While the announcement of a Fatah-Hamas unity pact on April 23 may seem to have come out of the blue, the resulting collapse of the U.S.-led peace talks was not as surprising.
The negotiations never really gained steam and, just over a month ago, they started their nosedive. Israel announced it would not release another group of prisoners by March 29 unless the Palestinian Authority agreed to extend talks beyond their April 29 deadline (which they did not). On April 1, Israel issued tenders for homes in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo and, the next day, the Palestine Liberation Organization central council applied for membership in 15 United Nations agencies/treaties. While settlement construction freezes were not a peace-talk commitment, the prisoner releases and abstention from international recognition attempts were concessions that each side offered before the talks began last July.
The day before the unity announcement, PA President Mahmoud Abbas had threatened to hand the West Bank over to Israel if peace talks failed. After the announcement, he said that a unity government under his charge would recognize Israel, accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and have Fatah in control of any weaponry/soldiers. Yet, on April 26, he demanded in return that Israel freeze settlement construction, free prisoners and begin border discussions.
On April 27, more developments. Abbas acknowledged the tragedy of the Holocaust and expressed sympathy for the families of the victims, while Hamas said that, actually, it would never accept Israel as a Jewish state. Also that Sunday, the PLO council decided to pursue membership in another 60-plus UN agencies/treaties. As well, the council refused to recognize Israel’s Jewish nature and demanded “a complete end to the occupation … the illegitimacy of settlements … and a refusal of land swaps,” when Abbas had indicated amenability to “limited land swaps.”
Israel’s cabinet made the decision on April 24 to suspend talks, not willing to deal with any government that included Hamas, a terrorist organization. However, there were dissenting opinions: Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua), Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) wanted to leave the door to negotiations open, even in the case of a unity government, if it adhered to the three conditions stipulated by the Quartet (the UN, United States, European Union and Russia): recognizing Israel, accepting previous agreements and renouncing terrorism. That said, Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home party doesn’t recognize the Palestinians’ right to a state and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud is deeply divided on the matter.
On Sunday, Netanyahu dismissed Abbas’ Holocaust comments as “damage control,” and said that Israel will look for alternative paths to peace, that he’s “not going to accept a stalemate.” On Tuesday, the Israeli government decided to use the tax funds it collects on behalf of the PA to pay debts owed to it by the PA, and was considering additional sanctions. To that date, Netanyahu had resisted calls from within Israel to unilaterally draw its own borders.
As the United States/U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry went from blaming Israel for reneging on the prisoner release, to blaming both sides for the troubles, to understanding why Israel wouldn’t want to deal with an organization that doesn’t believe in its right to exist in the first place, to viewing the end of talks as an expected “holding period where parties need to figure out what is next,” to using apartheid to describe a possible future Israel, their leadership of the negotiations floundered. Amid this flurry of activity, the EU issued a statement Sunday supporting Palestinian reconciliation as long as a unity government upheld nonviolence, was committed to a two-state solution and accepted Israel’s “legitimate right to exist.” On Monday, the Arab League blamed Israel for the failed talks.
In broad strokes, that’s where things stood at press time. What then are some of the concerns going forward? Analysts have pointed to many, including:
• Hamas may be agreeing to resign from power when the unity government is formed because they hope to win Palestinian public opinion and, eventually, the elections to rule over both Gaza and the West Bank.
• With peace talks off the table, Hamas won’t have to change its stance towards Israel if it forms a coalition with the PA.
• Without the talks, there may be increased violence in/from the West Bank and increased international efforts to boycott Israeli goods and institutions.
• The PA could collapse if the United States withdraws financial aid because of the reconciliation with Hamas, leaving Israel responsible for West Bank residents and the moral issues that entails, as well as more international criticism and the threat of a state in which Arabs will eventually outnumber Jews.
So, as Israel turns 66, it looks like a challenging year lies ahead. We can think of more than one wish to make as the candles are blown out.