In Irony, Is­rael Gives Ha­mas Rel­e­vance With At­tack

Forward Magazine - - News - By Nathan Jeffay Tel Aviv Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@for­

As Is­rael and Ha­mas worked with Egypt and the United States to bro­ker a cease­fire dur­ing the long days of Op­er­a­tion Pil­lar of De­fense, Is­raelis ob­served a strange irony.

Is­rael was talk­ing to Ha­mas, al­beit in­di­rectly, at a time when the con­ver­sa­tion about peace with its des­ig­nated ne­go­ti­at­ing part­ner, the Pales­tinian Author­ity, has com­pletely dried up.

In fact, the contact came as Is­rael-P.A. re­la­tions chilled fur­ther fol­low­ing sev­eral state­ments by the For­eign Min­istry dis­cred­it­ing Pales­tinian Author­ity Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas. Is­rael also was fu­ri­ous with the P.A. for a new state­hood bid the Pales­tini­ans planned to make at the United Nations on Novem­ber 29.

It was not the first time that Ha­mas’s strong-arm tac­tics had moved Is­rael to ne­go­ti­ate with it, via proxy. Most no­tably, Is­rael made the deal with Ha­mas to re­lease Gi­lad Shalit in ex­change for 1,027 Pales­tinian pris­on­ers a lit­tle more than a year ago af­ter long ne­go­ti­a­tions, again through Egypt.

Many an­a­lysts have sug­gested that by putting Ha­mas cen­ter stage and mak­ing the Western-backed P.A. seem like a by­stander, Is­rael is has­ten­ing the P.A.’s demise and em­bold­en­ing Ha­mas. The op­er­a­tion be­gan just two weeks be­fore the planned start of the P.A.’s state­hood bid, but that bid has now been over­shad­owed on the Pales­tinian pub­lic agenda by the sit­u­a­tion in Gaza.

“The bot­tom line is that Ha­mas is more rel­e­vant,” said Yo­ram Meital of Ben-Gu­rion Univer­sity’s Chaim Her­zog Cen­ter for Mid­dle East Stud­ies and Diplo­macy. “Is­rael’s im­age is as the side that re­fused to pay the price for peace, and most Pales­tini­ans see Ha­mas’s ‘re­sis­tance’ as more at­trac­tive and up to date, and the Pales­tinian author­ity as some­what not rel­e­vant.”

But here is the key ques­tion: How long will Ha­mas will be able to keep at­ten­tion on Gaza and re­tain its new im­age as the party fight­ing the Pales­tinian peo­ple’s bat­tle while the P.A. stands by?

Walid Ladad­weh, pub­lic opin­ion ex­pert at the Pales­tinian Cen­ter for Pol­icy and Sur­vey Re­search, said that Ha­mas’s high pop­u­lar­ity dur­ing the op­er­a­tion could de­crease sig­nif­i­cantly in the weeks and months ahead if Ab­bas suc­ceeds in his U.N. bid. “If Ab­bas has a good re­sult, it will in­crease his strength,” Ladad­weh said.

Eran Shayshon, se­nior an­a­lyst at the Is­raeli think tank the Reut In­sti­tute, con­ceded that Op­er­a­tion Pil­lar of De­fense is caus­ing an “expected short-term spike” in Ha­mas’s pop­u­lar­ity. But this does not trans­late to a real shift to­ward Pales­tinian sup­port for Ha­mas’s more vi­o­lent path, he said, or to a de­sire to live un­der a more mil­i­tant regime. “Right now, West Bankers are sure they don’t want to be­come Gazans, be­cause they saw where Ha­mas’s un­com­pro­mis­ing at­ti­tude to­wards Is­rael got them,” he said.

Ger­shon Baskin, the Is­raeli peace ac­tivist who helped to me­di­ate the Shalit deal, be­lieves that the an­swer is in Is­rael’s hands. Un­less Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu’s gov­ern­ment shows Pales­tini­ans a glim­mer of hope in the diplo­matic process, Ab­bas and the P.A. could be doomed, he said. “This con­flict could spell the end of Abu Mazen un­less Is­rael en­gages him se­ri­ously now,” he said, us­ing Ab­bas’s nick­name.

Some an­a­lysts are op­ti­mistic that Pil­lar of De­fense could pro­mote a ma­jor ad­vance in the Is­raeliPales­tinian con­flict. Shalom Yerushalmi, a cen­ter-right jour­nal­ist, wrote in Ma’ariv that the op­er­a­tion

‘The bot­tom line is that Ha­mas is more rel­e­vant.’

has brought into sight a day when Egypt will take over from Is­rael re­spon­si­bil­ity for Gaza. This is be­cause the op­er­a­tion forced the new Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment to in­volve it­self deeply in the Gaza regime through its role as a hub for cease-fire ne­go­ti­a­tions. It even dis­patched Prime Min­is­ter Hisham Kandil to visit Gaza — a ges­ture that even Ab­bas did not make.

Meital said that Egypt has re­jected pro­pos­als to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for Gaza in the past and would re­ject them now, view­ing Gaza’s pop­u­la­tion as a “threat to na­tional se­cu­rity.” But a For­eign Min­istry source told the For­ward that a scaled-down ver­sion of this plan is “some­thing that the For­eign Min­istry is toss­ing around, and a rel­a­tively at­trac­tive idea.” The source — who could not be named, as he was talk­ing about dis­cus­sions at the min­istry as op­posed to pol­icy — said, “We would be quite happy for Egypt to take over as many re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as pos­si­ble that Is­rael cur­rently has over Gaza.” This would in­volve con­trol­ling se­cu­rity and, to some ex­tent, sup­plies un­til a com­pre­hen­sive Is­raeli-Pales­tinian set­tle­ment is reached, he said. Cairo could be guar­an­teed an “exit strat­egy,” said the of­fi­cial, to en­sure Egypt’s lead­ers they would not be­come fully re­spon­si­ble for the ter­ri­tory.


Side Light: Pales­tinian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas has been shunted aside by the con­flict in Gaza, which put the spot­light on ri­val Ha­mas.

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