Commentary Magazine


Can Abbas Challenge Hamas? Not Likely.

After 50 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas, many in the international community are hoping the cease-fire will encourage a revival of the Middle East peace talks between the Jewish state and the Palestinian Authority that collapsed this past spring. But while Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has welcomed the possibility, at least in theory, he does have one request of PA head Mahmoud Abbas: divorce Hamas. Is he being unreasonable?

The short answer is no.

Abbas has been the darling of the Western media and the Obama administration in recent years largely because of their antipathy for Netanyahu. His popularity has only increased recently because of the implicit comparison with Hamas whose decision to plunge the country into war resulted in death and destruction for the people of Gaza and achieved nothing for the Palestinians. Nothing, that is, except the satisfaction of killing 70 Jews and the spectacle of seeing most Israelis being obligated to run back and forth to bomb shelters to evade the largely ineffectual Hamas barrage of thousands of rockets. Hamas started the conflict when its members kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teens and they relentlessly escalated it at every turn despite Netanyahu’s acceptance of cease-fire offers that would have saved most of those Palestinians who were killed in the fighting.

This behavior was egregious enough that even Abbas felt he could get away with criticizing his Islamist rivals when he said this week that all of the deaths, injuries and damage done by the fighting could have been avoided and questioning the future of his unity pact with Hamas. But Abbas, who reportedly met with Netanyahu earlier this week, isn’t likely to throw Hamas out of his PA government. Though Hamas is unlikely to ever allow the PA back into Gaza as they agreed, the unity pact signed this past spring was Abbas’s ticket out of negotiations with Israel and, as such, allows him to posture as if he wants peace to Western audiences while reminding fellow Palestinians that he is just as committed to the long war against Israel as the Islamists.

The gap between reality and what Abbas says in public gets bigger all the time. While Abbas talks big about going back to the United Nations in order to force Israel to completely withdraw from the West Bank, there’s not much secret about the fact that the only thing keeping him in secure possession of his headquarters in Ramallah, not to mention, his life, is the protection afforded him by Israel’s security services. As the news about a planned Hamas coup against Abbas that was foiled by the Shin Bet proved, the last thing the PA leader actually wants is a West Bank without an Israeli security presence.

Yet if Abbas was really serious about obtaining an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem, he must know that the only way to do so is to convince Israelis that it would not turn into another version of Gaza. Israelis remember that they withdrew every soldier, settlement and settler from Gaza in 2005 in the hope of encouraging peace only to realize that what they had done was to provide Hamas with the opportunity of running a terrorist state on their doorstop. Given the ease with which Hamas ousted Fatah from the strip, it’s fair to ask why anyone would expect a different outcome if a similar experiment were tried in the West Bank.

Yet despite everything, Abbas clings to the pact with Hamas as if somehow this will save him. It won’t.

If we assume that Abbas truly wants a peace deal with Israel and statehood rather than just an excuse to keep avoiding peace talks, there is actually only one path to that outcome. While Netanyahu speaks of the necessity of a Fatah-Hamas divorce, what is needed is a PA decision to finally break with Hamas and to fight it just as Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi has done with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Israel would love to see Abbas march into Gaza and oust Hamas from control as the unity pact supposedly promised. But given the weakness of the PA forces and the resolute nature of Hamas’s armed cadres (who massacred Fatah supporters when they seized the strip in a 2007 coup) that has about as much chance of happening as the Fatah government ridding itself of corruption. But if a two-state solution is to become a reality rather than a theory that is what it will take.

Until it does, all discussions of Israeli withdrawals or PA statehood initiatives are merely hot air. In his 10 years of power, Abbas has never shown the slightest indication that he is willing to do what it takes to achieve peace as opposed to just posture in order to appear belligerent in front of his own people. If Abbas is not a cipher that will never challenge Hamas, then he’s going to have to prove it. Unfortunately, nothing we have seen before, during or after the summer war with Hamas should lead anyone to think that he can.

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