Beersheva, Israel — As Israel and Hamas worked with Egypt and the United States to broker a ceasefire during the long days of Operation Pillar of Defense, Israelis observed a strange irony.
Israel was talking to Hamas, albeit indirectly, at a time when the conversation about peace with its designated negotiating partner, the Palestinian Authority, has completely dried up.
In fact, the contact came as Israel-P.A. relations chilled further following several statements by the Foreign Ministry discrediting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel also was furious with the P.A. for a new statehood bid the Palestinians planned to make at the United Nations on November 29.
It was not the first time that Hamas’s strong-arm tactics had moved Israel to negotiate with it, via proxy. Most notably, Israel made the deal with Hamas to release Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners a little more than a year ago after long negotiations, again through Egypt.
Many analysts have suggested that by putting Hamas center stage and making the Western-backed P.A. seem like a bystander, Israel is hastening the P.A.’s demise and emboldening Hamas. The operation began just two weeks before the planned start of the P.A.’s statehood bid, but that bid has now been overshadowed on the Palestinian public agenda by the situation in Gaza.
“The bottom line is that Hamas is more relevant,” said Yoram Meital of Ben-Gurion University’s Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy. “Israel’s image is as the side that refused to pay the price for peace, and most Palestinians see Hamas’s ‘resistance’ as more attractive and up to date, and the Palestinian authority as somewhat not relevant.”
But here is the key question: How long will Hamas will be able to keep attention on Gaza and retain its new image as the party fighting the Palestinian people’s battle while the P.A. stands by?
Walid Ladadweh, public opinion expert at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, said that Hamas’s high popularity during the operation could decrease significantly in the weeks and months ahead if Abbas succeeds in his U.N. bid. “If Abbas has a good result, it will increase his strength,” Ladadweh said.