Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed his cabinet ministers to stick to a single message regarding the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, Israel’s Channel 10 News reports on its Nana-10 website. The message: “there is no possible positive component in the reconciliation agreement.” That’s right:Cabinet ministers are forbidden even to speculate on any conceivable upside.
You can tell he cares about this, because he rarely makes any effort to rein in his cabinet. His foreign minister, alert readers recall, got up in front of the United Nations General Assembly last fall and laid out a foreign policy vision radically at odds with the prime minister’s, including exchanges of population in a future peace agreement, which he said was decades away. He didn’t even get a slap on the wrist—just a laconic statement from Bibi’s office that the prime minister, not the foreign minister, articulates the country’s foreign policy. Which is a weird thought in itself. Moreover, the interior minister repeatedly attacked the settlement construction freeze that the prime minister had imposed last year.
So this is something Bibi cares about. Unlike gestures toward peace which he makes in response to American pressure, and which his ministers attack mercilessly without consequences. He really doesn’t want it suggested that there could possibly be an upside to the Palestinian reconciliation agreement.
It’s not like he can keep the lid on things forever. Abu Mazen, a.k.a. Mahmoud Abbas, has said repeatedly in the last few days that he, not Hamas, is in charge of foreign policy, that he still wants to negotiate and make peace with Israel, he still sees Bibi as his partner. He’s even said that the pact calls for elections in a year; if Fatah wins, it should end Hamas control of Gaza. Bibi can’t keep that from the Israeli public, but maybe he can prevent his ministers from smiling when they hear it.
Well, maybe you can’t keep Abu Mazen’s words totally concealed from the public, but you sure can try. David Bedein, an American-born settler activist and head of what he calls the Israel Resource News Agency (and very nice guy and good friend when he’s not talking politics), sent out a mass email tonight furiously attacking the JTA for its report on what Abu Mazen is saying. He’s mad that JTA reported the news without spinning like a good Jew should.
David complains that JTA’s “tendentious” headline, “Abbas: Palestinians, despite unity pact, will still talk peace,” “does not indicate what Abbas, the PA or Fatah communicates to the Palestinian people… after Abbas concluded a terror alliance with Hamas, whose genocidal ideology remains unchanged.” He continues: “Is there any outlet of the Jewish media that would like to know what Abbas, the PA and Fatah are really saying at this time? If so, our agency is ready to provide that coverage.” Strangely, he doesn’t indicate anything they’re saying that’s any different. You’d think if he had anything, he would share at least a snippet to whet our appetites.
Regardless, the idea that a news agency is to be condemned for reporting the news is scary. Abbas did say it. It’s been reported all over the Israeli press: Ynet , Haaretz , Maariv , the Jerusalem Post (which, speaking of tendentious headlines, titles its piece “Abbas hints peace talks still possible”—emphasis mine—which is a misleading way to report Abbas’s flat-out, straightforward declaration), and even the settler radio website Arutz 7-Israel National News (which also has this followup piece quoting some Fatah back-bencher denying peace talks will continue and thus “putting the lie” to Abu Mazen). So everybody is carrying the same story, mostly with the same headline. How is JTA possibly at fault for reporting the same news everyone else is reporting?
Answer: It’s not, but if you fling enough of this sort of mud in an email blast, some of it will stick. Some donor or federation leader somewhere is certain to see Bedein’s piece, assume that there must be some important bit of information out there that JTA left out, and get mad at JTA and maybe inflict some financial pain. This stuff works, unfortunately. Most American Jews who get JTA news through their local community weekly don’t look at Israeli outlets. (Those who do, mostly look at the JPost. Do we detect a pattern?). So if they happen to come across Bedein’s blast, they’ll have no way of knowing that JTA’s reporting is pretty much identical to every Israeli news organization from left to right.
Of course, it would be foolish to rule out the possibility that the possible upsides won’t pan out. It’s clearly possible that Hamas could come out on top of this arrangement, which would be a very bad thing. Bibi and his minions are not wrong to worry about that. But it’s also quite possible that Fatah could come out on top. [Abu Mazen told] a visiting group of Israelis the other day, Galei Zahal reports , that the unity government will have exactly two tasks and two tasks only: rebuilding Gaza and planning elections in a year’s time.
If Fatah wins the election, it will control both the West Bank and Gaza, which will remove Hamas from the game and lift a major obstacle to a peace agreement. But that’s the sort of possibly positive outcome that cannot be discussed. Now, here’s the problem: If Hamas wins, it controls the whole enchilada.
Is there a way to affect the outcome? Of course. Hamas’s biggest beef with Fatah is its policy of negotiating peace with Israel. So far Fatah hasn’t been able to show much for its policy, which partly accounts for the popularity of Hamas. (I know—corruption, religious fundamentalism etc. also play a role. I said partly .) You might think that Israel would be gearing up to cut Fatah some slack at this crucial moment in order to boost its popularlity in advance of the elections. But noooo. It almost seems as though Bibi wants Hamas to win. A Hamas victory would remove a lot of the international pressure for a compromise peace agreement, but it would also cost a lot of Israeli lives. Bibi couldn’t possibly be headed intentionally in that direction, could he?
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).