Herb Keinon
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
April 29, 2011 - 12:00am

Finally, the purple elephant in the room stood up Wednesday and started to snort.

Ever since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in 2007, all parties occupied with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have pretended that Hamas’s control of Gaza did not exist; that it was possible to talk about reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority – you could even talk about a Palestinian state – and somehow turn a blind eye to the fact Hamas was ensconced in Gaza and was not just going to sit back and quietly let it all happen.

Everyone knew, however, that at some point, if any of all the peace and statehood talk was going to have any meaning whatsoever, it would be necessary for PA President Mahmoud Abbas to reassert his authority over Gaza.

There were a number of ways this could be done.

One was for Israel to do the work for Abbas, his preferred option. There is no doubt that Abbas would have liked nothing more than for Israel to finish off Hamas during Operation Cast Lead two years ago, enabling him to ride back into Gaza City and reassert his control over the region that his forces lost with nary a fight.

But Israel didn’t do the job. Jerusalem had no interest in paving Abbas’s way back into Gaza on the backs of dead IDF soldiers.

Another way was if the Egyptians would do the work for Abbas. But that, too, was a nonstarter.

The third way was for Abbas to do it himself, for the PA to take responsibility for its own affairs and defeat Hamas militarily – regain control the same way Hamas took it, via the sword. But it was obvious that this was not going to happen for a couple of reasons: First, because it was unlikely the PA could defeat Hamas in Gaza, and secondly because an allout civil war was not in the Palestinian interest.

What happened Wednesday, with the surprise announcement of reconciliation coming out of Cairo, was the blasting of a fourth path – reasserting control through reconciliation.

It is almost universally agreed in Israel that the reconciliation won’t last, that there are too many cardinal issues separating the two sides, but at least it will bring Abbas to the UN in September asking for the world body’s recognition of statehood with the ability to debunk Israel’s argument that he only represents half a future state.

Although most Israelis may see this reconciliation as a ruse, the world – or at least that European part of the world, which is quickly emerging as the most important factor in whether the UN will recognize Palestinian statehood in September – does not.

When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu got up on YouTube on Wednesday and said that the PA had to choose between Israel and Hamas, it is a safe bet his words resonated loudly with the Israeli public who know Hamas: who can remember the week before last and the year before that; who bear in mind Gilad Schalit and the inhuman suffering imposed by Hamas on him and his family; who recall anti-tank missiles on school buses and Grad rockets on Ashkelon.

Ah, but Europe is different. For months there have been voices in the EU calling for engagement with Hamas; voices proclaiming that peace is made with enemies; that Hamas can be tamed by being brought into the political tent; that it is necessary to be inclusive, not exclusive; that no agreement is possible without the Islamic organization.

And rather than be put off, like most Israelis were, by the fact that the PA is on the verge of incorporating into its unity government an organization calling for Israel’s destruction, many in Europe will see this move as an indication that Hamas has become pragmatic and more “moderate” as a result of the apparent loss of its patron in Syria.

These voices will see indications of Hamas- Fatah reconciliation as support for their desire to begin engaging Hamas – immediately and openly And these voices will be the ones to jump on Netanyahu’s comments about the PA having to choose between Israel and Hamas to say that, once again, it is Netanyahu who is the rejectionist; Netanyahu who is blocking the way to progress; Netanyahu who is setting conditions.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak took a more nuanced approach in an Israel Radio interview on Thursday.

Certainly Israel will have nothing to do with an unreformed Hamas, he said. But, he implied, rather than ruling out a Palestinian unity government from the start, just make clear to the world that it is fine on the condition that Hamas abides by the Quartet’s three conditions for engagement: recognition of Israel, forswearing terrorism, accepting previous agreements.

And if Hamas does that, Barak said – paraphrasing Ariel Sharon – they will “turn into Finns, not Hamas. And with Finns we are prepared to talk.”

That approach places the onus on the Palestinians. Israel is not cast as the perpetual rejectionist, and when the reconciliation blows up – as is likely, either because Hamas and Fatah differences are irreconcilable, or because Hamas can’t meet the three conditions and remain Hamas – it will be the Palestinians who can be cast as the rejectionists, not Israel.


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