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Think Small, Not Big

How Israel should respond to the Fatah-Hamas merger.

The joint Fatah-Hamas statement in Cairo this week announcing an impending agreement between the two leading Palestinian factions has caught nearly everybody off their guard. Israel has reacted in consternation; Washington provided a knee jerk retort that Hamas would have to agree to a three prong set of conditions for acceptance into the fold, including recognition of Israel's right to exist; and Palestinian public opinion has been engulfed by a mixture of euphoria, disbelief, and confusion over a host of contradictory statements by Hamas and Palestinian Authority figures.

It is not yet certain that this political marriage will be consummated—strong pressure will most likely be exerted from Washington and Jerusalem in the days that follow to foil it—and yet it also seems possible that an entirely new situation is being created before our very eyes. So what has changed, why did it change, and what should Israel do about it?

Fatah’s decision undoubtedly reflects its understanding that Hamas represents a legitimate and powerful part of the Palestinian people. Abbas said as much out loud to a group of Israelis he met in Ramallah on Thursday. He has come to realize that he cannot go it alone in his march to Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly meeting this September; he does not have the mandate of his people for doing so without getting Hamas on board and the oppressive measures he has employed against the group in the West Bank have not produced results. What’s more, his major supporter in the Arab world, Hosni Mubarak, is gone and the new Egyptian powers that be have welcomed Hamas leaders with open arms. And Abbas had long concluded that barring a tectonic change in Israeli politics, Prime Minister Netanyahu was not intent on signing a permanent peace treaty under terms that Abbas believes he could accept.

Hamas, for its part, has sustained serious military setbacks in its confrontation with Israel and is far from anxious to savor another round of intense fighting. The events in Syria, meanwhile, have sounded a shrill alarm in Gaza—if Bashar Assad were to fall, there is no knowing if his successor would enjoy continuing to play host to Hamas’s headquarters in Damascus. Nearly overnight, Hamas has experienced a deep foreboding of vulnerability. Moreover, should Abbas triumph at the UN Assembly in September and get overwhelming support for recognition of a Palestinian State, Hamas would dearly like to share the glory for such an historic achievement.

In short, both Fatah and Hamas have reached the point where their relative weaknesses have drawn them to try and pool their resources and launch a new ball game, to set a new agenda for the Israel-Palestinian dispute to their mutual benefit.

Egypt, too, has seized the initiative by providing the venue for this fresh development. This is a new Egypt that has found an issue where it can reassert itself not only as a broker but as an emerging fresh and clean player that effectively influences both sides of the Palestinian political scene. Given that it does not wish to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel, Egypt will most probably try and engage with Israel in an effort to reach accommodations in Gaza that will serve its own security interests in the strip, whilst concurrently enhancing its political prestige in the Arab world.

So what should Israel do? At first glance it appears to be bereft of major policy alternatives except for hunkering down until pressure succeeds in dividing the Palestinians once again. Netanyahu’s preliminary reaction points in that direction. Hamas is a terrorist organization publicly committed to the destruction of Israel, the reasoning goes, and if it is now partnered to Fatah, neither is an eligible partner for Jerusalem.

But this logic is all wrong. Should this policy succeed, or should the United States apply unprecedented pressure on the Palestinian Authority until the Authority caves in and reneges on its agreement with Hamas, what prestige if any would it be left with to negotiate with Israel? And should the pressure fail to produce any result and Abbas were to be cast off as unworthy of any further support, who then will Israel negotiate with?

Fortunately, instead of hunkering down, there is another option available to Israel: to aim for a small step forward, namely the establishment of a Palestinian state within provisional borders—i.e., in part of the West Bank and Gaza—rather than the negotiation of a final settlement. Never before has the danger of moving to a permanent paradigm been so acute. Should it fail, the parties will be plunged into chaos. Once you go for the jugular and fail, there is nothing left but a void.

The establishment of provisional borders instead is not a perfect solution, but it does have certain virtues. It permits Hamas to get on board (the group has long been on record supporting a Palestinian state with provisional borders), and it permits Israeli public opinion to savor an arrangement that does not entail total capitulation. The key here will be for both sides to give up on the long-held notion that a final settlement is within reach, and instead set more modest goals for themselves.

Why would the parties settle for this second-best option? For the Palestinians, the alternative of arriving at “no solution” and the impossibility of implementing their preference by sheer force will only lead to dissolution and chaos in the West Bank and the disappearance of the Palestinian dream for a long time to come. For the Israelis, a “no solution” will lead toward a bi-national state with a future Palestinian majority—or a state where the current democratic system becomes unsustainable. For both sides, therefore, in the final analysis, half a loaf is better than none.

Efraim Halevy is the head of the Shasha Center for Strategic Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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