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Israeli Cabinet Mulls Dwindling Options

Military Cautions Against Cutting Ties With Ramallah Over Unity Government

Jun. 8, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By BARBARA OPALL-ROME   |   Comments
PALESTINIAN-POLITICS-GOVERNMENT-HAMAS-ABBAS
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Palestinian unity government in the West Bank city of Ramallah June 2. (Abbas Momani / Getty Images)
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TEL AVIV — Israel’s raging rejection of the new Hamas-backed Palestinian government should not stop its military and secret services from continued security coordination with forces commanded by Fatah authorities in Ramallah, experts here say.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been urging world powers to boycott the government, which was installed on June 2 for purposes of reconciling the seven-year rift between Islamist militant leaders in Gaza and secular Fatah-led authorities in the West Bank.

But after failing to convince Washington, the EU and the other four permanent UN Security Council members to snub the reconciliation government, the fuming, “deeply troubled” prime minister, vowed to hold Palestine Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas “directly responsible” for terror attacks emanating from his reunited jurisdiction.

Netanyahu’s office announced on June 2 that Israel’s security cabinet unanimously authorized the Israeli leader to impose additional sanctions on the PA.

It reaffirmed the government’s refusal to negotiate with a government backed by Hamas, “a terrorist organization which calls for the destruction of Israel.”

The cabinet also decided “to form a team to consider ways of action given the new reality that has been created.”

Beyond its June 4 approval of 1,500 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and additional builds to come, a government official said punitive action could include a cutoff of Israeli-supplied electricity to the Gaza Strip and a campaign in the US Congress to cut off PA funding.

But as the Netanyahu government mulls contingency plans for delegitimizing — and possibly combating — the new polity that represents Hamas, experts here warn that Israel’s options are dwindling.

Despite Israel’s best efforts to blame Abbas for the collapsed US-led peace talks, the latest diplomatic rebuff by the international community leaves Israel virtually alone to grapple with the consequences of prospective Hamas-Fatah rapprochement.

“The government is out of options and it’s running out of friends,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli government negotiator with the Palestinians who headed Israel’s consulate in New York.

“Netanyahu had only one option, and that was to engage in some kind of peace process, even if it wouldn’t have led to anything,” Pinkas said. “But what happened? He’s been outmaneuvered by Abbas.”

In a June 5 interview, Pinkas noted the validity of government hardliners opposed to negotiating with the PA because it did not represent Palestinians in Gaza. “But now, with the PA extending a certain amount of its authority to Gaza, instead of applauding this reconciliation as a step in the right direction, this government is resorted to making hollow threats.”

Even top military officers here are cautioning government leaders against actions that could further destabilize the West Bank. Specifically, military officers are urging the government not to curtail security coordination with Fatah-commanded forces in the West Bank.

“We need the PA to be demilitarized, without strategic partners and effective enough to deal with their needs in countering terror,” a top officer on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) General Staff told Defense News.

The officer cited the oft-repeated operational policy of Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, a former IDF chief of staff, who supported security ties with the US-funded, Jordanian-trained PA Security Forces (PASF). “Gabi Ashkenazi said the more they do, the less we do. This is still in effect,” he said.

“Now if they don’t do anything or don’t do enough or allow themselves to be compromised by terrorist elements, we’ll have no choice but to go in with the forces needed to deal with problems that may arise,” the officer said.

Avi Mizrahi, a retired IDF major general and former commander of the theater that includes the West Bank, said that despite the high-profile reconciliation, he didn’t expect Fatah to allow Hamas members or sympathizers into the ranks of its security forces.

“They know the minute they allow Hamas to gain leadership, their survival is at stake. Fatah is afraid of Hamas more than they’re afraid of us,” he said.

In a June 5 interview, Mizrahi said a precipitous halt in Israeli-PA security coordination would serve as a “tail wind” for Hamas’ eventual takeover of the West Bank.

“What’s the alternative? If there’s no security coordination, the IDF will have to invest huge amounts of money in added force structure and operational tempo. That’s exactly what the government doesn’t need in the midst of the current budget crisis … even if it’s willing to risk the diplomatic consequences of such action,” Mizrahi said.

In a May 29 press conference in Ramallah, Abbas insisted security coordination with Israel would continue under the reconciliation government. “Security arrangements are holy, holy, yes it is holy and we will continue it,” Abbas said.

In his weekly column published June 6 in Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s largest daily, veteran commentator Nahum Barnea noted that both Netanyahu and Abbas speak very loudly against one another, but carry a very negligible stick.

“Abu Mazen understands that he can attack Israel in speeches as if there’s a war, but continue cooperating with Israel as if there were peace,” Barnea wrote.

Likewise, he suggested that Netanyahu’s appeals to foreign leaders to boycott the new government are disingenuous. “Imagine that Angela Merkel or François Hollande would heed Netanyahu’s position and halt their generous funding support of the PA. The government of Israel would find it difficult to deal with the blow.”

Nevertheless, Israeli leaders are continuing to press for international rejection of the new reconciliation government.

Speaking June 5 with defense attachés stationed in Israel, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon insisted Palestinian reconciliation would not result in Fatah control of Gaza or a moderate government that rejects terrorism and violence.

“For us it’s quite clear: Abu Mazen will not control the Gaza Strip. If he reconciles with Hamas we will oblige him to control Gaza and strip Hamas of its weaponry. And if he doesn’t do this, it means this so-called reconciliation is a façade aimed at fooling the world,” Ya’alon said.

In efforts to ease Israeli angst, US Secretary of State John Kerry insisted Washington would be assessing the new government on a daily basis to ensure it comports with US law.

He was referring to the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 and funding restrictions from the 2014 Omnibus Appropriations Act, which “prohibit US assistance to Hamas or any power-sharing government of which Hamas is a member or over which Hamas has undue influence.”

Speaking to reporters in Beirut June 4, Kerry said Abbas has “made clear that this new technocratic government is committed to the principles of nonviolence, negotiations, recognizing the state of Israel, acceptance of the previous agreements… and that they will continue their previously agreed upon security cooperation with Israel.”

He added that US officials have validated Abbas’ claims “that the interim technocratic government does not include any ministers who are affiliated with Hamas.” ■

Email: bopallrome@defensenews.com.

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