The announcement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, on Thursday, arrived as an unexpected: The diplomatic-security cabinet had a five-hour meeting that votes suspends its negotiations as the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was behind this peace talk.
Netanyahu was inflamed that Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate who heads both the Palestinian authority and the secular Fatah party, had agreed to patch over a seven-year gap with Hamas, the militant Islamist group whose charter denies Israel’s existence.
However, this does not mean the talks is over which expires on April 29? “No, of course not,” says Efraim Inbar, the conservative head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan outside Tel Aviv. “We’ll see what happens with Hamas.”
Kerry had to persuade both sides into participating in the talks that began in July, and there was no progress made. Ever since, the U.S. efforts to extend them through the end of the year failed three weeks ago. Kerry said the Obama administration would re-asses its investment in the effort.
At this time, Netanyahu and Abbas have indicated interest to continue talking, and to improve the prospects of a deal. The EU welcomed the pact ending the factional rift, which divided the Palestinian public both politically and territorially, as Hamas governing the Gaza Strip, where 1.7 million Palestinians reside while Fatah held sway on the West Bank, home to another 2.5 million.
A senior Fatah official on Thursday said the unity pact with Hamas was made with the understanding that the group would support the peace talks, regardless of what its charter says. “We wouldn’t have been prepared or able to sign a reconciliation agreement without it being clear to all the Palestinian factions that we are leading our nation to a two-states-for-two-nations solution,” former PA security chief Jabril Rajoub told Israel’s Army Radio. Rajoub tried to turn the tables on Netanyahu, pointing out that parties in his own governing coalition rejected the idea of a Palestinian state, yet talks proceeded anyway.
Inbar says, one of Natayahu’s supporters, he understood the Israeli cabinet’s decision as a tactical move, calculated to push back at Abbas after the Palestinian leader took the initiative.
“It’s good for domestic politics,” Inbar says, of the Israeli cabinet vote. He adds that it could also stir the Obama administration to intercede on Israel’s behalf. “Maybe the Americans will wake up. I don’t know.”
At this time, the Israelis have controlled on the extremist reputation of Hamas as an opportunity to throw Abbas as the reckless party. After the reconciliation, deal was announced, a post on Netayahu’s Facebook page showed a photo of Osama bin Laden alongside a picture of Abbas shaking hands with a senior Hamas official who had publicly lamented the terror mastermind’s death. “This is President Abbas’ new partner.” What analysts call “the blame game” has played out in the background of the negotiations since their start, with each side quietly angling to avoid being seen as responsible for their assumed eventual collapse.
Israel appeared most vulnerable to the blame, largely because, as the talks proceeded nominally toward establishing a Palestinian state. Netanyahu steadily expanded the approximately 200 Jewish settlements on the West Bank territory where that state was expected to stand. Kerry appeared to seal that assumption earlier this month when he told a Senate committee that Israel’s approval of 700 more units in a settlement undermined U.S. efforts to extend the talks.
As the fate of the talks remains unclear, so does the answer to the question of who might bear the blame for their end. For all the drama of Thursday’s cabinet vote, its announcement felt more increasing than final to many observers.
Prina Sharvit-Baruch (a former Israeli peace negotiator, now at the Institute for National- Security Studies, a think tank at Tel Aviv University) said: It could be tactical leverage, or maybe something more substantial. It could be a way to make sure that Hamas doesn’t gain too much influence inside whatever government emerges.”