The Israeli response to news that Palestinian factions had achieved a unity agreement was predictably irritating. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu derided the agreement in stark terms, saying that the Palestinians had a choice of either “Peace with Israel or peace with Hamas”. His spokesperson reduced this bumper sticker rejection of Palestinian unity even further to “reconciliation or peace”.
What is, of course, galling is the assumption implicit in the prime minister’s framing of the matter, namely, that peace with his government is a real possibility that the Palestinians have now rejected. In reality, the Netanyahu government has shown no interest in moving toward peace — unless on terms they dictate and the Palestinians accept.
While feigning disappointment at this Palestinian move, Netanyahu must privately be delighted. The pressure he was feeling to deliver some “concessions” to the Palestinians in his upcoming speech to the U.S. Congress has now been relieved. He can now revert to old form, expressing a vague desire for peace while warning that there is now clear evidence that there is no Palestinian partner with whom he can work.
For his part, Netanyahu will now feel free to accelerate tensions with Gaza, raids in the West Bank, home demolitions in Jerusalem and proceed with settlement construction, as he pleases. His allies in Congress will do the rest. They will denounce Palestinian reconciliation and claim that they have no choice but to take steps to suspend U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
Nevertheless, what Fateh and Hamas have done in achieving their accord is important and should be supported. But two cautionary notes are in order: 1) They have merely announced an engagement — the wedding is scheduled down the road and the marriage will be fragile and subject to negative interference from obstructionists who will work hard to break it up; 2) the U.S. can be one of these home-wreckers (as we have been in the past) if the administration puts too much pressure on the Palestinians and/or supports Congress’ efforts to deny them needed aid.
Because Palestine remains a captive nation, it is not the master of its fate. Prime Minister Salam Fayyed has done a brilliant job of reorganizing the P.A.’s ministries and security forces and putting the Palestinians’ financial house in order. But Gaza remains under a near total blockade; Jerusalem and its environs (once the Palestinian metropol — its religious, cultural, educational, economic and social hub) have been severed from the rest of the West Bank; and the West Bank, itself, has been separated into little cantons with no access or egress to the outside world. As a result no real or sustainable economy can develop, leaving Palestinians dependent on Israel and foreign aid. To punish a captive people by denying them aid would be cruel and most unhelpful.
Given this dire situation, to suggest that the Palestinians must choose reconciliation or peace, when peace has not been, and is not now, an option, is nothing more than a disingenuous and cruel taunt.
What has been so very clear since the elections of 2006 was that the Palestinian polity had been fractured and was in disarray — with everyone behaving badly.
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