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Strategic Assessment # 36: Israeli Approach to the Palestinian Reconciliation and its Deadlines
The Israeli leaders were disappointed with the announcement of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. This prompted the Netanyahu government to embark on a series of punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank (WB) and to threaten taking additional steps that would be harder and more severe, equally on the PA’s leaders and on the Palestinians’ public life in the WB and the Gaza Strip (GS).
In parallel, the Israeli side launched a diplomatic campaign to expose the “threats” that this reconciliation in its present form poses to Israel and to demand the “adherence” of the reconciliation government to the conditions of the Quartet Committee, in the forefront recognition of Israel.
Between the Israeli approach and the Authority’s performance, it is expected that the position of Netanyahu’s government will fluctuate among the following possibilities:
1. If the reconciliation became a reality on the ground, there would be heightening of the punitive measures and execution of military and security actions against the Palestinians.
2. In case some reconciliation files were partially applied, some disturbing measures would be carried out that would cause the Palestinians’ public life to become unsettled.
3. Israeli measures in the WB and GS will remain the same and the status quo will continue, especially if the agreement remained merely ink on paper.
Four months after the signing of the Palestinian reconciliation, the Israeli stance remains extremely severe and negative vis-à-vis the most important development on the Palestinian level during the last four years. Even though, it seems that hindrances in the way of applying the Palestinian internal accord have quieted down the enormous Israeli tension, even if temporarily. They also let the declared Israeli approach to the PA and the general Palestinian situation enter into a state of circumstantial freeze. This state is linked to the extent of development in the reconciliation track, its advancement, and the nature of the files and issues that interact within it.
Perhaps the ramifications and complexities of the internal Palestinian situation that resulted from a reconciliation, only in name and form, force us to examine the nature and horizons of the expected Israeli reaction to the inter-Palestinian reconciliation dossier. This is especially so in light of the PA’s “September deadline,” i.e., a UN membership for a Palestinian state, and its developments and impacts on the internal Palestinian situation, along with their effect on consolidating Palestinian harmony and driving forward the process of internal reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.
The Nature of the Israeli Stance
The Palestinian reconciliation agreement shocked Israel, along with all its political, security and military forces, especially its government that was caught unawares by the announcement of the agreement.
It can be said that the Israeli stances vis-à-vis this agreement are found at three levels:
The first level: is headed by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and several ministers and leaders of Israeli parties. It calls for taking immediate punitive measures against the PA in Ramallah, in order to force it to back out of the reconciliation agreement with Hamas.
It was rather striking that the political tension—that cast a shadow over the official Israeli scene following the announcement of the reconciliation—was most clear in Netanyahu’s statements, in which he gave the PA’s President, Abu Mazen, a choice between achieving peace with Israel or reconciliation with Hamas. In his statements, Lieberman made severe threats and warnings to the PA and its leaders, while some Israeli ministers, parties’ leaders and military and security commanders expressed their disappointment with what took place.
The second level: is a direction embraced by some of Israel’s ministers and a number of the heads of Israeli security services. It advocates waiting till after the formation of the PA’s national unity government, knowing its political program, and how it would deal with important issues and major deadlines. At the forefront of these issues, its stand toward Israel, security coordination, and its conduct in the field, in a manner characterized by deliberation and caution before taking any decisive and final stances. It also considers the Quartet’s conditions as basis for accepting any future Palestinian government.
The third level: is represented by some former politicians and officials, as well as research and study centers, experts and academics. These call for refrain from interference in the reconciliation agreement. They believe that the differences between Fatah and Hamas are deep enough to cause the collapse of the agreement between them, in view of the disparity between their respective political programs. They fear that Israeli interference and pressure may be counterproductive and may help the two movements get past their differences and achieve their reconciliation instead of its collapse.
In spite of that, it should be mentioned that the official Israeli position has maintained relative silence and calm, which came after waves of violent and severe stances following the signing of the reconciliation agreement. This took place after the Palestinians’ failure to form the sought-after reconciliation government. Subsequently Israel froze its punitive measures with which it threatened the PA, and linked them to the extent of progress on the reconciliation track and its principle files.
The Motives Behind the Israeli Stance
In confronting the Palestinian reconciliation agreement, Israel departs from the following motives and reasons:
1. Frustrating its plans and denying it the strategic gains that it had realized during the Palestinian schism period, such as:
- Denying Israel its claim that it has no Palestinian partner; for often Israel advanced as an excuse the Palestinian schism, and the inability of the Authority’s president Abu Mazen to extend his control over the GS.
- Striking the political and geographic unity between the WB and the GS, the matter that was realized by the schism.
- Consolidating and furthering security coordination with the Palestinian security services in the WB. As during the schism period, this security coordination achieved unprecedented levels and rates.
- Enabling Israel to deal with the WB and GS separately. It is evident that Israel was able to impose new rules of the game in the WB and GS; it was thus able to neutralize the WB and use the PA’s security services to guard its own security and strike the resistance there. It was further able to impose a siege on GS and restrain the resistance there.
2. Strengthening the Palestinian position internationally and weakening that of Israel. No doubt that unifying the Palestinian people and crystallizing political, harmonious and balanced approaches in the Palestinian sphere would strengthen the Palestinian position and increase its chances of defeating the Israeli position in the international arena. This is so especially in light of the increasing conviction of many world countries that there should be an end to Israeli encroachment on the Palestinian people’s rights, interests and national aspiration.
3. Paving the way for legitimizing Hamas internationally. Israel’s fears are based on the possibility that the reconciliation agreement may become a bridge to granting Hamas political legitimacy on a foreign level. It is believed that the pragmatism and political maturity displayed by Hamas and its adoption of the theory of calming the battlefield and rationalizing the resistance are liable to evolve many of the European positions calling for dialogue with Hamas, as a preliminary step toward breaking the political boycott against it.
4. Preparing the internal Palestinian climate for the breakout of a third Palestinian intifadah (uprising). It is quite clear that regaining the reins of national accord between the two movements, Hamas and Fatah, will lift the ban on their members’ participation in nationalistic activities in the field, which they were denied during the schism. This is in addition to the fact that reconciliation helps restore the Palestinians’ psychological fabric, and that would return them to practicing their role in the struggle. This will secure grounds for the outbreak of a third intifadah against Israel, its repressive measures and ethnic schemes.
Means of Frustrating the Reconciliation
Based on the above, the official Israeli scheme—the items and details of which were contrived shortly after the signing of the reconciliation agreement—provides for using all available means and methods of pressure to force the PA to withdraw from and abandon its agreements with Hamas.
Freezing the punitive measures and means of pressure, which we will detail below, shortly after the reconciliation track stopped at the point of forming the government, does not mean that these measures were fully cancelled from the Israeli agenda; for they will remain ready for application, in accordance with developments.
The Israeli scheme that aims at aborting the reconciliation includes the following pressure tactics:
First: diplomatic pressure: Israel has launched a wide diplomatic campaign on an international level to show the perils and threats posed by the Palestinian reconciliation to the security and stability of the region, and to the peace process.
Israeli diplomatic efforts took the form of visits and intense communication links executed by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Israeli politicians to attack the new Palestinian achievement. It wanted to distort the image of the Palestinian harmony taking place, and incite the world against the PA, in order to force it to withdraw from the reconciliation.
Second: political pressure: Israel did not take long before bringing up the Quartet’s well-known conditions and throwing them in the Palestinians’ face. It exhorted the world to make its dealing with the coming Palestinian government contingent upon its total commitment to the Quartet’s conditions; based on recognizing Israel, renouncing violence, and honoring signed agreements.
The Israeli position is shared with those of others; foremost among them are those of America and some European countries. It shows no willingness to deal with any new Palestinian government, except under the Quartet’s conditions.
Third: economic pressure: no doubt that the economic approach in exerting pressure on the Palestinians is of the utmost importance, in the context of the Israeli scheme to rein in the Palestinian reconciliation.
The first step was to threaten to withhold Palestinian tax revenues, then actually withholding them. Then when the reconciliation track receded, Israel lifted its ban on them.
Furthermore, Israel planned to stop its dealings with Palestinian banks and place restrictions on the free movement in the WB in order to deal a blow to Palestinian economic facilities and reduce their growth rates, in addition to hindering work on many construction and infrastructure projects that were begun in many areas of the WB.
The scheme also includes paralyzing commercial trucks, hindering the entry of goods across commercial crossings, and reducing the number of permits for workers inside the Green Line, so they would find themselves jobless and constitute a means of pressure on the PA.
Fourth: security pressure: Israel never stopped playing the security card in the face of the PA; for whenever it senses negligence on the part of Palestinian security, it immediately takes over security matters by conducting operations on the ground wherever it wishes in the length and breadth of the WB, committing assassinations and detention operations at will.
Still we must assert that using this card is essentially linked to the nature of the Palestinian security conduct, and how closely it adheres to security coordination. Up to this moment, the PA did not show any sign regarding the possibility of moderating its participation in security cooperation with Israel or reducing its intensity. This has let the Israeli security operations be confined to a number of measures aimed at disrupting the reconciliation. Most important of these measures is rearresting Hamas parliamentary deputies in the WB, recruiting the chiefs and cadres of the PA’s security forces to harass Hamas members and supporters in the WB, using coercion, summons and arrests; in addition to activating the role of agents to continue spreading the spirit of discord, despair and defeatism among the Palestinian people.
Fifth: field pressure: this is represented in spreading hundreds of roadblocks in all WB areas, disrupting Palestinians businesses and jobs, giving settlers free hand by allowing them to demonstrate at the WB entrances and in its main streets, as well as closing roads there. All with the aim of assaulting Palestinians, increasing the obstacles and hindrances in their way, and turning their lives into hell.
Sixth: personal pressure: the PA’s leaders realize that any real confrontation with or actual defiance of Israel’s will are likely to cost them the loss of all personal advantages and facilities that they had obtained, among them, freedom of movement through using the VIP card.
So it was not strange of Lieberman to state openly his warning that, in case the reconciliation is achieved, he would withdraw these cards and cancel all the facilities granted to the PA’s leadership. He rather went further when he threatened to imprison Abu Mazen in the WB and restrict his movement there, in a clear message to the Authority’s leadership that stresses that the right to “withdraw” and to “grant” is an Israeli right par excellence.
Future scenarios: the scenarios expected of Israel vis-à-vis Palestinian reconciliation and its deadlines are confined to the two following scenarios:
The first scenario: that of Hamas and Fatah succeeding in forming a consensus government in the period that follows September in which the PA plans to submit a request for the membership of a Palestinian State in the UN.
According to that scenario, Palestinians’ success in forming a government may lead to two tracks:
The first track: changes taking place, in one form or another, concurrent with or following the formation of the government, such as ceasing political arrests in the WB, reviving Hamas’ activities, structures and institutions there, and reducing the pace of security coordination.
Here Israeli reaction is expected to be brutal with regard to taking strong measures and imposing tough penalties in two directions: the first toward the PA, the ceiling and pace of which would change according to the change in its position; no doubt that withholding tax revenues will be at their forefront, and that field and security pressures, intense incursion and desecration operations in the WB areas will be but an essential part of it. The second direction is toward Hamas and the GS; it takes the form of tightening the blockade measures in a manner that would frustrate Palestinians’ wishes for easing or breaking it; of activating their agents’ roles in carrying out operations or assassinations; executing air strikes or limited incursions, in an attempt to create a climate that helps deviate reconciliation tracks and changes the Palestinian arena’s priorities.
Having scrutinized the Authority’s positions and its conduct in general, it can be said that this track is not likely to become a reality and does not have the qualification to even come close to be realized in the coming phase.
The second track: that no fundamental changes occur in the map of the general Palestinian situation and its relationship to Israel. In this case, the Israeli approach will not change much, and may stay the same, in the framework of the cautious relationship with the current authority; or it may take unsettling measures that would disrupt the new government; but in spite of that, they would remain limited, tactical and far from the strategic approach.
It sees like this possibility is more realistic than the previous one, and on the Palestinian level, more likely to succeed in light of current facts.
The second scenario: failure of Hamas and Fatah in forming a government, and the continuation of the status quo.
This scenario is based on the difficulty in achieving a breakthrough in any of the reconciliation main dossiers; without this meaning an absence of any possibility to have “gestures” or signs of good faith on the way to reconciliation, especially in its social aspect. However, it continues revolving in the framework of details and secondary issues that remain unreliable as long as they are working far from basics and essentials.
This scenario entails that the current Israeli approach remains unchanged, keeping the nature and directions of the relationship with the occupation subject to various developments in politics and in the field.
Still, various facts indicate a poor possibility of implementing this scenario in the period that follows September, especially because the PA is expected to be unable to realize its UN goals due to the American veto. Hence, the situation will no doubt prompt the PA to stop dragging its feet regarding the formation of the unity government, and doing so very soon.
Suggestions and Recommendations:
In face of the Israeli conduct that aims at frustrating the Palestinian reconciliation, we point out the following suggestions and recommendations:
1. The highest Palestinian national interest should take precedence over petty interests and party considerations, through the formation of a consensus government as soon as possible and not placing it under the mercy of regional and international pressures.
2. Precise execution and faithful application of all the reconciliation files, then beginning their application using a new treatment mechanism that allows their implementation in parallel and not in succession; with the aim of overcoming any pitfalls or obstacles that may occur in any file.
3. Working to find sources for self-financing in place of international politicized financing. That can be achieved by establishing and sponsoring industrial and economic projects inside Palestine and in other Arab and Islamic countries.
4. Addressing a firm letter to Israel that places all matters related to mutual relations in the framework of reciprocity and total equality, and retaliating for any hostile Israeli action or measure with a counter Palestinian action or measure.
5. Releasing public and private freedoms in the PA’s areas and allowing demonstrations and public activities that express the genuine Palestinian longing for reconciliation. This will help convey, with transparency and clarity, the Palestinian position to the outside world, and will engender greater understanding of the nature of the Palestinian internal state, and subsequently will lessen the size and level of the pressures exerted on the PA vis-à-vis the reconciliation.
Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mu’min Bsiso for authoring the original text on which this Strategic Assessment was based.
The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 24/8/2011