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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Refusing for its Own Sake: Israel on the Palestinian Unity Government

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority reached a deal for a unity government with Hamas on February 6, 2012—which was also the sixtieth anniversary of the Accession Day of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had warned that a unity government with Hamas would rule out any chance of making peace with Israel. Meanwhile, the E.U. and U.S., as well as the state of Israel, had conditioned recognition and aid to Hamas on that party renouncing violence, recognizing Israel, and agreeing to previous agreements reached between the P.L.O. and Israel. In short, for all that achieving a unity government requires in terms of hard decisions and effort, the accomplishment was not exactly valued by Israel and the West. Aside from the baleful consequences in refusing to recognize something of value out of stubbornness and inflexibility, Israel and the West may have been hurting themselves by ruling out a chance for peace at the outset.

“Hamas is an enemy of peace,” Netanyahu said. “It’s an Iranian-backed terror organization committed to Israel’s destruction.” Doubtless that description reflects Hamas historically, but in sticking to the description, it was the Prime Minister rather than Hamas that was cutting off any chance of peace. He was ignoring or dismissing the possibility that Hamas could change as a result of negotiations and a deal. Part of what happens as two parties negotiate and reach a deal is that the parties’ respective perspectives and interests can also change. To condition the negotiations themselves on the other party already having changed is illogical, besides being utterly unfair to that party irrespective of whatever its past may or may not have been. It is essentially to presume that that which takes place during negotiations must somehow occur beforehand—and for only one of the parties. In continuing to build settlements, Israel has not exactly been kosher going into the negotiations; Abbas’s unity government could insist that Israel itself change as a condition for negotiations to begin.

Ironically, Abbas’s unity government may be requisite to any agreement, for otherwise Hamas would be outside any such deal. Presumably everyone concerned must be part of a peace deal for peace to ensue. Therefore, Israel as well as the U.S. and E.U. would be wiser not to look the gift horse in the mouth—meaning complain about that which is really a gift to them. Abbas has undoubtedly had to swallow hard to accept a unity government with his rival. He is due credit for this, and his action should be recognized for what it is: a necessary step on the way to a definitive agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. At the time of Abbas’s announcement, it would have been wise for Israel and the West to seize the opportunity of the unity government rather than view it as ending any chance of an agreement.

The lack of change projected onto Hamas was really in its adversaries. “Give peace a chance” means being willing to relax one’s stubbornness such that one can change. The change needed is ultimately in oneself—not the other guy. With this on one’s plate, to worry oneself with the other’s change involves a rather presumptuous overreaching that one can ill-afford. This is not to say that the other guy has been an angel. Hamas has been far from it, but the same could be said of Israel. It takes two to tangle, and angels have no need for peace talks. Sometimes appearances can be deceiving here on earth. The smallest excuse may easily be made use of by the party most interested in sustaining a feud. If there is anything that must change before negotiations can begin, it is this: a refusal to come to the table, presumably conditioned on some change in the other guy other than his refusal to come to the table. The refusal usually says much more about the refuser than the refusee.

Ethan Bronner, “Abbas Will Lead the Palestinians in a Unity Pact,” The New York Times, February 7, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/07/world/middleeast/palestinian-factions-reach-unity-deal.html?ref=todayspaper