The recent hostilities between Hamas and Israel have prompted various Israeli figures, in the governing coalition as well as in the opposition, to advocate an enhanced role for Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority [PA], in an eventual solution for Gaza. The implausibility of this idea has been pointed out elsewhere. What both the proponents and the critics of this idea have not asked, however, is a more fundamental question: To what extent was Abbas complicit in the aggression of Hamas?
For sure, Abbas did once criticize Hamas when the organization began to fire rockets at Israel early in July 2014. Hamas officials thereupon branded him "a criminal" and "a Likud member." From then on, Abbas denounced only Israel. Moreover, the envoys of his PA sought to mobilize international pressure to stop Israel from mounting a ground operation to destroy the tunnels that Hamas had built into Israeli territory. In the intermittent negotiations moderated by Egypt to establish a lasting ceasefire, the delegation from Abbas's Fatah faction endorsed all the preposterous demands made by Hamas upon Israel as a condition for ending hostilities.
Worse than that, Palestinian Media Watch has documented a stream of statements by Fatah officials that expressed identification with Hamas aggression. Criticism of Hamas did not emerge again until Hamas began to execute alleged collaborators without trial. Only then did Abbas aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim denounce Hamas for perpetrating "cold-blooded murders." With good reason: Hamas had confined known Fatah activists under house arrest and these would be obvious targets for summary execution.
When Abbas met Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas supremo, in Qatar during August 21-22, international speculation was that he would plead with Mashaal for a fresh ceasefire. Quite wrong. The meeting ended with a joint call to the United Nations for "a resolution that would define a timetable for the end of Israel's occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state." More significantly, the two leaders emphasized that the Palestinian unity government formed by Fatah and Hamas in June "represents all the Palestinian people and looks after their interests."
Best Frenemies? Mahmoud Abbas (r) meets with the Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal in Qatar, July 20, 2014. (Image source: Handout from the Palestinian Authority President's Office/Thaer Ghanem)
That is, this became a meeting of the founders of the unity government, in order to review developments and make further joint plans. It confirms that the decision of Abbas to form the unity government was the starting point for all subsequent developments. In order to evaluate Abbas's motives for taking that decision, let us recall three well-established facts about him.
First of all, he is Dr. Mahmoud Abbas, having in 1982 earned a doctorate in Moscow with a PhD dissertation denying the Holocaust, which was published as a book in 1984. Here he claimed that the Holocaust was a product of Nazi-Zionist collaboration aimed at driving Jews out of Europe into Mandatory Palestine. He also suggested that the number of Jewish victims may have been under a million, but that the Zionists inflated the figures in order to gain support for Israel. More recently he has made statements deploring the Holocaust as an "unforgivable crime against the Jewish nation," yet without repudiating his doctoral thesis.
Second, Abbas regarded Yasser Arafat's decision to launch the Second Palestinian Intifada in September 2000 as a ghastly mistake that inflicting great suffering on the Palestinian population without making significant political gains. But thirdly, Abbas and the Fatah movement in general have never differed from either Arafat or Hamas about the ultimate aim of Palestinian nationalism: the disappearance of Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state in the whole area of Mandatory Palestine.
As explained elsewhere, all the Palestinian factions are agreed upon three fundamental "national issues": 1) Israel must withdraw to the lines preceding the Six Day War; 2) a Palestinian state must be created with Jerusalem as its capital; 3) all the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and 1967, together with their millions of descendants, must be allowed to return to where they were living up to 1947. Of those three Palestinian "issues," the so-called "international community" is obviously sympathetic to the first two but does not take the third one seriously, regarding it as absurd.
For the Palestinians, on the other hand, the return of the refugees – which implies the creation of an Arab majority in Israel – is the most important issue. Hamas and its Islamist confederates long ago drew the conclusion that all peace negotiations with Israel are futile; at most an armed truce with Israel for a fixed period of time is permissible. Abbas and his Fatah faction did believe that negotiations with Israel could be useful if they led to a "two-state solution" in which the first two issues are decided in favor of the Palestinians, but without a Palestinian renunciation of the "right of return." That would enable the Palestinians to establish an internationally recognized state whose supreme aim would be to work for the return of the refugees, whether in international forums or by a return to violence.
The counter-strategy of the Netanyahu government was to demand that in a peace settlement the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a demand that implicitly excludes the Palestinian "right of return." By March 2014, Abbas realized that his strategy had failed. Previously, he had been using security collaboration with Israel to weaken Hamas, his chief rival. Now he chose the reverse tactic: by forming a Palestinian unity government supported by Hamas as well as Fatah, he hoped to use Hamas to weaken Israel to the point of succumbing to his demands.
This was a catastrophic miscalculation on the part of Abbas. Hamas had its own reasons for joining a unity government. Above all, Hamas had been made bankrupt by the Egyptian decision to eliminate the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, so it relied on the promise that the unity government would pay the long overdue salaries of its 40,000 civil servants. When that failed to happen, Hamas was left with nothing but its massive arsenal of weapons, to which it desperately resorted. For fifty days it mounted an attack upon Israel while proclaiming an absurd list of demands for a ceasefire, above all the payment of those salaries.
Everything has now gone wrong for Abbas. The destruction in Gaza matches the destruction of the Second Intifada, precisely what Abbas deplored in respect of Arafat. Furthermore, as the Israeli Security Service (Shin Bet) has discovered, Hamas exploited the formation of the unity government for a scheme to overthrow Abbas in the West Bank, while brutally injuring Fatah operatives in Gaza. Indeed, when Abbas was plotting further tactics against Israel with Mashaal in Qatar, he simultaneously moaned to the Emir of Qatar, the financial godfather of Hamas, about Mashaal's plots against himself.
Worst of all, an opinion poll shows that the Palestinian public -- in its characteristic mode of collective insanity -- accepts Hamas's claim of "victory" over Israel. Whereas until recently Abbas enjoyed clear superiority over Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh in opinion polls, now Haniyeh is projected to defeat him by 61% to 32% in the upcoming election for the Palestinian presidency. Remember that the agreement to form a unity government stipulated that fresh elections for both the Palestinian parliament and the presidency should take place within six months. The same poll ascribes even greater popularity to Haniyeh in the West Bank than in Gaza (66% versus 53%) and predicts that Haniyeh would also defeat the erstwhile Palestinian favorite, imprisoned terrorist murderer Marwan Barghouti.
In another misjudgment, Abbas finally opened his mouth to denounce Hamas's responsibility for the destruction of Gaza just days before that poll was published. That is, he was silent when the destruction could have been prevented, but chose to criticize it precisely when the broad Palestinian public had euphorically decided that it was a price worth paying.
Obviously, Abbas is a man whose policies have failed, who is out of touch with his own people, and who is due to be replaced -- probably by a Hamas candidate -- within months. Why should any Israeli vainly negotiate with him in these circumstances?
The answer is to be found in an article published by Gatestone Institute on June 13, before Hamas started its rocket campaign. In view of the formation of the Palestinian unity government on June 2, it was pointed out:
"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."
The conclusion drawn was that any financial support from abroad for the unity government should be predicated on its agreement to eliminate the rockets and tunnels under international supervision, on the model of the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons. In other words, this was the first formulation of what is now called the "demilitarization of Gaza" – a recommendation made already weeks before the hostilities erupted. (The demand was repeated in articles published on June 24 and July 16.)
In mid-July, the demand was adopted by the Israeli government. It was subsequently endorsed by two meetings of the foreign ministers of the European Union and by the U.S. President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense in various statements.
Unfortunately, their statements have mostly taken the form of demanding the disarmament of all the terrorist groups in Gaza, but without explicitly saying who should be responsible for doing it. Regarding Syria, the demand was pinned upon its President Assad, who was told to expect very unpleasant consequences if he rejected it. Therefore, in the present instance the demand should be imposed upon the Palestinian unity government. Moreover, neither the EU nor the US needs to commit a single soldier or airplane to imposing that demand: they can -- as was pointed out in the recent Gatestone articles -- promise unpleasant consequences by threatening to suspend financial support for the Palestinian government.
Israel, as it happens, has already embarked in this direction by withholding money from the tax revenues that it collects and passes on to the Palestinian Authority, ostensibly to cover unpaid bills to Israeli utilities. Israel just has to hint that this will continue until the Palestinian government acknowledges its obligation to demilitarize Gaza.
This is all the more urgent, since the Palestinian government has now recommitted itself to paying the 40,000 Hamas officials in Gaza in addition to the 70,000 PA officials who have been receiving salaries in Gaza since 2007 without actually working. In other words, the proposal is to pay 110,000 employees for the work that is currently done by 40,000 – and this out of a Palestinian budget that is already (as usual) in deep deficit.
As for Israeli politicians who propose to renew peace negotiations, with Abbas or whomever, they are advised to make two basic stipulations. First, that Israel will negotiate only with a Palestinian government that officially recognizes its obligation to demilitarize Gaza. Second, that no agreements can be signed until the Palestinians hold the projected elections for their parliament and presidency -- and the outcome is known.
All the above might also deflate the Palestinian public's delusions of victory. Palestinians will sober up only when they grasp that they reduced Gaza to ruins in vain and that without disarmament they will just have to live in those ruins. To allow them reconstruction before that will merely encourage fresh outbreaks of militant folly.