In the latest showdown between Israel and the Palestinians, it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who blinked Tuesday, after it became clear no other country, including the United States, would join him in opposing the Palestinians’ controversial new “unity” government – largely a group of unaffiliated technocrats agreed on by the PLO and Hamas.
Even Canada, Israel’s strongest backer under the government of Stephen Harper, quietly made an ambiguous statement reaffirming its position that Hamas is “a listed terrorist organization under Canadian law” but that Canada would deal with a Palestinian government that “renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel’s right to exist,” which the unity government has done.
For Mr. Netanyahu, who denounced the involvement of Hamas in no uncertain terms on Monday and received his cabinet’s authorization to invoke whatever sanctions against the Palestinians he saw fit, the actions he chose to take turned out to be very measured.
The toughest penalty was to make it more difficult for Palestinian cabinet ministers to travel across Israel between the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Each request for permission is to be individually considered, Israel announced.
The Israeli government said it would not negotiate with the Palestinian unity government – although no negotiations are planned. It also said it will hold the Palestinian government responsible for any rocket or other attack on Israel from either the West Bank or Gaza Strip, oppose Hamas running for parliament in Palestinian elections to take place in six months’ time, and won’t permit any campaigning or voting in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem (which Israel claims to have annexed).
What Israel did not do, however, was say it wouldn’t recognize the new Palestinian government. Nor did it say it would boycott the members of the cabinet, or completely forbid contact with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Even the tried and true punishment of withholding tax revenue was not invoked. Instead, the government settled for deducting some 20 million shekels (about $6-million), from the 400 million shekels or so it collects each month on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, to cover the cost of electricity from Israel.
And the Israelis made sure that their security co-operation with the Palestinian Authority was unaffected by all this.
Several Israeli cabinet ministers railed against the Palestinian move Monday. Naftali Bennett, leader of the settler-oriented Jewish Home party, called for severing all ties with what he called a “government of terrorists in suits.”
He insisted his long-standing proposal to annex parts of the West Bank be considered. A a special committee was formed to examine it, although Shimon Shiffer, a columnist for the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, described it as “a sop to Bennett” rather than a serious policy change.
It didn’t take long for the international community to make clear where it stood. Turkey was the first to recognize the unity government. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has supported the Hamas government in Gaza for several years.
Barely five hours after the Palestinian cabinet had been sworn in, the Obama administration announced it “will work with this government.”
“It appears that President Abbas has formed an interim technocratic government that does not include ministers affiliated with Hamas,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. It will be judged “by its actions,” she said.
It was “like a knife in the back,” a senior official told Israel Hayom, the newspaper considered closest to Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Netanyahu was quoted saying he was “deeply disappointed” by the news. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had assured him only a few days ago that Washington would not immediately recognize any unity government, Mr. Netanyahu reportedly told his cabinet.
Once word came about U.S. acceptance, the floodgates opened. China was next to endorse the new government, then India, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. All stressed that their recognition was conditional on the government renouncing violence, recognizing Israel and accepting previous agreements entered into with the Jewish state.
With France, Mr. Netanyahu took the unusual step of telephoning President Francois Holland, then releasing details of their conversation in which he appealed to the leader to reject the Palestinian government. The tactic didn’t work. France too endorsed the new Palestinian entity.