Commentary Magazine


Contentions

PA: If We Won’t Talk with Israel, Nobody Else Should, Either

You couldn’t make this up: The Palestinian Authority is furious that Israel and Hamas are reportedly holding indirect talks in Cairo to firm up their cease-fire, because “only the PLO was authorized to conduct such negotiations in its capacity as the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.’” Never mind that the PLO, aka the PA (both are headed by the same man, Mahmoud Abbas, and dominated by the same party, Fatah) has refused to hold talks with Israel for four years now; if Hamas had to wait for the PLO to discuss its pressing concerns with Israel, it might still be waiting when the Messiah comes. In the PA’s world, ordinary Palestinians’ real problems–of which residents of Hamas-run Gaza have plenty–always come a distant second to its own prestige. If it doesn’t feel like talking with Israel, then Gazans should just wait patiently until it does.

But this story also highlights just how irrelevant the PA’s refusal to talk with Israel is making it. Hamas would prefer going through Egypt rather than the PA for many reasons, but one is the simple fact that Egypt can deliver the goods. Egyptian officials are still willing to talk with Israel; that’s how they brokered the Israel-Hamas cease-fire in November, and why they can mediate between the parties now. In contrast, Abbas can’t.

Once upon a time, he could and did. That’s why, for instance, PA officials are still stationed at the Gaza-Israel border crossings: Unwilling to recognize Israel or talk with it directly, Hamas nevertheless needs to deal with Israel to run those crossings; PA officials were the mutually agreed-upon mediators. But that arrangement was hammered out at a time when the PA was still willing to talk with Israel. Now, it isn’t.

In that sense, there’s even a twisted logic to the PA’s accusation that the “secret talks in Cairo” are why the latest Fatah-Hamas reconciliation effort failed. Clearly, neither side really wants to reconcile; that’s why every such effort has failed for years. But for Hamas, Abbas’s refusal to talk with Israel means the PA can no longer provide the one service Hamas actually needs from it. Meanwhile, Egypt has proven an effective substitute. Thus its incentive to make a deal, never high, has declined even further.

Ironically, Hamas recently taught Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan an identical lesson. When the Hamas-Israel conflict erupted in November, Erdogan lavished rhetorical support on Hamas, but having refused for years to talk with Israel, he was unable to do anything more constructive. It was Egypt that brokered the cease-fire Hamas needed, thereby receiving worldwide kudos for successful diplomacy. Erdogan was reduced to pathetically trying to share the credit by proclaiming that his spy chief, too, met an Israeli official in Cairo during the cease-fire talks–an effort that convinced nobody (except, perhaps, his hardcore supporters in Turkey).

So far, neither Erdogan nor Abbas has been willing to climb down from his tree. But Erdogan can afford it: As the leader of a Middle Eastern powerhouse and one of President Barack Obama’s closest confidants, he has other venues in which to prove his relevance. Abbas, the leader of a perpetually bankrupt entity whose conflict with Israel is the world’s sole reason for being interested in him, may discover that he doesn’t have the same luxury.