JERUSALEM — From Tunisia to Bahrain, the turmoil in the Middle East should keep the Israeli-Palestinian peace process stalemated for some time, at least until the long-term political outcome is clear.
Egypt, the Palestinians’ primary source of political support in the Arab world, is in the midst of an unpredictable change of regimes. There is no guarantee that the idealistic demonstrators who forced former President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall will be rewarded with a democratic republic replete with genuine political parties, freedom of speech and human rights. (This week’s bombings of two Coptic Christian churches only reinforced that uncertainty.)
Syria, which has been serving as a base and safe-haven for Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is in the throes of its own popular revolt, which exacts a tragic toll in human lives day after day.
Libya, which alternated from lavish financial support of Palestinian extremists to involvement in terrorist operations such as the mid-air explosion of a Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Dec. 21, 1988, that killed 243 passengers and 16 crew members is a battleground between its egomaniacal leader, Muammar Qadhaffi, and nationalist rebels determined to end his 42-year-long grip on their country.
No Arab state, not even relatively stable Jordan, can assure Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the kind of diplomatic backup he and his negotiators need to conclude a two-state solution with Israel.
All these factors should deter Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from coming out with new incentives for Abbas to accept his terms for Palestinian statehood.
One of the most disturbing developments was Abbas’ secret dispatch of PA representatives to Cairo for secret talks under Egyptian auspices with Hamas counterparts from the Gaza Strip. The result was a rapprochement between the two parties, the crux of which will be Hamas’ participation in a new government with political and administrative authority over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Understandably, Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition government were appalled.
This is because Hamas not only opposes negotiations with Israel, but also denies Israel’s right to exist in pre-1948 Palestine as a self-declared Jewish state. The upshot of this controversial initiative by Egypt’s interim rulers is that the so-called peace process nurtured for the past 15 years by the U.S. will stagnate and possibly collapse altogether.
Netanyahu’s rhetorical reaction was to warn Abbas that he must “choose between Hamas and peace.” That sums up Netanyahu’s reaction. The fact that the parliamentary opposition, headed by the Kadima party’s Tsipi Livni, advocates a wait-and-see attitude is irrelevant because its chances of toppling the ruling Likud and its nationalist and religious coalition partners are nil.
At the practical level, the interim Egyptian regime also decided unilaterally to reopen the border crossing at the northwestern end of the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip not only has terminated Israel’s controversial blockade, but also opened the way to an increased and uncontrolled influx of weapons, especially rockets and missiles, that have been launched by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other extremist groups at Israeli territory.
Israel’s initial response will be to alert French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron with whom Netanyahu was scheduled to meet this week that a Palestinian regime which includes Hamas is unacceptable to Israel and that it could result in an electoral victory by Hamas when the Palestinians go to the polls again next year.
This probably will be followed by similar warnings when Netanyahu addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress at the behest of the House of Representatives Republican majority later this month. If he goes ahead with his original plan to use that occasion to offer the Palestinians new inducements for them to adopt the two-state solution to the bilateral dispute this will not be viable as long as Hamas is back in the PA’s political fold.
In short, the PA (in collusion with the Egyptians) has thrown a ringer into the political game that will disturb if not destroy the current phase of the troubled peace process. At the same time it could prompt Netanyahu to float a new formula for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence that may offer new hope for Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land. After all, the idea of “two states for two peoples” could be replaced by one state for both.
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at email@example.com.)