One word went unspoken in an interview President Barack Obama gave to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in late February. In their 45-minute discussion, devoted exclusively to the subject of Israel, the president did not utter the word Palestinian. For the first time since 1991, when Iraqi Scud missiles hit Israel during the Gulf War, the Palestinian problem is not at the top of the U.S. agenda when it comes to its relations with the Jewish state.
That is due, in some respects, to developments beyond the West Bank and Gaza that have weakened the Palestinian hand. With Bashar al-Assad continuing to slaughter regime opponents in Syria, the leaders of the Palestinian terror group Hamas—which controls Gaza—announced in early 2012 that they were leaving Damascus, where they had been based since the mid-1990s. This news came after reports that the group had lost funding from its longtime Iranian patrons. Iran found itself compelled to economize due to international economic sanctions imposed in response to Tehran’s nuclear aspirations. Israel’s most dangerous Palestinian adversary was suddenly partially homeless and strapped for cash.
But the reduced circumstances of Hamas have not saved Israel from dangerous Palestinian irredentist trends. Quietly but distinctly, the Palestine Liberation Organization has been inching toward a new approach that would combine the rejection of U.S.-led diplomacy seeking a two-state solution with an effort to forge a united front with its rival, the terrorist Hamas. This is in addition to the distressing worldwide campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state using the populist anti-Israel sentiment of the Arab protest movements and the institutionalized sentiment of the United Nations. Most disturbing, there also appears to be a “resistance” component to this strategy that could ignite a new wave of Palestinian-Israeli violent conflict.
The new strategy officially began last year with the decision of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to seek recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state at the United Nations. Hopping from Latin America to Europe to Asia, Abbas had secured the support of at least 128 countries for a future state to be built in the entirety of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. This was a direct challenge to Israel’s presence in the disputed territories of the West Bank, where at least 400,000 Israelis now live. Additionally, it was a snub to the United States, which has shepherded Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy since the late 1980s. More important, the Palestinians had openly spurned the Oslo Accords, the framework under which they were bound to iron out their disagreements with Israel on a bilateral basis.
The drama had been building throughout the spring and summer of 2011. The Israelis pleaded with the Palestinians to reconsider, but the Palestinians made it clear that their campaign was as much about delegitimizing Israel as it was about recognition. In fact, one could argue that it was more about the former, since the United States had already vowed to block the measure at the UN Security Council, the only body that could grant full membership.
Nevertheless, Abbas flew to New York in September 2011 and announced before the General Assembly that he would appeal directly to the Security Council. In the end, thanks to last-minute lobbying by the United States and Israel, the Palestinians fell short of the nine votes they needed. Their bid stalled.
But the Palestinians had enough votes to pass a nonbinding measure in the General Assembly. Palestinian officials believed the vote would afford them governmental status as an unofficial member of the United Nations, similar to that of the Holy See. More important, they believed that the measure would grant them legitimacy in international legal forums, such as the International Criminal Court, where they threatened to sue Israeli military officers.
In the end, however, Abbas decided not to advance the measure to a vote. After a short-sighted effort granting the Palestinians membership in the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) automatically triggered the termination of U.S. aid to the agency, Abbas took a step backward.
Alarmed by the Palestinian theatrics at Turtle Bay, the Israelis were eager to return to the negotiating table. On January 1, 2012, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators met in Amman. While doves celebrated the meeting, the perennially surly Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was quick to rebuff claims that his team was returning to talks. Later reports indicated that Abbas agreed to the meeting only under intense pressure from Jordanian King Abdullah II.
The two sides met again two days later, and Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, stressed as important that “the two sides have met face to face.” But overshadowing the meeting was Abbas’s warning: If Israel did not accept his terms, he was prepared to “take new measures,” he said. “These measures might be hard.”
The two sides met again on January 5 and exchanged documents articulating their positions. While the Israeli side was unusually quiet, a senior Palestinian official announced that Abbas “does not believe they [the talks] will mature into true negotiations.”
The Israelis refused to relent, fearing that the Palestinians planned to reinvigorate their international campaign. Reports indicated that Israel was prepared to offer an incentive package that included “freeing Palestinian prisoners, expanding the Palestinian Authority’s control in additional West Bank territories, and other similar measures” in order to keep talks going. The Palestinians were unmoved. Nor were they impressed with a phone call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exhorting the negotiating team to remain engaged. Instead, Palestinian officials continued to telegraph the impending failure.
On January 14, the two sides held another round of talks without reaching a breakthrough. A week later, as Israeli negotiators attempted to present their security proposals, Erekat “refused to enter the room,” according to a Western diplomat, ultimately leading to a verbal confrontation with Israeli envoy Yitzhak Molcho. The next week, however, Erekat presented Molcho with demands to release terrorists from Hamas, Fatah’s Tanzim, and other terrorist organizations.
By January 25, the Palestinian Maan news agency reported that Abbas “refused and will continue to refuse” more meetings, and Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki announced that the Palestinians planned to revive their bid for statehood at the UN. PLO spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi echoed this, saying, “We will persist in our efforts to pursue membership in the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations General Assembly, and other multinational agencies and organizations.”
Two weeks later, on February 12, Abbas told the Arab League that if Israel did not accept his demands, he would “go to the Security Council and the General Assembly.” Abbas received the full support of the Arab League. For good measure, he added that he would not recognize Israel as a specifically Jewish state—a key demand of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As the prospects for continued negotiations withered, one senior Israeli official told the daily newspaper Haaretz: “We were willing to make gestures and presented a whole package, but the Palestinians simply didn’t want it. More and more international figures realize that we were not the ones who caused the talks to fail. This may be seen from the Jordanians’ silence—they are not blaming Israel for anything.” The Palestinian press even revealed that Abbas had turned down Israeli offers to release Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of goodwill. In other words, although it engaged in talks, the PLO was not interested in diplomacy.
While simultaneously looking to declare a state and engineering failure at the negotiating table, the Palestinian leadership flirted with another strategy: creating a unity government with Hamas.
The PLO, led by Abbas’s Fatah faction, and Hamas had been in conflict since the latter launched a civil war against the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip in 2007. The resulting territorial split between the Fatah government in the West Bank and the Hamas government in Gaza led to the de facto existence of two separate Palestinian states. Since 2007, the two sides had tried and failed several times to reconcile, despite the best efforts of one Muslim government after the next.
For the Palestinian people, the disunity is emotionally disastrous. The internecine conflict corrupts the time-tested nationalist narrative that Israel is wholly responsible for its plight. Moreover, if Hamas and Fatah cannot reconcile, it becomes difficult for the Palestinians to claim a unified national identity.
The stalemate appeared to end on December 21, 2011, when Hamas (and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad) reportedly agreed to join the PLO. Palestinians celebrated, but the move immediately raised important questions. First, was it for real this time? The two factions had agreed to unify many times before, but each deal ended over disagreements about the release of prisoners, the makeup of an interim government, the selection of a prime minister, and other thorny issues. In the end, neither side wanted to risk relinquishing its fiefdom for the sake of unity.
For Israel and the West, another important question loomed larger: Was Hamas joining Fatah, or was Fatah joining Hamas? To put it another way, was Hamas ready to renounce violence as a precondition of joining the PLO? Or was the PLO about to backslide into the business of terrorism? No one knew.
What soon became clear was that Hamas’s overtures to Fatah were a matter of survival. Iran’s financial cutoff and the problems with Hamas’s Syrian sponsor had left it in parlous circumstances. But that didn’t make its leaders more pliable. In February, Hamas leaders challenged Mahmoud Abbas’s proposed role as both president of the Palestinian Authority and prime minister of the new unity government, saying (correctly) that such a plan would be a violation of Palestinian law. Plans for a new cabinet and elections have once again been postponed.
But the episode underscores an important fact: The Palestinian leadership is willing to consider a partnership with Hamas, a deadly terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction. In a March statement that drew condemnation from Israel, Abbas said that there were no “political differences” between the two factions. If they come to terms, the marriage will undoubtedly prompt Israel to cut ties and terminate the peace process. It would also prompt deep cuts in American aid. Abbas knows this but has continued to pursue this course, leaving the option open for a united Palestinian front against Israel.
And this portends more bloodshed. In December 2011, following the announcement that Hamas would join the PLO, Abbas assured Palestinian leaders that they reserved the right to “armed resistance.” Similarly, at a PLO event in Lebanon in February, Fatah official Abbas Zaki assured his audience that Fatah had not given up the “military option.” Separately, Fatah official Mahmoud Aloul warned that 2012 “is the year of vigor and the promotion of popular resistance.”
On February 28 this year, the armed wing of Fatah, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on the Israeli city of Ashkelon. The group had been firing rockets sporadically from Gaza in recent years but explicitly stated that this particular projectile was a response to an Israeli assault on Arab Jerusalem. The attack fit into a larger trend. In February and March, Palestinian rhetoric began to heat up over Jerusalem. It is worth noting that the last intifada, which began September 2000, erupted over dueling claims over Jerusalem. Indeed, it was called the Al-Aqsa Intifada, in reference to the venerated mosque that sits atop the Temple Mount in the Old City.
In mid-February, Sheikh Kamal Khatib, the leader of a radical Israeli Arab movement, accused Israel of using chemicals to corrode the foundation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Following his lead, Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, whom Mahmoud Abbas appointed in 2006, called on Arabs and Muslims to protect Al-Aqsa from Jews.
Soon thereafter, on February 19, Palestinians on the Temple Mount attacked a group of Christian tourists. Israeli security forces arrested 13 Palestinians in the ensuing clash. WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency, reported that Jews had attempted to “storm” the Temple Mount “and perform Jewish rituals.” A day later, the popular cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who supports Palestinian violence against Israel and enjoys an enormous audience on Al-Jazeera, said that the Al-Aqsa Mosque was a “red line” and that Muslims would not “stand idly” if it continued to be defiled.
Mahmoud Abbas subsequently issued a statement declaring that Israel’s alleged action in Jerusalem “will have serious and ominous consequences.” The following day, hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli security forces on the Temple Mount. In the end, 11 Israeli officers and 15 Palestinians were injured, and 10 Palestinians were arrested.
A few days later, Abbas riled up his audience at the International Conference on Jerusalem in Qatar, stating that Israel is “using the ugliest and most dangerous means to implement plans to erase and remove the Arab-Islamic and the Christian character of east Jerusalem.”
Several Israeli journalists now predict a new round of violence. Avi Issacharoff, of Haaretz, notes: “In recent weeks there have been signs of a change for the worse in the West Bank’s security situation. The Palestinian people…are showing the first signs of agitation.” Jerusalem Post reporter Khaled Abu Toameh suggests that both Hamas and Fatah are angling for a new uprising as a means to divert attention from the fact that the two sides have yet again failed to reach a reconciliation agreement. According to the veteran Arab-Israeli journalist, “Hamas and Fatah are now working hard to direct the heat toward Israel.” Although the Palestinians are widely believed to lack the will to launch another full-scale intifada, nonviolent protests can nonetheless devolve into violent ones.
One thing that could draw Palestinians back into the streets is the renewal of the Palestinian campaign for statehood. Abbas is currently believed to be mulling another go at the UN. Indeed, the Palestinian leader confirmed this in early March during an interview on Al-Jazeera.
On January 1, several countries that voted against the Palestinian bid last year rotated off the Security Council, making way for Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Morocco, Pakistan, and Togo. Notwithstanding the looming threat of a U.S. veto, these states—notably Pakistan and Morocco—may afford the Palestinians new opportunities in Turtle Bay. The Palestinians, moreover, have not ruled out the General Assembly option. With the support of 128 countries, this is still a viable plan.
All in all, it is clear that the PLO, the official negotiating partner for Israel since the late 1980s, is now very clearly reconsidering that role. The message is simple: If the Israelis don’t give the PLO what it wants—the 1967 borders with minimal land swaps, the release of prisoners, the “right of return” for refugees, and sovereignty over East Jerusalem—it could bypass negotiations altogether and go to the UN. In parallel, it could join hands with Hamas and launch a new round of violence.
The marriage with Hamas might not materialize, or it might consummate and then crumble. Regardless, the PLO’s leaders are not interested in reining in the terrorist group. At best, they are happy to use Hamas as leverage for their demands. At worst, they are willing to embrace its violent tactics.
The exact strategy is still a bit fuzzy, but the big picture is clear: Palestinian leaders no longer have any desire to negotiate with Israel. They have a new strategy in the making—one of brinkmanship, violence, or both.