The easiest thing to say about the Israeli–Palestinian situation this week is that it is a terrible and violent mess. I’ve written in the past about how I think we got to these circumstances, but however that occurred, we must still try to look ahead. What lies beyond the current crisis?
During 2013 and until this April, the main event was the Kerry negotiations. In May came the Fatah-Hamas agreement on a non-party or “technocratic” government, supposedly leading to Palestinian elections this year. In the last few weeks, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, apparently by people linked to or part of Hamas, has changed the situation again — as has last week’s murder of a young Palestinian, almost certainly by Israelis bent on revenge (and as I write, arrests have been made).
Now what? In the near term, the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have some key decisions to make. And so does President Obama, sooner or later.
For PA president Mahmoud Abbas, the question is whether to continue with the Hamas arrangement, leading to elections. Hamas’s role in the three murders makes that a great deal harder, as does the continuing Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Even during the two weeks after the kidnapping, when the three boys were being searched for, Hamas did not let up and indeed increased the pace of rocket fire. This suggests that Hamas is unwilling to modify its behavior in the interest of sealing and maintaining the agreement with President Abbas and that it will continue to create a very difficult squeeze for him: He will be embracing both a terrorist organization actively conducting acts of terror and a stated policy of cooperation with Israel. He will be embracing Hamas, cooperating with Hamas — and cooperating with Israeli security forces going after Hamas. To his public, this will and indeed does look like hypocrisy and deception.
The Fatah-Hamas deal itself is and always was unworkable. Hamas wants into the PA and the PLO but is unwilling to pay the price that should be demanded of it: abandoning terrorism and violence and placing its armed forces under PA control. Abbas knows this: He knows that Hamas wants the PA to cover its huge Gaza payroll — 40,000 to 50,000 “civil servants” — because its own resources can no longer cover the bill (largely due to Egypt’s closure of the Sinai/Gaza tunnels and to reduced levels of Iranian cash). Abbas must also know that his Western donors, especially the United States, will not give him the additional resources this would require. Why not? Because Congress will not vote funds to cover the Hamas payroll in general; and, worse yet, an estimated 13,000 of those “civil servants” in Gaza are policemen, many of whom double as members of Hamas’s terrorist forces — the Izzudin al-Qassam Brigade, which the U.S., UK, and EU all list as a terrorist organization. Nor is it likely that Arab donors with bail him out, for some of the richest — Saudi Arabia and the UAE — loathe the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is a part. That leaves Qatar, whose ties with Hamas and Abbas are close and supportive, as the only possible replacement donor. But Abbas will be reluctant to put his government so completely in Qatari hands, and the Qataris may not wish to be the sole support of the expensive PA and thereby to offend (yet again) their Gulf neighbors.
So what will Abbas do? One line of analysis says that Abbas genuinely wants this unity deal to work because it is his crowning achievement — national unity, and recovery of PA control over Gaza — and paves the way to elections and retirement. He would leave in a blaze of glory, having gotten Gaza back after losing control of it in 2007, and having healed the breach that split Palestine into two parts. That’s possible, but Abbas has talked about retirement year after year after year without leaving. An alternative theory is that he wants to be seen to be trying hard for an agreement with Hamas and for elections because that is popular with the Palestinian people, but he does not really want the deal to last or elections to be held.
To me it seems that the most likely outcome here is inertia: Abbas stays in office after the arrangement with Hamas breaks down. If the pressure for elections is very strong, he can hold them solely in the West Bank. Or put another way, he can say all Palestinians must vote; then Hamas will refuse to participate and will bear the burden of public criticism for that. But I am convinced the person most likely to be the Palestinian president one year from today is Mahmoud Abbas. And I would bet against Palestinian elections being held at all.
Meanwhile, Abbas must maintain the difficult balance he has in fact held since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death: partner of the Israelis in improving Palestinian economic life and fighting terrorism, while attacking the Israelis constantly for sins real and imagined. With negotiations dead for now, he will continue and enlarge his attack on settlement activity (even as construction beyond the Israeli security barrier, outside the “major blocs,” declines) and on the Israeli occupation. He will now face the U.N. question again: whether to seek membership in additional U.N. organizations, try to take Israel to the International Criminal Court, and rev up a diplomatic offensive. If the Hamas agreement tanks and there are no Israeli–Palestinian negotiations, it is predictable that he will do just this, in order to appear to be fighting back against Israel in the eyes of his constituents.
For Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the immediate question is how hard to hit Hamas now in Gaza. It seems that most targets in the West Bank have been rolled up (in the aftermath of the killing of the three teenagers), and Israeli security forces do not wish to disrupt Palestinian life there so much that they evoke huge protests and more violence. Gaza is a different story, and there the Israeli air force has been striking day after day in response to rocket fire. A ground operation into Gaza is not inconceivable, certainly if one of those rockets from Gaza hits a target like a school and there is considerable loss of life. Because the Gaza/Sinai border has largely been sealed by the Egyptians, rockets that Israel destroys cannot be easily replaced nowadays by Iran. This suggests that operations destroying large rocket caches are militarily fruitful, so the question is what size and duration of operation would be needed.
As of the July Fourth weekend, Egypt was acting as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, trying to get both sides to return to the previous understandings that Hamas would restrain rocket fire and Israel would undertake no ground operations. The Israelis were satisfied with that previous situation as the least-worst option, because they want to avoid a major ground incursion into Gaza and are not at all sure what would happen if they “overthrew” Hamas. They have no desire to occupy and run Gaza themselves, nor do they want a vacuum to be created that may allow al-Qaeda–linked jihadis to rise in power and influence. For them, a Hamas that is able and willing to keep the levels of rocket fire down — including by policing the activities of other Palestinian terrorist groups — is an outcome they can live with. But 60 rockets in two days fell on Israel this past Friday and Saturday, and that is a pace Israel will not tolerate.