Israel Defends Boycott of Unity Government

By Orly Halpern

Published March 23, 2007, issue of March 23, 2007.
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Jerusalem - Just days after Palestinians formed a new unity government between the moderate Fatah and militant Hamas parties, Israel this week found itself struggling to defend an international boycott of the Palestinians that was rapidly crumbling.

Last Sunday, March 18, one day after the new Palestinian government was sworn in, Israel’s Cabinet voted to reaffirm the yearlong boycott of the Palestinian Authority, imposed after Hamas won a legislative election in 2006 and took control of the authority. At the same time, other nations renewed their links to the Palestinian Authority and growing numbers of Israelis demanded that their own government do the same.

“The platform of the new government includes very problematic elements that cannot be acceptable to Israel or the international community,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said.

The economic and diplomatic quarantine was imposed on the Hamas-led Palestinian government last year by the international negotiating group known as the Quartet — comprising the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — until the Palestinians agree to recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and pledge to uphold existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements. The unity government, brokered by Saudi Arabia last month, does not recognize Israel and agrees only to “respect” past agreements.

The Israeli Cabinet vote was not unanimous, however. Two ministers abstained, while a third, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, called on Olmert to open peace talks with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is not tied to Hamas. Speaking at a military ceremony the next day, Peretz elaborated his dissent, saying Israel “must initiate diplomatic moves with the Palestinian Authority and not just react.”

A fourth Cabinet member, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, spoke out after the Cabinet meeting, telling reporters that Israel should agree to talk with Palestinian ministers who are not tied to Hamas — including the finance minister, Salam Fayad, and the foreign minister, Ziad Abu Amr, both of whom are considered political independents.

Outside the government, Israel’s two most influential newspapers, Yediot Aharonot and Ha’aretz, both editorialized in favor of opening talks with the new Palestinian government. Yediot called the refusal to negotiate Israel’s “biggest diplomatic mistake in generations.”

In the eyes of the world, Yediot declared, “Israel appears stubborn and uncompromising. The Palestinian government, on the other hand, appears a model of conciliation, moderation and pragmatism.” The only answer, the newspaper editorialized, is, “briefly and concisely: negotiations with Hamas.”

Public opinion appeared to be following the editorialists’ lead. A Yediot poll published Tuesday indicated that 56% of respondents favored talking with Palestinian ministers, with 19% backing talks with non-Hamas ministers and 39% favoring talks with the Hamas-led government itself. Forty percent were opposed to talks.

Haaretz’s chief military analyst, the widely respected Ze’ev Schiff, took the argument one step further. In a column published Monday he suggested that Israel should embrace the standing Hamas offer of a long-term cease-fire. While Hamas would surely use the respite to rearm, he wrote, Israel could use the time to rebuild its domestic morale and international standing and develop new tactics if fighting were to break out down the road.

The government hit back hard against its critics. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev told reporters that drawing distinctions among the Palestinian ministers was futile. “Moderates in the Palestinian government cannot be fig leaves” for Hamas and its “extremist” platform, he said. “It is one government, with one platform and one prime minister.”

At least as worrying for Olmert and his aides were the cracks that began to appear this week in the international front he had so carefully assembled against the Hamas government over the past year.

The first to break ranks was Norway, which sent its deputy foreign minister, Raymond Johansen, to meet this week in Gaza with the Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, thus signaling an end to the boycott. French, Russian, and Swedish diplomats are expected to follow in Johansen’s footsteps.

Talks among European capitals were focused on finding a new formula for the European Union as a whole that would accept the new Palestinian government’s platform, even though it fails to meet the three conditions set down by the diplomatic Quartet last year, diplomats said. One formula being discussed would accept the unity government as having “reflected” the international conditions, even if it did not endorse them. “Accepting the principles [of the Quartet] is a process, not an event,” one Western diplomat said.

Even the Bush administration appeared to be taking a page from the European playbook and breaking ranks with Olmert. In Jerusalem, the American consul general, Jacob Walles, whose responsibilities include contact with the West Bank, met this week with the Palestinian finance minister, Fayad.

A flurry of discussions in European and Arab capitals this week was said by diplomats to be focusing on how to transfer funds to the new government and to re-establish ties with some or all of the new Palestinian ministers. Indirect talks between Hamas and European officials began months ago with several European states, including France, promising an end to the economic siege were a unity government formed, a Hamas official said in December.

“Now things have shifted from how the Palestinians deal with the other side of the world, to how the outside world deals with Palestinians,” said Nicholas Pelham, a senior analyst with the Belgian-based think-tank International Crisis Group.

Palestinian officials said that the European thaw was not merely a sudden response to the formation of the unity government, but followed weeks of preparatory diplomacy.

The work was effectively divided between East and West, the officials said, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas making the rounds of European capitals while Hamas’s political bureau chief, Khaled Mashaal, undertook a whirlwind tour of Russia and Arab and Muslim states. Earlier this week Mashaal called on the Arab states to transfer the aid money promised a year ago at the Arab summit in Khartoum. The subject will be a key issue on the agenda of the upcoming Arab League Summit in Riyadh next week.

“The public discourse has shifted drastically,” said a Palestinian adviser to Abbas who was not authorized to speak on the record. “But will this lead to peace negotiations? I’m not sure. There is interest in place for having a process for process’s sake. Unfortunately, results are needed — and if not achieved it will likely mean condemning future generations of Palestinians and Israelis to conflict and bloodshed.”

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