Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Mahmoud Abbas in 2010/Getty Images
Israel’s decision today to suspend peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization, in response to yesterday’s Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, is really three distinct decisions. One is sensible. The second is understandable if questionable. The third is inexcusable.
The first decision is the actual suspension of talks, pending formation of the new Palestinian Authority government. The second is to suspend transfer of tax revenues that Israel collects on the Palestinians’ behalf, in retaliation for Palestinian actions. The third is to launch an international media campaign to “blacken the name” of PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas in international public opinion.
The first, suspending talks, sensibly reflects the gravity of the Palestinian step and the delicacy of Israeli domestic politics. Israel isn’t alone in viewing Hamas as a rejectionist, irridentist and terrorist organization; that’s the assessment of the international community.
The Middle East Quartet — the diplomatic partnership of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — laid out three conditions back in 2006 for Hamas participation in the diplomatic process: recognizing Israel, swearing off terrorism and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. To date it has met none of them. There have been unofficial trial balloons, never formally confirmed, about Hamas possibly accepting peaceful coexistence on some basis. And Hamas has largely observed a cease-fire across the Gaza border since taking a whipping in Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. But it has flatly refused to give up terror in principle, and the only thing preventing Hamas attacks in the West Bank, where no cease-fire exists, has been Israeli-PLO security cooperation.
Under the circumstances, then, it’s reasonable for Israel to suspend negotiations until it sees whether the new Palestinian unity government meets minimal international norms — in effect, whether unity means Hamas following Fatah toward coexistence or Fatah following Hamas toward endless war. It’s not merely reasonable — it’s the least Jerusalem can do to show its voting public that it’s doing its job.
The second Israeli decision, to suspend the monthly transfer of Palestinian tax revenues, is a longstanding tactic for retaliating over Palestinian provocations. It does seem to be useful as a political safety valve, to let the Israeli public know that their government is on its toes and not giving away the store. Like Palestinian-led boycotts of Israel, it’s a way to pressure (read: beat up on) the other side without actual bloodshed. Like those boycotts, its usefulness in encouraging Palestinian good-faith adherence is a lot less clear. Still more unclear is whether or not it’s legal under Israel’s signed agreements.
Israel agreed in its1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement with the PLO to collect certain VAT and import taxes on Palestinian transactions and transfer them to the PA in an orderly fashion. Given the poisonous relationship between the two partners, particularly at the level of public opinion on both sides, it’s understandable that the Israeli government would want some dramatic gesture that it could brandish to show voters that it knows how to hit back when provoked. But there’s nothing in the agreement permitting Israel to hold up the handover of the Palestinians’ own money as a way of expressing anger. Palestinian officials describe the practice as “piracy.” Unfortunately, there’s no accepted third-party adjudicator for these things. The United States considers the practice “unfortunate” but still hasn’t decided, 20 years on, whether the transfers are an Israeli “obligation,” as State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki acknowledged in an April 11 press briefing. That’s left Israel free to take that unilateral step over and over in the past.
Still, it’s the third part of today’s Israeli security cabinet decision, as reported in the Israeli press, that spells real danger. That’s the tentative plan, according to Ynet, Nana10 and other outlets, to “launch an international media campaign aimed at blackening the name” of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.
According to Nana10, steps being considered include “publishing statements linking Abu Mazen’s name to the former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The goal is to convince international public opinion that Abu Mazen is not a partner for peace.”
The problem with behavior like that is not simply that it’s a lie. Israeli officials, mainly on the right, have been lying about Abbas’s record for years, twisting, misinterpreting or outright fabricating his statements in an effort to refute his commitment to coexistence and a two-state solution. It hasn’t convinced anyone who wasn’t already convinced. Worse, it’s done a lot to undermine the credibility of Israel’s own commitment to peace. It raises suspicions that Israel wants to delegitimize its negotiating partner so it won’t have to negotiate and end up making truly painful compromises. The legitimacy of smearing your partner as a hardball negotiating tactic is at best dubious.
But to launch a new and stepped-up campaign right now, with the very prospect of peace hanging by a thread and internal Palestinian negotiations entering a critical and delicate phase, is to poison the well. It undermines Abbas’s negotiating position vis a vis Hamas by making him look like an Israeli punching bag. And it makes Israel look like it’s doing its best to kill any chance of returning to the table.
It’s highly unlikely that Hamas will agree between now and the end of the year to tear up its founding platform and formally embrace the principle of a Palestine partitioned into two states for two peoples. Militant religious movements don’t jettison their catechisms that fast. It is quite possible, however, that Abbas and his Fatah negotiators could obtain Hamas agreement to accept domestic portfolios in a unity government while Fatah holds the foreign affairs and security slots and handles peace negotiations with Israel. Some Hamas leaders have suggested such an arrangement in the past, with the understanding that if the negotiations produce an agreement and it’s approved in a Palestinian referendum, Hamas will accept the public’s will and live with it without endorsing it.
It’s not such a hard arrangement to understand. After all, Netanyahu heads up an Israeli government that hasn’t approved the two-state principle he himself says he embraces. Indeed, two of his coalition’s four parties, including Naftali Bennet’s HaBayit HaYehudi-Jewish Home party and Bibi’s own Likud, are formally, flatly opposed to Palestinian statehood. Put differently, they haven’t recognized the Palestinians or their right to a state. Bibi’s made it clear that he considers himself mandated to conduct negotiations toward a goal that his own party and a majority of his coalition oppose. If he’s as serious about peace as he says he is, he ought to be able to accept a Palestinian negotiating partner that operates under the same rules he does.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).