The formation of a Palestinian "unity" government, endorsed jointly by Fatah and Hamas, completely wrong-footed the government of Israel. This should not have happened. Unlike earlier schemes for Palestinian unity, it had been clear long enough that this one was going to bear fruit. There was ample time for Israel to have planned a response that went beyond an unqualified rejection.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right) shakes hands with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh during negotiations in 2007 for a short-lived unity government. (Image source: Palestinian Press Office)
That response failed: both the US Administration and the European Commission have shown themselves sympathetic to working with the new Palestinian Authority [PA] government. Meanwhile, Israeli "intransigence" was labeled in many quarters, once again, as the prime obstacle to peace. So now, according to the latest rumors, "Israel seeks return of PA forces to Gaza, dismantling of Hamas military arm." Israel has "launched an international diplomatic campaign" to press that demand upon the EU and the US.
But this would make things only worse. Hamas can simply enroll its own Gaza security personnel into the Palestinian Police and carry on as before, except that their salaries will now be paid from money donated to the Palestinian Authority. One of the reasons why Hamas agreed to the unity government was precisely that Hamas has lately experienced difficulties in paying its gunmen.
As to what the Israeli response should have been, and now should be, Israel can take a lesson from US Secretary of State John Kerry. In September 2013, we recall, US foreign policy was in grave difficulties over Syria. President Obama could not evade his promise to respond forcefully to the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons, but the Congress was unwilling to back him and the UK's House of Commons had refused to do so. This writer happened to witness the televised press conference in London where Kerry rescued his master.
On that occasion, Kerry showed himself to be both thoroughly well informed and instructively articulate. So it was, too, when Margaret Brennan from CBS asked in regard of Syrian President Assad: "...is there anything at this point that his government could do or offer that would stop an attack?" Kerry answered impromptu: "Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously."
To general surprise, the Russian government took up this idea immediately and enforced it upon the Syrian regime, for whose survival Russian patronage was indispensable. In the meantime, despite the evidence of Syrian foot-dragging, much the greater part of Syria's chemical weapon capacity has been removed. No country should be more grateful for this than Israel. That those weapons should not fall into Islamist hands, that indeed they should disappear, is the greatest concern that Israel has in respect of the civil war in Syria. Israeli politicians should never criticize Kerry, however validly, without remembering to thank him for it.
So now let us draw the lesson for Palestinian "unity," whatever that is going to mean. Among Israel's other inadequate responses have been proclamations that it will henceforth hold President Abbas responsible for every rocket fired from Gaza. The essential point that Israel needs to grasp, and to make understood internationally at every opportunity, is this: President Abbas will not become responsible for rockets in Gaza only when they are fired; he has made himself responsible for those rockets – and for their elimination – now.
The new Palestinian government restores the rule of the PA to Gaza. So under its jurisdiction fall the rockets in Gaza and – for that matter – also the network of tunnels that Hamas has built with the aim of penetrating into Israel and kidnapping more Israelis.
What Israel can and should do, therefore, is to proclaim that it will deal with Abbas and his new government only (to paraphrase Kerry) on the following two conditions: "The Palestinian government must turn over every single bit of the rockets in Gaza to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. And allow a full and total accounting for the tunnels built out of Gaza toward Israel and enable the international community to come and destroy them all, every single bit."
Israel certainly has the right to make those two demands. Both the rockets and the tunnels constitute glaring violations of all the agreements between Israel and the PLO; Israel should not be expected to tolerate such violations in any area governed by the PA. Israel had exempted Abbas from the obligation to deal with those violations merely because Gaza had removed itself from PA rule.
Like Kerry in the case of Syria, Israel might be surprised by positive reactions. For example, the US administration wants to continue to finance the PA, but many in the Congress are opposed to it in view of the involvement of Hamas. So let the US Congress, too, tell the new Palestinian government: "Since you now rule over Gaza, you will not get any more money from us until you agree to surrender all those rockets in Gaza to be destroyed under international control."
Failing that, Israel has the power to frustrate further Palestinian plans if those conditions are not met. Whereas the US was and is far from Syria, Israel is right on top of the PA. So Israel can demand that "every bit" of the rockets and the tunnels be removed, if not "in the next week," then within the six months that the Palestinians have decreed for organizing elections. Otherwise, Israel can threaten, there will be no negotiations – and probably no elections either.