Why the Israeli response to the new Palestinian government has been so bizarre


Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas waves during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Palestinian unity government. The caption AFP filed with this photo says that he is "waving." To us, it looks more like he is either throwing his hands up in frustration or raising the roof.


Abbas Momani

JERUSALEM — Israel's leaders in the past few days have seemed to be working on a modification of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous foreign policy mantra: bellyache loudly and carry no stick.

Jerusalem's reaction to the formation Monday of an interim Palestinian unity government, a coalition of President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party and the extremist faction Hamas, categorized as a terror group by the West, has included a measure of scathing declarations and an equal measure of actual non-action.

The Israeli government gathered in an exceptional cabinet meeting Monday and deplored the establishment of the new government, issuing a number of threats such as the revoking of VIP passes for Palestinian ministers travelling between the West Bank, which is militarily controlled by Israel, and Gaza. Israel also reiterated a decision announced a few weeks ago, to withdraw from any negotiations with the Palestinian Authority as long as Hamas is a member of the coalition.

Right-wing Israeli ministers also denounced the United States over the State Department’s own, more cautious response — that the US, would continue to work with the new Palestinian Authority (which includes no Hamas ministers), "judging this technocratic government by its actions." 

Then on Thursday, Uri Ariel, Israel's housing minister, announced the issuance of 1500 tenders for construction in areas disputed between Israel and Palestine — a fitting response to the "Palestinian terror government," he said. Although US Ambassador Dan Shapiro quickly stated the US’s opposition to the move in a radio interview, later on Thursday Ariel moved ahead by announcing the "unfreezing" of 1800 previously permitted housing units, to be built in the West Bank. "When Israel is spat upon," he said, "it has to do something about it."

From reading about all this aggressive rhetoric, you’d never guess how mild Israel’s response has been when it comes to more concrete actions. Even as cabinet secretaries on the right were attacking the “naivete” of the US’s decision to continue working with the new Palestinian Authority, the fact of the matter was that Israel had not suspended its own ongoing contact with the Abbas government, either. It still has shown no signs of doing so.

And when it comes to the housing plans, issuing tenders and unfreezing permits does not a construction site make.

Decrying the "macho" but possibly hollow declarations, Ha'aretz political columnist Chemi Shalev wrote that the "cabinet’s naysaying is aimed at two audiences that appreciate it most: Israeli public opinion and Republican lawmakers who are eager for another Israel-centered spat with Obama." 

Shalev was referring to Republican demands for the immediate suspension of aid to Palestine, and, as midterms approach, another unresolved Obama administration foreign policy conundrum generating headlines such as "News Flash: American Taxpayers Now Paying the Salaries of Palestinian Terrorists" (a reference to the aid money that goes to the Palestinian Authority). 

Israel’s double-speak on the new unity government has not gone unnoticed. Following Israeli criticism of the US position, the Obama administration lashed out at Israel's inconsistency, pointing out that Israel transferred 500 million shekels to the Palestinian Authority on the very day the new coalition was announced.

"It is unclear to us why some in the Israeli political leadership are staking out such a hard line public position that is fundamentally at odds with their own actions,” a senior White House official told Haaretz. While attacking Washington, the official said, Israel maintainsits “robust coordination” with Palestinian security forces.

The most conspicuous example of Jerusalem's bizarre duality may be the upcoming summit, on Sunday at the Vatican, between Israeli President Shimon Peres, Israel's head of state but not a member of the government, and Abbas, who will meet for a "prayer for peace."  

The contrast is all the more jarring because as no less a figure than Israel’s head of state prepares for these peace prayers, no less a figure than Israel’s head of government has been on a very public attack campaign. Monday, Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, posted a sequence of bombastic tweets which included an image of Osama Bin Laden:  "Hamas' leader condemned the killing of Bin Laden" the image read, and, beneath, "This is President Abbas's new partner."

Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, told GlobalPost the message "is part of making people aware of who Hamas really is."

Asked whether the government believes "people" are unaware of the nature of Hamas, an organization known for dispatching waves of suicide bombers to attack Israeli civilians during the Second Intifada, Regev said "people might not be aware of the praise of Bin Laden. We wanted to make sure people do know about that."

For Abbas, the announcement of a temporary unity government is a huge political victory he has sought since 2006, when Hamas beat out his movement, Fatah, to gain a majority of the Palestinian Legislative Council. In August, 2007, Hamas seized military control of the Gaza strip and for all practical purposes withdrew from the Palestinian government in Ramallah, splitting the already tiny Palestine into two.

Abbas, who is 79, and who continues to rule five years after the formal end of his presidential term, can now once again claim to be the president of all Palestine — and hope to obviate disquiet among his own ranks of impatient followers.

Hamas, for its part, has for the past several years been in dire financial straits, having lost its funding due to a string of political events out of its own control: it spilt with its traditional sponsor, Iran, when choosing to support the Syrian rebels fighting against Bashar Assad, then lost its ideological big brother when Egypt's Islamic Brotherhood was swept from power in a military takeover last summer.

In recent months, Hamas was unable to pay public workers their salaries. 

But the deal is far from done, and on Thursday, cracks were already visible. Brawls broke out in Gaza when Hamas operatives blocked the entrance of Palestinian Authority workers into banks, and the civil servants were prevented from collecting paychecks.

At the same time, Fatah officials, sweeping into Gaza to retake the ministries, were quick to rid their offices of the Hamas personnel who have run them for the past seven years. 

The fact remains that Hamas and Fatah have little in common — and that may be why Israel, though complaining vociferously, is not taking stronger, concrete steps: It doesn’t believe the coalition will last. Whereas Fatah is openly pursuing a peace deal with Israel as a route to sovereign statehood, Hamas still stands for "armed resistance."

It is quite possible that the unity deal, for now held together by threads the strength of cobwebs and political necessity, will finally prove as fleeting as Israel's loud rumblings, or what Ha'aretz describes as "Netanyahu's diplomatic meltdown."