Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spent almost 12 hours in meetings to discuss Israel’s reaction to the decision of PA chairman Abu Mazen to suddenly bring Hamas into the equation of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The six hour security cabinet meeting was preceded by six hours of consultations at the prime minister’s office with army brass, senior intelligence officers and experts on Palestinians relations, who together, drafted the decision that was later approved by the cabinet.
The step that Abu Mazen’s moderate Palestinians took by joining with the extremist Hamas, to the extent of establishing a national unity government, did not leave Israel with too many options. It was clear that the Israeli government could not ignore the ringing slap in the face that Abu Mazen delivered. While in the middle of negotiations, he
suddenly fled to the terrorist group, which does not recognize Israel, is not willing to accept old Quartet decisions, and is actually preparing for election day to be able to extend Hamas control in Yehudah and Shomron as well.
The response was the necessary one. But Yerushalayim deliberated as to how intense it should be. There was one minister who raised suggestions that would have translated into the “liquidation of the continued rule of Abu Mazen,” something the other ministers rejected. Other ministers suggested imposing “far-reaching sanctions with teeth,” as they put it. But these proposals were also rejected.
The most moderate voice in these discussions was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who called on his colleagues not to take drastic measures. “We won’t gain anything from them,” he said.
The cabinet listened attentively to briefings by the head of the GSS, Yoram Cohen, and the head of the IDF Intelligence Unit, General Amir Kochavi. They both predicted that the chances of something real emerging from the dialogue between Abu Mazen and Hamas is minimal, and the conclusion that the ministers reached was that it is not worth taken radical steps. Nothing has yet been finalized between Abu Mazen and Ismail Haniyyeh.
Ultimately, based on what they heard, the cabinet took a moderate and measured decision, in Netanyahu’s view, of suspending Israel’s participation in the talks. In other words, they are not abandoning talks and slamming the door behind them, but rather telling the PA that if it retracts the agreement with Hamas it will be possible to go back to the talks from the point where they left off.
They cabinet also decided on a series of economic sanctions. They are not personal and not drastic. Here, too, the cabinet took into consideration requests by the Americans that Israel should make its decisions, but should not go all-out and cause everything to implode with absolute finality.
The Israeli reaction essentially says that Israel is not cutting off ties with the Palestinians. A message conveyed last night from Netanyahu to Abu Mazen stated that if he will suspend the reconciliation with Hamas, “everything will go back to the way it was.” But everyone knows that this is the end of this round of talks.
And the question that is inevitably being asked is, what now?
The possibility for a new round of violence becomes more likely, even though no one wants that to happen, not the Israelis, nor the Palestinians and senior Hamas figures. But the deterioration can come in a burst of violence from terror groups, mostly located in Gaza. It can begin with a terror attack followed by an Israeli response, and from there, things could get out of hand.
The Americans are conducting secret talks with both sides to prevent such a slide. “Display restraint,” John Kerry said when he called both Netanyahu and Abu Mazen last night. But he also knows that the two men do not always have control over what happens in the field. Kerry’s phone call was received in Israel with a measure of scorn. Most cabinet ministers believe that the Americans bear a significant share of the blame for the steps Abu Mazen took, especially since Kerry declared that Israel is the one to blame for the stagnation of the talks. This statement hastened Abu Mazen’s pivot towards Hamas.
It’s safe to assume that in the next few days, the Israeli sanctions will begin to bite on the Palestinian street, and then there will be more calls for a counter-reaction by the PA to Israel’s moves. An immediate reaction is liable to be the suspension of security cooperation with Israel. Israel is preparing for this, and has even increased the level of alert. The concern about attacks that terror groups will try to execute has also risen, and requires increased awareness, especially in busy places.
Furthermore, the sentiment in the Israeli government is that the PA did not fully consider the steps it has taken, and therefore, it is worthwhile to leave the door open in case they backtrack. However, it may quickly become clear that the PA is sticking to its position. Then Israel will have to ramp up the sanctions, which will spawn a Palestinian response, and the sides are likely to find themselves facing unexpected developments, mostly violent ones.
In the interim, Israel will have to discuss the question of all questions: Where do we go from here? What action should be taken? It is impossible to leave things as they stand now. There are those who will say that “unilateral steps” should be taken. But there are unilateral steps to the right and steps to the left, and both have supporters. The problem is that Israel does not have a stable government which knows how to organize a plan of action properly. And for the umpteenth time, the country will find itself facing chaos and things that no one wants because this government simply did not foresee events and did not prepare for them. The decisions made last night are also interim measures that are neither here nor there.