by Mitchell Plitnick
The Palestinian Authority installed its unity government today. The responses have been as telling as they were expected.
For Palestinians, the development is welcomed news, but it’s being greeted with caution. Palestinians have seen unity proposals collapse before and, while this one has gone further in terms of implementation than any of the preceding efforts, it is still far from certain that this attempt will succeed. The response this elicits from Israel, the US, the EU and other parties will also have a lot to do with whether this unity move will improve the lives of Palestinians in the short-term. Unity has long been the top priority of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, but they’ve been disappointed too many times to rejoice before the reunification is more certain.
Israel, not surprisingly, rejected any cooperation with the new Palestinian government out of hand. Demonstrating once again how weak Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas really is, the one thing they will happily continue is security coordination, which Abbas called a “sacred” and untouchable arrangement. This one piece of leverage Abbas has is admittedly problematic; a breakdown of security in the West Bank is a much greater threat to the Palestinian Authority than to Israel. Still, Abbas did not need to guarantee that he would never play this card. He has, apparently, still not learned that attempts to reassure Israelis fall on deaf ears.
Beyond that, Israel has already taken steps to punish the Palestinians for daring to address the frequent Israeli complaint that Abbas is not the legitimate representative of all Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not stand for Abbas challenging one of his talking points, so he has once again threatened to withhold the taxes that Israel collects for the PA (taxes Israel does not own must collect on the Palestinians’ behalf in order to control the flow of goods in and out of the territories it occupies). He has threatened other, unspecified punitive measures as well.
Netanyahu has also appealed to world leaders, asking them not to recognize the Palestinian unity government. It’s worth taking a moment to look at Netanyahu’s case, made in his remarks just before Sunday’s meeting of the Israeli Cabinet.
“I call on all responsible elements in the international community not to run to recognize a Palestinian government of which Hamas is a part or which rests on Hamas,” said Netanyahu. “Hamas is a terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel, and the international community must not embrace it. This will not strengthen peace; it will strengthen terrorism.”
However accustomed we might be to hypocrisy in politics, in international affairs and in the Israel-Palestine conflict, this is still worth considering. Because, you see, Netanyahu leads the Likud coalition. Likud was formed by several parties coming together, the primary one having been the Herut party. Herut, in turn, was formed from the remnants of the terrorist group, the Irgun Z’vai Leumi (National Military Organization, often referred to simply as the Irgun or Etzel, or shortened to IZL), which was led by Menachem Begin.
The Irgun is most notorious for the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 and the massacre of over 100 innocent men, women and children in Deir Yassin, which was destroyed in 1948. These were only the most well-known out of a long list of attacks perpetrated by the Irgun. Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, and more than two dozen prominent Jews of the day denounced Herut and Menachem Begin in a letter to the New York Times on December 4, 1948, describing Herut as, “…a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.”
We are talking about Likud’s roots here. And Herut was the fourth-largest party in the first Knesset, elected mere weeks after the Times letter was published. Harry Truman had no reluctance in recognizing that government. Nor did Jimmy Carter have a problem recognizing Israel’s election of Begin in 1977. Nor have either George W. Bush or Barack Obama had a problem with Likud’s official position of rejecting a two-state solution, a condition that Hamas has repeatedly been pressured to accept just to be a part of a government. And that is also a crucial point: these various modes of acceptance allowed Herut and Likud to be a central part of Israeli decision-making, eventually even leading the government. The current Palestinian pseudo-government (let us remember that no matter its composition, the Palestinian Authority is misnamed because it has very little substantive authority) remains without a meaningful legislative body until elections are held and the governmental posts that are being assigned are being given to technocrats with no party affiliation. Thus, Hamas as a party is not in a position to change the PA’s positions, at least not yet.
All in all, the double standard is remarkable, albeit hardly surprising. And why shouldn’t Netanyahu pursue it? After all, it’s quite clear after all this time that no one he cares about, particularly America and Europe, is going to call him on it.
For its part, the U.S. is taking a wait-and-see approach. According to reports, Secretary of State John Kerry assured Netanyahu several days ago that the U.S. will not immediately recognize the new Palestinian government. While that may still be strictly true, the United States has since announced that it will work with the new PA and will not be cutting any funds. Of course, Netanyahu wanted a lot more. He surely would have preferred that the Obama administration adopt the Israeli stance of boycotting the new government.
But U.S. law, based on the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, passed by Congress to help scuttle the only Palestinian national elections in 2006, requires a halt to aid and most other forms of contact between the U.S. and the Palestinians if Hamas gains control of any ministry of the PA, or the PA itself. Since neither is the case right now, the Obama administration is not forced to act. Politically, though, this issue is more complicated.
No doubt Kerry and Obama are biding their time, waiting to see what they will face in Congress if they fully accept the current government, and to see whether Congress will vote to cut off or reduce aid to the PA, as some have threatened, in the wake of the unity government’s formation. It’s not like there’s much of a rush; the U.S. remains on its so-called “pause” in engagement on the issue. And, at least theoretically, this is a short-term interim government. The issue will arise again if elections, which have yet to be scheduled, are held. It remains to be seen, of course, whether the unity government will even last that long.
But the U.S. response probably indicates that, for their part, Obama and Kerry agree with the leader of Israel’s left-wing Meretz party, Zehava Gal-On, who said: “The unity between Hamas and Fatah is essential. [Abbas will be turned] into the president of all Palestinians…on the condition that the new government will recognize the state of Israel, recognize previous agreements and stop violence and terrorism.” The crucial distinction in Gal-On’s statement is that the Palestinian government would maintain its current commitments, rather than requiring Hamas to abide. Obama will also want to know how much trouble Congress will cause him now that he has declined to terminate contacts with the new PA.
After all, who would want Netanyahu and Likud, whose party platform explicitly rejects a Palestinian state, to be held to the same standard as Hamas?
Photo: A Palestinian protests against the Israeli Wall and confiscation of the land of Bilíin, a village near the central West Bank city of Ramallah, April 4, 2008, with Israeli troops watching him in the distance. Credit: Zack Baddorf/Zuma Press/IPS