With today’s escalation of hostilities between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces, this report by the New York Times has been overshadowed, naturally, by events. But it is also, in a way, complemented by them. The report discusses memos and talking points sent around by the Israeli government to its diplomatic missions around the world on the topic of the Palestinian Authority’s plans to ask for upgraded status at the United Nations.
Much of it is unremarkable. It notes that the Israeli government acknowledges that PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s plans violate the Oslo accords and constitute a unilateral breach of mutual agreements between the representative governments of Israel and the Palestinians. It also acknowledges that Israel has its own unilateral actions it can take if Abbas truly wants to go down this road. (I’ve written about “coordinated unilateralism” before; this isn’t quite what that is, but it would take a very similar form.) The Times mentions a particularly harsh memo, apparently written by staffers in Israel’s Foreign Ministry:
A second document, an internal paper labeled “draft” and written by staff members of Israel’s hard-line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was more explicit. It described Mr. Abbas as an unpopular, weakened leader who had grown rich from leading a corrupt authority and was heading to the United Nations in a last-ditch effort to remain in power.
A recognition of Palestinian statehood by the United Nations, it stated, would leave Israel no alternative but to topple “the government of Abu Mazen,” referring to Mr. Abbas by his nickname. Any softer reaction would be interpreted as “raising a white flag,” it said.
Well, the first part is correct, but it doesn’t necessitate the second. This was the Palestinian response:
Mr. Shtayyeh, the Palestinian envoy, said he considered Israeli warnings about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority as “empty threats.”
“Israel has a vested interest in maintaining the status of the Palestinian Authority as it is today,” he said, noting that the Palestinian security forces helped to protect Israel.
It’s debatable how much PA forces “protect” Israel, certainly, but Shtayyeh has it about right. To understand why Israel should not want the Abbas government, and thus Fatah, toppled, it’s instructive to look back at a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper from the spring of 2008, The Struggle For Palestinian Hearts And Minds: Violence And Public Opinion In The Second Intifada. The authors studied the radicalization effects on Palestinians of various political affiliations, with special regard to violent events.
They found that violent episodes are far less likely to radicalize supporters of Fatah than supporters of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad; that Israeli fatalities are much more likely to embolden Hamas supporters than supporters of Fatah; that Fatah remains the natural home for less extremist Palestinians; and that as support drains from Fatah, support drains from bilateral negotiations as the preferred method of dealing with Israel, as opposed to violence or unilateral steps.
Is Mahmoud Abbas a serious partner for peace? No, he is not. Has he done anything to change Palestinian attitudes toward recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state? No, he has not. But toppling Fatah would likely result in a more violent Palestinian leadership on the West Bank, with missiles aimed at the heart of Jerusalem and the country’s only large international airport.
Judging by today’s events, Israel probably does not want Hamas on two borders instead of one. When it comes to Palestinian leadership, we can modify what Churchill once said about democracy: Fatah is the worst choice to govern the Palestinians, except for all the others.