Roger Hercz
The Egyptian Independent (Opinion)
February 9, 2012 - 1:00am

Jaffa -- Mahmoud al-Zahar, the co-founder of Hamas, was clearly satisfied as he spoke to Israeli TV following the historic Palestinian reconciliation pact signing last week.

“Your intelligence organizations are not so impressive after all,” he told Channel 10 News.

Israeli leaders were certainly caught off guard when news broke that Fatah and Hamas had reached a deal to mend ties, four years after a schism erupted between the two Palestinian factions and Hamas security forcibly ousted Fatah personnel from the Gaza Strip. Al-Zahar was rubbing Israel’s lack of anticipation in its face.

“Didn’t you see that I travelled off to Sudan? Didn’t your intelligence notice that I had high-level meetings with Egyptian leaders? Isn’t your Mossad supposed to know all this?” he asked Israeli journalists sarcastically.

Just as the deal brought confidence to Hamas, Israeli right-wing leaders say they fear Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas finally decided to officially dismiss prospects for peace. Israeli worries grew further when Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, then asked Abbas to abrogate Palestinian recognition of the state of Israel.

“We can make peace with people who want peace with us,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after receiving news of the accord. “But we can’t make peace with people who seek our destruction.”

After the deal was struck, Israel immediately halted transfer of some US80 million in tax money, collected by Israel and intended for the Palestinian Authority.

“We really can’t be asked to fund the terrorist attacks against ourselves,” said Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s finance minister.

Israeli officials and international analysts alike widely believe the so-called “Arab Spring,” the wave of pro-democracy uprisings sweeping the Arab World, sealed the long-elusive rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas.

Fatah leader Abbas lost his long-time ally, Hosni Mubarak, after 18 days of protest ousted the Egyptian strongman, and Hamas now risks losing its ally and benefactor Syria, as political upheaval in that country shows no signs of relenting.

Israel also believes Hamas, through the agreement with Fatah, sought to improve relations with Cairo. Back in 2009 Hamas refused to sign an almost identical agreement hammered out by Mubarak’s men, and now, suddenly, the Islamist organization proffered its endorsement. Hamas expects to gain further support from Egypt, as the Muslim Brotherhood appears poised for electoral triumph in parliamentary elections slated for September.

More surprisingly, Israeli Vice PM Moshe Yaalon, a previous chief of staff of the armed forces, believes a new weapon system Israel recently introduced also played a role in the reconciliation accord. In early April, while Hamas fired rockets at Israeli cities, the Israeli army introduced Iron Dome, a missile defense system developed in Israel, designed to shoot down rockets fired from Gaza in mid-air.

Soon the anti-missile system made military history and shot down eight out of nine incoming missiles flying towards Beersheba and Ashdod, two sizable Israeli cities located in close proximity to the Gaza border. Yaalon believes the development hampers the Hamas military option, thus coercing the group’s political officials to the negotiating table.

“Hamas made the agreement with Fatah because they are under pressure,” Yaalon said in a public speech in Beersheba, the target of many Hamas rockets. “When they are under pressure, they make temporary compromises.”

Yaalon also referred to growing discontent in Gaza with the Hamas government, noting calls within the embattled enclave for an uprising similar to the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt.

Israel’s biggest fear, however, is that Palestinian unity might be geared towards a crucial vote at the United Nations planned for September. If no progress is made in the peace process in the coming months, Abbas has threatened to take the Palestinian demand for statehood to the UN General Assembly, where it most likely will receive majority support. With Gaza and the West Bank united under one leadership, the bid is boosted.

Well aware the game is now about international support, Israel is now trying to mobilize the US and European states to discourage Abbas from making his UN move. Netanyahu, in order for his message to come through, has deliberately focused his criticism on the alliance Abbas struck with his erstwhile rival, a Hamas party the US and EU consider a terrorist organization.

Abbas embraced a group that called the Al-Qaeda leader a martyr and condemned the US operation in Pakistan, Netanyahu said, referring to Hamas PM Haniyeh’s denunciation of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

“Terrorism was dealt a resounding blow with the elimination of bin Laden,” Netanyahu said. “In Cairo it was given a victory.”

Hamas also appreciates the importance of international support. On one hand, the organization says it will adhere to the ceasefire with Israel. On the other, it still promises “armed resistance” will continue.

Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based Hamas-leader, appealed to the international community on Sunday to recognize the upcoming unity government, while emphasizing the armed struggle must continue.

“What is needed now is to have resistance in all forms, both public and armed,” he said. During Netanyahu’s first stint as a prime minister, back in 1997, the Mossad botched an attempt to assassinate Meshal in the streets of Amman.

While both the US and the EU have called upon Hamas to accept the conditions of the so-called Quartet (UN, US, EU and Russia), which targets the groups’ recognition of Israel, both Washington and Brussels signaled a new stance as both continued to express support for Abbas, despite the reconciliation pact.

Nevertheless, Israel does not believe Palestinian unity will endure. “Do you believe Abbas will control Gaza and empty it of rockets?” asks vice PM Yaalon. “Will he allow Hamas to enter the West Bank? If he does, there will be a Hamastan there to.”

Only time will tell if the deal will heal the wounds of the Palestinian civil war of July 2007. The days of the leadership of Yasser Arafat are long gone, and since his departure, no Palestinian leader has managed to garner his level of popular support.

Still, back in November 2004, during the last days of Arafat, Palestinians in the streets of Ramallah suddenly dared to curse the leader that had brought them corruption and failed peace hopes.

“The dog will never come back,” Palestinians said just around the corner from the Moqata, Arafat’s headquarters. Prior to that date, no Palestinians dared to level such harsh words.

But now Arafat’s unique political talents are sorely missed. No other Palestinian leader has been able to unite both Muslims and Christians, poor and rich, refugee and non-refugee in one joint struggle. Arafat embodied the Palestinian struggle, and neither Abbas nor Meshal has been able to fill that role.

So while fateful days are approaching for the Palestinian state, peace is no closer. Netanyahu now accuses Abbas of escaping the hard compromises of peace by pushing a state through the UN General Assembly. Abbas, on the other hand, accuses Netanyahu of refusing to negotiate on any substantial issues, except security. A last minute surprise now could be an Israeli recognition of the Palestinian state, an option Netanyahu says he is mulling.

And in the background, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad quietly continues to build the founding blocks of a future state. Now, some 63 years after the fateful UN decision to partition Palestine, Israel has paradoxically become the model, in one way, for a future Palestinian nation.

“When the Israelis got their state in 1948, all their institutions were ready,” Fayyad said this week.


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