More articles by
Yacov Ben Efrat
Netanyahu Stonewalls a Changing World
n the evening of Wednesday April 27, immediately after the Fatah-Hamas rapprochement was announced, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a message demanding that the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, choose between “peace with Hamas or peace with Israel.” The Fatah-Hamas deal included agreement on the formation of a non-partisan government whose role will be to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections within a year. It caught everyone by surprise, perhaps even the signatories, but Netanyahu’s response was tediously predictable. Like all his previous announcements, it didn’t really aim to persuade the Palestinians that Israel is seeking peace, for the simple reason that, apparently, Israel is not seeking peace.
The policy of this government since it was established can be summed up with a single word – prevention. That’s why Avigdor Lieberman was appointed foreign minister and Ehud Barak defense minister. Israel is hunkering in, and its main aim is to prevent the foe from approaching the gates of an agreement. There are many such foes: apart from its sworn enemies (above all Iran), the whole world today is viewed as hostile, and any ploy is permitted in vanquishing this terrible enemy. One of the most prominent foes is of course US President Barack Obama, who dared to set a timeframe for reaching an agreement and who demanded, in preparation for this, that construction of settlements be stopped. Starring on the list of Israel’s other enemies are the Turkish prime minister, EU the leaders and all Latin American countries that have recognized the Palestinian state. Iran is the ultimate excuse, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself assists Netanyahu in achieving his main goal: to preserve the coalition and the pleasures of office.
Netanyahu’s policy of prevention worked quite well until the beginning of this year, backed up by covering activities such as the Bar-Ilan speech, temporary injunctions against settlement construction, and continuous whispers in the ears of world leaders about Israel’s readiness for painful concessions and the lack of a serious partner. But in Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi ran out of patience and decided, with no connection to Netanyahu, to immolate himself – thus setting the entire region ablaze. Netanyahu looks around and tries to find reinforcements, to continue his story of the region’s instability, and how it’s impossible to trust the Arabs, and how he and his government are stable and tolerable, an important asset to the West and to civilization. But this time the world is unimpressed.
Netanyahu had a large part in creating this “instability.” It was he who put his friends in the Arab world to shame, those same friends who came under heavy criticism for ignoring the horrors of the war on Gaza or the weekly evils inflicted by Israel's army on civilians protesting the separation wall. It was Netanyahu who propelled Abbas (Abu Mazen) into Hamas’ arms. For months Abbas stood like a jester in the market square, committed to a peace agreement that was obsolete. And thus, after our best man Mubarak was brought down, Abbas had no choice but to adapt to a new reality.
The agreement between Fatah and Hamas has not been reached for love of Palestine, but because the two factions had no choice. When Mubarak fell, Hamas and Iran celebrated, while Abbas went into shock. But the lesson from Mubarak’s downfall was well learned: their position on Israel does not make those dictatorships immune. While Bashar al-Assad’s regime totters, Hamas understands that the times have changed and that it can no longer count on Syria, its main backer. (Indeed, how can Hamas maintaining its moral standing in the eyes of the Palestinians, if its leader remains in Damascus under the protection of a dictator who massacres his own people?) The nations of the region are sick of America, but they are equally sick of Iran. Likewise in the occupied territories, in Gaza and the West Bank, the youth protested against both Fatah and Hamas, demanding an end to the national schism that even reached actual civil war.
It is not clear what will become of the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. The Palestinian Authority relies on massive American economic and security aid, without which it could not survive, while Hamas relies on Iran. They hold completely different worldviews, and it’s hard to imagine how they will manage together under one roof. However, the changes in the region are so radical, and public opinion so resolute, that even they understand that if they don’t pull together, some third party will arise in the spirit of the Arab spring.
Egypt plays a leading role in the Palestinian arena. While Mubarak’s Egypt did all it could to prevent reconciliation, supporting the siege on Gaza, and demanded Hamas’ unconditional surrender, the new Egypt is leading a process more in keeping with the uprising. Hamas’ flexibility does not stem only from the shakiness of its main ally Syria, but also from changes in its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
When, with Obama’s approval, the Muslim Brotherhood became a leading ally of the military council ruling Egypt, a new political reality arose which pointed the way to changes within Hamas. As a way of getting into the political arena, the Brotherhood agreed to respect the peace treaty with Israel, and it will not endanger its position just to satisfy the whims of Hamas or maintain its Islamic emirate in the Gaza Strip. With all due respect to Hamas and the resistance movement against Israel, Egypt's standing is more important to the Brotherhood.
While working on the reconciliation with Hamas, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi announced his intention to visit Israel. There is more than one explanation for this announcement: firstly, it may signify continuing recognition of Israel and commitment to the Camp David accords; secondly, a declaration clarifying that the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is not aimed against Israel; thirdly, and most significantly, the new foreign minister will want to talk with Netanyahu about the changing Middle East, to tell him about the Arab uprisings and their importance. He will want to tell Netanyahu that everything depends on him, that the “instability” creates a golden opportunity for deep change in the region, to isolate Iran and bring the Islamic movement to heel. In short, al-Arabi wants to put the ball in Netanyahu’s court, to make him decide whether he wants to integrate into the region or whether he prefers opposition and isolation.
If Netanyahu wishes, he can be party to creating a new political-security regime, in which all the factions active in the region can participate – the remains of regimes that have fallen, the urban liberal classes that are leading the uprisings, and the Islamic opposition. If Netanyahu declines, he can’t expect the new regimes to act with the same stupidity as those that fell. The new regimes will not be able to cooperate with the Occupation, the siege on Gaza, the separation wall and the settlements. It may be that the new democracies will manage to convince Europe, perhaps even the US, to compel Israel to adjust itself to the changes in the region.
Israel has wasted time for years, and now its time has run out. Time, as is well known, is a valuable commodity, and it doesn’t run backwards – what’s done cannot be undone. Yitzhak Rabin will not be returning. Neither will Yasser Arafat or Mubarak, and it seems that Assad is going the way they went too. Things change, even if dictators, or simple politicians like Netanyahu, refuse to acknowledge this.
Israel’s policy since the Oslo Accords has always been an attempt to postpone the end and avoid having to decide on two central issues: the settlements and Jerusalem. But the end has come and the question has arisen in all its urgency. Egypt has changed, Syria is changing, and Iran is on the way to change. Only one regime still remains that refuses to change, and insists on maintaining Apartheid policies dividing Arabs from Jews, the checkpoints, the roads for Jews alone, and the settlements in the heart of occupied territory. This is an anachronism that has lost its raison d’être. We recommend that Netanyahu listen closely to what the Egyptian foreign minister has to say.
- Translated by Yonatan Preminger