Monday 31 October 2011

Why Should Israel Help Fatah?

The prisoner swap deal which saw Gilad Shalit released, played right into the hands of Hamas.  The prisoners who were released, as well as those set for release in the second stage of the deal, are names given by Hamas.  At least for now, Hamas has gained public relations points in the Palestinian world.  The organisation has shown itself to be able to stand up to Israel, and to extract value for the Palestinian street despite Israel’s statements that this would never happen.  At the same time, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party has achieved a resounding failure.  Abbas returned from his visit to the United Nations empty-handed following his application to the UN to admit Palestine as a full member.  This situation has brought some Israelis to call for a “gesture” to Fatah, to try to dilute the way in which Hamas has been strengthened by these events.

For some time now, Israel has been playing a game of trying to weaken Hamas by strengthening Fatah.  Throughout the time that Mahmoud Abbas has been president, and even dating back to the days when Yasser Arafat held the position, Israel has been taking steps to promote Fatah’s interests in order to help its standing amongst Palestinians whose loyalties are split between Fatah and Hamas.  The reason for this is that Fatah has demonstrated itself to be more willing to enter into a dialogue with Israel, interpreted by Israel to mean it represents a possibility that it may reach a negotiated peace agreement.  Hamas, on the other hand, has remained steadfast in its objectives of trying to destroy Israel, and not agreeing to negotiate.  As ironic as it may seem, Fatah is simply the better of the two evils, and hence Israel’s attempts to promote its cause.

Despite the fact that it has tried to present itself as a genuine political party, Fatah has never really given up on its terror activities, even while continuing to sit at the negotiating table.  This was particularly true in the days of Yasser Arafat, who lied unashamedly about giving up on violence with Israel while continuing to orchestrate terror activities in the background.  Abbas has seemed more serious about foregoing the terror route, but has still not completely given up on this or eradicated it from his people and the territory under his control.  The fact that Hamas has never agreed to forego violence against Israel has presented greater appeal to the Palestinians.  Hamas’s strategy is to escalate violence against Israel and never agree to recognise or negotiate with the government of the Jewish state, until it achieves the destruction of the State of Israel.

Israel’s response to this situation has been to continue trying to negotiate with Fatah in order to try to extract greater security for Israelis, while responding to Hamas’s violence and terror using military solutions.  It is in Israel’s interest that the Palestinian street will embrace the route of negotiations and support Fatah, while rejecting the route of violence pursued by Hamas.  It is for this reason that Israel has been trying to prop up support for Fatah over the years by allowing it to show fruits for its strategy of negotiating with Israel.  Negotiations are long-winded affairs (especially in the Middle East), and show few results along the way.  This has proved to be tiresome for the Palestinians, who are eager to see instant results or some evidence of the fact that their chosen route has short-term advantages.  The Hamas-led campaign of violence has succeeded in bringing this to the people in a much more blatant way.  Palestinians have rejoiced to see rockets destroying Israeli homes and threatening Israeli lives.  The perceived success of standing up to the might of the IDF has been a rallying force for Palestinians.  The fact that Fatah succeeded in opening a road or removing an Israeli checkpoint after a lengthy negotiation, seems somehow less exciting and not the same level of achievement.  To counter this perception, Israel has acted to release Fatah prisoners remain incarcerated in Israeli jails to so that it can be associated with benefits of negotiations.

With Hamas’s standing on the up and up after its success in securing the release of hundreds of its prisoners as part of the exchange for Gilad Shalit, there are those who feel that these events could serve to alienate Fatah and reduce its standing amongst Palestinians.  Some Israeli politicians have called for a release of Fatah prisoners as a gesture to Mahmoud Abbas to try to redress the situation.  Abbas himself, desperate for any success he can lay his hands on, has mentioned the fact that former prime minister Ehud Olmert offered a release of Fatah prisoners in the event that Gilad Shalit was released.  Olmert has confirmed this verbal undertaking, although I suspect that the promise was made on the basis of the expectation that Abbas would actually do something to help to secure Gilad’s release.

In truth, I do not understand why Israel would choose to release Fatah prisoners at this stage.  At the time that the final details for Gilad’s release were being negotiated, Abbas was at the UN in New York seeking full membership for the Palestinians.  This action by Abbas served to undermine the entire notion of a negotiated settlement.  Abbas’s tactic is to get a seat in the UN, and then approach the UN to grant him and his people an independent homeland.  If he succeeds, he will achieve this without having to make any concessions that are inherent in a negotiated deal with Israel.  This is surely a massive snub to Israel’s efforts to help Fatah over the years.

Now that Gilad has been released and, along with him, hundreds of Hamas prisoners, Abbas is feeling left out and alienated.  The problem is that he is responsible, at least in part, for his own situation.  His continuing refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state and to make the required concessions at the negotiating table, and his acts to try to unilaterally declare an independent state have not helped his cause.  They have damaged his standing on the Palestinian street, and with his Israeli counterparts.  There should be no reason in the world for Israel to reward him with a release of prisoners.

Israelis should never be duped into believing that Fatah is a true ally of Israel or a friend the Jewish people.  It just so happens that we have a common enemy, Hamas, which causes us to come together in opposition to the threat that Hamas presents.  As was evidenced by his recent actions at the UN, Abbas will use any opportunity to go behind Israel’s back and pursue his own agenda at Israel’s expense.  The continued refusal by Fatah to remove the clause in their constitution calling for the destruction of the State of Israel is evidence of the fact that Fatah’s true intentions may be concealed to the world, and that it may be playing a double-faced game with Israel.  While continuing to pursue a path that will ultimately bring peace and security to her citizens, Israel is forced to respond with caution and suspicion to everything that Abbas does.

The time has come for Israel to treat Fatah with a great deal more suspicion and contempt.  While it is acknowledged that having a Fatah government in the West Bank is preferable to one controlled by Hamas, this is still not a bed of roses for Israel.  Gestures by Israel to Fatah should be matched by gestures on Fatah’s part to Israel.  This is the only way to ensure that Fatah will value Israeli gestures.  The time for freebies should be over.

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