Abbas: 'Winning On Points'

On Tuesday, the State Department announced that the Obama Administration intends to work with the new Palestinian unity government of President Mahmoud Abbas, which now includes Hamas, the militant organization that has ruled Gaza since 2007. To satisfy critics, the United States said that the new government would have to adhere to a set of international stipulations, agreed upon in 2006: it must recognize Israel, reject terror, and honor previously signed agreements. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told the Associated Press that he is “deeply troubled” by the Administration’s decision to maintain ties to the unity government, and added, “The United States must make it absolutely clear to the Palestinian President that his pact with Hamas, a terrorist organization that seeks Israel’s liquidation, is simply unacceptable.”

Hamas, for its part, has never recognized Israel’s existence or renounced violence. Intriguingly, two of Netanyahu’s coalition partners, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, reject the principle of Palestinian statehood and have never accepted restrictions on settlement contained in such past signed agreements as the 2003 Roadmap, but they supported Netanyahu, skeptically, through the recent negotiations mediated by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Netanyahu’s own party, the Likud, has routinely taken a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose attitude toward Abbas. When Gaza and the West Bank were split—Hamas expelled Abbas’s Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority officials in 2007—Likud leaders charged that Abbas’s rule was illegitimate, weak, and incapable of representing a divided Palestinian populace. When Abbas sought to reunite the Palestinian territories, he was accused of cavorting with terrorists. He was not a “partner” in the peace process.

Of course, Hamas has engaged in despicable acts of terror, from training and dispatching suicide bombers to launching missiles into Israeli civilian population centers. It has advanced a totalitarian Islamist vision and a Manichaean view of Jews. So Tuesday’s reunification agreement suggests one of two things. The first is that Abbas—who is seventy-nine and concerned about his legacy after Kerry’s unsuccessful nine-month initiative to broker peace—has decided to get out in front of the mounting anger in the Palestinian street about the failure of the talks and adopt something like Hamas’s harder line. The second is that Abbas simply has beaten Hamas at its own game, forcing it to recognize his authority and to accept his nonviolent, internationalist strategy. Both conclusions may be true to some degree, though most Israelis impulsively jump to the first. Which is truer?

“Abbas has not knocked out Hamas, but he is winning on points—he has the opportunity to extend the umbrella of nonviolence to Gaza,” Mohammad Mustafa, the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for the economy, told me in Ramallah. A central player in both the old and new Palestinian governments, Mustafa, a former World Bank official, is also the head of the billion-dollar Palestine Investment Fund. “This is an agreement for real,” he went on. “Hamas’s situation has changed. The biggest factor is regional—especially Egypt. Hamas lost their alliance with Syria some time ago. But they had alternatives. Morsi”—Mohamed Morsi, the deposed Egyptian President—“made them feel comfortable. Tunisia, Turkey was a big ally, Iran was coming their way. Now there aren’t really many friends for Hamas.” He added that the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had “convinced Hamas that they really lost.”

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