Peacemaking, Palestinian Style

The question of whether there is a partner for peace in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has occupied Israelis for years. Even when negotiations were taking place, it hung like a huge question mark over everything.

Is there really anybody there to talk to? Does Mahmoud Abbas truly seek an end to the hatred and bloodshed of decades, or is he merely maneuvering to appease western backers and wear down the Israelis? Even if he would sign an agreement, would it mean anything? Would the Palestinians abide by the terms of a final status accord, or would it be a temporary arrangement, setting the stage for yet more terrorism, until their version of final status — elimination of the state of Israel — can be achieved? And if Abbas is sincere in this search for peace, what of Hamas, which continues to proclaim at every opportunity its intention to drive the Jews out of the land?

The question of a partner came up again just this week, when the recently elected chairman of the Israeli Zionist Camp party, Avi Gabbay, said that in his conversations with various politicians and government officials, there is about an even split between those who believe there is a Palestinian peace partner and those who don’t. (Ironically, he noted, security officials were more likely to say there is a partner.)

Gabbay did not discuss the co-called Palestinian unity government in this context, but the attempt to make peace between Hamas and Fatah ought to shed light on the prospects of peace with Israel.

The Israeli security cabinet on Tuesday issued a statement reflecting well-grounded skepticism about Palestinian intentions:

“Pursuant to previous decisions, the Israeli government will not politically negotiate with a Palestinian government in which Hamas, a terrorist organization calling for the annihilation of Israel, takes part, so long as the following conditions are not met,” the Prime Minister’s Office said. Several conditions were listed, including disarming Hamas and the return of bodies of IDF soldiers and living Israeli civilians held for years by the terrorist rulers of Gaza.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was quoted as saying that the Palestinian unity government will make the search for peace harder. The fact that Abbas’ Palestinian Authority is willing to coalesce with a group that persists in seeking the destruction of Israel must say something about whether he is a true partner for peace. Certainly, in the view of the security cabinet, there is no partner for peace as matters currently stand.

Indeed, one might ask if there is even a partner for peace between the Palestinian factions themselves. The agreement signed in Cairo (with the Egyptian mediators no doubt guiding the hands of the signatories along the dotted lines) already shows signs of disintegrating.

On Tuesday, Hamas complained bitterly that the PA has not yet lifted economic sanctions on Gaza as promised. At the first PA meeting since the Cairo signing, the matter of allowing money for electricity and Hamas employee salaries to flow once again was not even on the agenda in Ramallah. And disarmament of Hamas terrorists, without which Israel will not consider talking to the unity government, remains uncertain, apparently something deferred until the eventual “final status” talks between Fatah and Hamas. In the meantime, Hamas insists it will not disarm, one of the few things that can be relied upon in this dubious process.

As a number of analysts have observed, the chances of survival of this unity government are not high. It is likely to meet the same demise as several previous attempts at bringing these sworn enemies together. The whole process may have been staged to serve ulterior motives, having more to do with Abbas’ struggle to stay in power and Egyptian ambitions to increase their regional influence, than any genuine desire for unity. Otherwise, it is hard to understand how they could have signed the agreement, only to turn right around and bicker over its main points.

The questions that the world community should be asking are: If the existence of a partner for peace within the Palestinian reconciliation process itself is unlikely at best, what are the prospects that these irreconcilables can work together as partners to achieve peace with Israel? And what does the post-signing ruckus say about the value of Palestinians’ signatures on a political agreement?