THE Palestinian – Israeli conflict, the longest in the world, has probably dropped out from our line of vision. However, there have been some recent developments that deserve closer look.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has sworn in a unity government on 2 June 2014 in Ramallah, West Bank.
To recall, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh came out victorious in the Palestinian Legislative Elections held in January 2006. Thereafter, violent clashes erupted between Hamas and Fatah, mainly in Gaza strip. After President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed Haniyeh government, he took effective control of Gaza in June 2007, ousting Fatah forces. Abbas, recognized by Israel and the West, continued to be in control of West Bank. The West and Israel had declared Hamas as a terrorist organization, as it wants total obliteration of Israel. Until the reconciliation process, Hamas was effectively out of Palestine National Authority (PNA) government.
After President Barack Obama began his second term, renewed efforts were made by Secretary of State John Kerry for a negotiated settlement of the “final status”. “Final Status” deals mainly with three major issues – (a) drawing the borders between Israel and the state of Palestine; (b) removal of Israeli settlements and (c) the right of return of refugees to Palestine.
Talks between the Palestinians and Israelis began in Washington in July 2013 and were expected to conclude by mid-2014. While the negotiations were going on Israel's Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu continued with building settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. This was the major stumbling block and the negotiations did not produce any tangible result. Fatah and Hamas also realized that Israel was using their disunity for not making concessions. The talks collapsed on 29 April 2014.
For seven years Hamas waged “wars” against Israel but got no where. Regionally isolated from Egypt, Syria and Iran in the aftermath of Arab Spring and cash strapped, Ismail Haniyeh thought that it would be strategically wise to join the PNA. Ismail Haniyeh said, “the era of division has ended and opens the door for participation in politics and decision-making.” Fatah Leader Abbas also realised that if Hamas joined the PNA it would substantially increase his strength and put it in a stronger position to deal with Netanyahu.
Though the reconciliation is not without its problems – it has certainly changed the PNA matrix. Mahmoud Abbas has formed a 17-member technocrat government, with Rami al-Hamdallah as Prime Minister and Riad al-Malki as Foreign Minister. The new Prime Minister has announced that fresh legislative elections will be held within the next six months.
The unity government has been welcomed by Washington and the European Union. Washington said it was ready to work with the new government and fund it. Israeli reaction, as was expected, was negative. Benyamin Netanyahu said, “Mr. Abbas chose Hamas and not peace. Whoever chooses Hamas does not want peace”. Israeli government spokesman said, “we will not talk to a government that has in it people who say my country should be destroyed”.
Now that a new unity government has emerged in Palestine what happens next? Will there be a negotiated settlement between the new PNA and Israel, leading to two-nation solution? A 'negotiated settlement' was always considered as Plan-A, by Israel. And as Israel is unwilling to negotiate the “final status” with the new PNA government – academics and politicians in Israel are now increasingly talking about Plan-B.
Netanyahu while determining the agenda for negotiations in July 2013 identified two goals: “Preventing the creation of a bi-national state … that would endanger the future of the Jewish state and preventing the establishment of an additional Iranian-sponsored terrorist state on Israel's borders, which would endanger us no less”. For Netanyahu it has become imperative to give a separate state to the Palestinians. But how?
Plan-B is what has been described as 'Israeli unilateralism'. Israel is not willing to maintain the status quo and Netanyahu certainly does not want a “bi-national state”. “Bi-national state” means one nation with Palestinians and Jewish people. The worry is that in one state -- the Jewish population will soon become a minority when compared with the total Palestinian population living in Israel, West Bank and Gaza. In order to enhance Israel's security and secure legitimacy as a democratic state – Israel will unilaterally draw the borders of the Palestinian state and gradually withdraw from settlements in the now occupied territories, for security reasons. Similar to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza in 2005.
A section of Israeli politicians have come to the conclusion that Israel's Jewish and democratic future depends on partition. Israel's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) actively supports Plan-B. INSS is a powerful think tank and is described as Israel's “House of Lords”.
On the other side PNA also has a Plan-B. In November 2012, Palestine was upgraded at the United Nations to the status of “non-member observer state”. Now that “final status” talks have stalled, Mahmoud Abbas may find it tempting to use the “observer state” status to gain membership of international bodies. That way he may succeed in obtaining diplomatic recognition as a “nation” and isolating Israel further. However, only time will tell how stable is the current reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas and the unity government of PNA.
President Obama way back in his first tenure had urged Israel to go for the two-state solution to increase Israel's security. This was particularly imperative because of the fast changing political scenarios in the Middle-East, he said. That advice was rejected by Israeli hardliners, including Netanyahu. Current regional developments seem to have obliged Netanyahu to embrace that idea.
It would be best if a settlement is achieved through Plan-A, which has been going on since the Oslo Accords of 1993. But that seems more and more remote. Both Israel and PNA find their respective Plan-B more attractive. Let us see how Netanyahu and Abbas play out their options.
Mahmood Hasan is former Ambassador and Secretary.