly worded attack on the Fatah-Hamas talks. ““We’re not interested in fake reconciliation in which Palestinian parties reconcile with each other at the expense of our existence,” he said. The prime minister added a series of conditions such as the dismantling of Hamas’ military wing and the severing of ties between Hamas and Iran.
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On Thursday, a few hours after the announcement in Cairo of the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the response from the prime minister’s bureau was very different. The cautious restraint and diplomatic language of the Israeli response were nothing less than amazing. Israel “will follow developments and act accordingly,” the prime minister’s bureau said. It is difficult not to sense the difference in tone. The reconciliation is no longer fake or at the expense of our existence, and the word “Iran” also disappeared.
But to understand how great the change is in Netanyahu’s attitude to the internal Palestinian reconciliation, we have to go back to April 2014 when Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation agreement and established a unity government. In response, Netanyahu got a decision passed in the inner cabinet to suspend all diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority and he also threatened economic sanctions. Netanyahu also took then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to task for daring to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
There are a few reasons for Israel’s restrained response. The first is Egypt. The internal Palestinian reconciliation is Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s baby. This is the same al-Sissi who maintains unprecedented security ties with Israel. It is the same al-Sissi who came to a secret summit in Aqaba in February 2016, who tried to establish a unity government between opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog and Netanyahu, and the same al-Sissi who agreed just a month ago to a first public meeting with Netanyahu in New York.
The second reason is the Trump administration. The White House not only doesn’t want to criticize the Egyptian-brokered reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, it even supported it publicly. The first signs of this were seen on August 30 when U.S. Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt appeared at Kibbutz Nahal Oz on the border with Gaza and came out with the surprising statement that the Palestinian Authority should take control of the Gaza Strip from Hamas.
Greenblatt wasn’t confused. His statements were not a slip of the tongue, but part of a policy. He reiterated and expanded on those remarks in his speech at the conference of donor countries to the PA in New York a month ago. A few days later he pushed for publication of a joint statement by Russia, the United States, the United Nations and the European Union – which included that same exact message. The Trump administration, which wanted to promote a peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinians and prevent renewed clashes in the Gaza Strip, understands that the return of the PA to Gaza is critical for both reasons. Greenblatt, a smart and sophisticated lawyer, knows full well that the return of the PA to the Gaza Strip involves some sort of reconciliation with Hamas.
And there’s a third reason, which the politicians refuse to acknowledge publicly but that the defense establishment stresses in internal discussions: Returning the PA to Gaza, even if only partially, could also serve Israel’s security interests. At the end of the war in Gaza in 2014, an international initiative was afoot to return PA security forces to Gaza’s border crossings as a first phase on the way to demilitarization of the Gaza Strip. Livni promoted the move and formulated the draft of a Security Council resolution – but Netanyahu’s foot-dragging and Abbas’ rejectionist stance resulted in a squandered opportunity. Perhaps the realization that the current developments constitute an opportunity, and not only a threat, is the reason that, for the time being, Israel has not acted to derail the agreement.
Two weeks ago when the reconciliation talks began, Jerusalem may have thought that they were just more empty talks that would amount to nothing, as has happened quite a few times before. Now Israel recognizes that this time is more serious. Israel had and has all the means to sabotage the move, but has chosen not to do so. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman fully understand that when both Trump and al-Sissi support internal Palestinian reconciliation, there’s not much to be done about it. All that remains is for them to complain quietly and hope the Palestinians prove once again that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and that they will thwart the agreement on their own.