Not only the Palestinians must be breathing a deep sigh of relief after the swearing in of the Palestinian National Unity Government. We Israelis have good reason to do the same.
This event is a great blessing, not only for them, but also for us - if indeed we are interested in a peace that will put an end to the historic conflict.
For the Palestinians, the immediate blessing is the elimination of the threat of civil war.
That was a nightmare. It was also absurd. Palestinian fighters were shooting at each other in the streets of Gaza, gladdening the hearts of the occupation authorities. As in the arena of ancient Rome, gladiators killed each other for the amusement of the spectators. People who had spent years together in Israeli prisons suddenly acted like mortal enemies.
That was not yet a civil war. But the bloody incidents could have led there. Many Palestinians were worried that if the clashes were not stopped immediately, a fully-fledged fratricidal war would indeed break out. That was, of course, also the great hope of the Israeli government - that Hamas and Fatah would annihilate each other without Israel having to lift a finger. The Israeli intelligence services did indeed predict this.
I was not worried on that account. In my view, a Palestinian civil war was never in the cards.
First of all, because the basic conditions for a civil war are absent. The Palestinian people are unified in their ethnic, cultural and historical composition. Palestine does not resemble Iraq, with its three peoples who are distinct ethnically (Arabs and Kurds), religiously (Shiites and Sunnites) and geographically (North, Center and South). It does not resemble Ireland, where the Protestants, the descendents of settlers, were fighting the Catholic descendents of the indigenous population. It does not resemble African countries, whose borders were fixed by colonial masters without any consideration of tribal boundaries. It certainly had no revolutionary upheaval like those that brought on the civil wars in England, France and Russia, nor an issue that split the population like slavery in the USA.
The bloody incidents that broke out in the Gaza Strip were struggles between party militias, aggravated by feuds between Hamulahs (extended families). History has seen such struggles in almost all liberation movements. For example: after World War I, when the British were compelled to grant Home Rule to the Irish, a bloody struggle among the freedom fighters broke out at once. Irish Catholics killed Irish Catholics.
In the days of the struggle of the Jewish community in Palestine against the British colonial regime ("the Mandate"), a civil war was averted only thanks to one person: Menachem Begin, the commander of the Irgun. He was determined to prevent a fratricidal war at all costs. David Ben-Gurion wanted to eliminate the Irgun, which rejected his leadership and undermined his policies. In the so-called "season", he ordered his loyal Haganah organization to kidnap Irgun members and turn them over to the British police, which tortured them and put them in prison abroad. But Begin prohibited his men from using their weapons to defend themselves against Jews.
Such a struggle among the Palestinians will not turn into a civil war, because the entire Palestinian people oppose this strenuously. Everybody remembers that during the Arab Rebellion of 1936, the Palestinian leader at that time, the Grand Mufti Hadj Amin al-Husseini, butchered his Palestinian rivals. During the three years of the rebellion (called "the Events" in Zionist terminology) Palestinians killed more of each other than they killed of their British and Jewish opponents.
The result: when the Palestinian people came face to face with their supreme existential test, in the war of 1948, they were split and splintered, lacking unified leadership and dependent on the mercies of the bickering Arab governments, who were intriguing against each other. They were unable to stand up to the much smaller organized Jewish community, which rapidly set up a unified and efficient army. The result was the "Naqba", the terrible historic tragedy of the Palestinian people. What happened in 1936 still touches the life of every single Palestinian to this very day.
It is difficult to start a civil war if the people are against it. Even provocations from outside - and I assume that there has been no lack of these - cannot ignite it.
Therefore I did not doubt for a moment that in the end a Unity Government would indeed come about, and I am glad that this has now happened.
Why is this good for Israel? I am going to say something that will shock many Israelis and their friends in the world:
If Hamas did not exist, it would have to be invented.
If a Palestinian government had been set up without Hamas, we should have to boycott it until Hamas was included.
And if negotiations do lead to a historical settlement with the Palestinian leadership, we should make it a condition that Hamas, too, must sign it.
Sounds crazy? Of course. But that is the lesson history teaches us from the experience of other wars of liberation.
The Palestinian population in the occupied territories is almost evenly divided between Fatah and Hamas. It makes no sense at all to sign an agreement with half a people and continue the war against the other half. After all, we shall make serious concessions for peace - such as withdrawing to much narrower borders and giving East Jerusalem back to its owners. Shall we do so in return for an agreement that half the Palestinian people will not accept and will not be committed to? To me this sounds like the height of folly.
I shall go further: Hamas and Fatah together represent only the part of the Palestinian people that lives in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. But millions of Palestinian refugees (no one knows for sure how many) live outside of the territory of Palestine and Israel.
If we strive indeed for a complete end to the historic conflict, we must reach out for a solution that includes them, too. Therefore I strongly question the wisdom of Tzipi Livni and her colleagues, who demand that the Saudis drop from their peace plan any mention of the refugee problem. Simply put: that is stupid.
Common sense would advise the exact opposite: to demand that the Saudi peace initiative, which has become an official pan-Arab peace plan, include the matter of the refugees, so that the final agreement will also constitute a solution of the refugee problem.
That will not be easy, for sure. The refugee problem has psychological roots that touch the very heart of the Palestinian-Zionist conflict, and it concerns the fate of millions of living human beings. But when the Arab peace plan says that there must be an "agreed upon" solution - meaning agreed upon with Israel - it transfers it from the realm of irreconcilable ideologies to the real world, the world of negotiations and compromise. I have discussed this many times with Arab personalities, and I am convinced that an agreement is possible.
The new Palestinian government is based on the "Mecca agreement". It seems that it would not have been possible without the energetic intervention of King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia.
The international background has to be considered. The President of the United States is now busy with desperate efforts to bring his Iraqi adventure to a conclusion that will not go down in history as a total disaster. For this purpose he is trying to bring together a Sunni Front that would block Iran and help to put an end to the Sunni violence in Iraq.
That is, of course, a simplistic idea. It disregards the enormous complexity of the realities of our region. Bush has presided over the setting up in Iraq of a government dominated by the Shiites. He has tried to isolate Sunni Syria. And Hamas is, of course, a pious Sunni organization.
But the American ship of state is beginning to turn around. Being a giant ship, it can do this only very slowly. Under American pressure, the Saudi king has agreed (perhaps unwillingly) to take upon himself the leadership of the Arab world, after Egypt has failed in this task. The king has persuaded Bush that he has to speak with Syria. Now he is trying to persuade him to accept Hamas.
In this picture, Israel is a hindrance. A few days ago Ehud Olmert flew to America and told the conference of the Jewish lobby, AIPAC, that a withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster (contrary, by the way, to the opinion of more than 80% of American Jews - who support early withdrawal.) This week, the US ambassador in Tel-Aviv hinted that from now on the Government of Israel is allowed to conduct negotiations with Syria - and it may be assumed that this hint will turn into an order before long. In the meantime, no change in the position of the Israeli government is noticeable.
Unfortunately, just at this moment, with a newly formed Palestinian government that has a good chance of being strong and stable, the government of Israel is becoming more and more destabilized.
Olmert's support rating in the polls is approaching zero. The percentage points can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Practically everybody speaks about his political demise within weeks, perhaps after the publication of the interim report of the Vinograd commission on the Second Lebanon War. But even if Olmert manages to survive, his will be a lame duck government, unable to start anything new, and certainly no bold initiative vis-à-vis the new Palestinian government.
But if Bush supports us on one side, and the Saudi king on the other, perhaps we shall after all take a few steps forward. As people in this region say: in sha Allah, if God wills.
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