Israel’s Pavlovian response to Palestinian reconciliation, which included the usual threats of boycott, is the result of the ingrained anxiety of people who no longer control the process. For five years, Israel has done everything to change the outcome of Hamas’ watershed victory in the elections in the territories. It did not recognize the Hamas government or the unity government, and of course, it did not recognize the Hamas government that arose after that organization’s brutal takeover of the Gaza Strip.
Gaza became a synonym for Hamas; that is, for terror, and the West Bank stood for the land of unlimited possibilities. Israel made an enormous contribution toward building up Hamas into an institution, not only an organization. The cruel closure of Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, turning Gaza into a battle zone and the saga of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, with Israel continuing to negotiate with Hamas while striking out against it – all this has transformed Gaza into a symbol of the occupation and a focus of international empathy.
This self-delusion refuses to recognize the changing reality in the Middle East, the changing of the guard among leaders and peoples and the self-interested moves of Western powers that are longing for new partnerships in the Middle East to replace the ones that have disappeared. Israel is not included in that new address list. Its good name is being torn to shreds.
But Israel has a rare opportunity to rewind the film back five years – not only to understand that the two parts of the Palestinian people are one entity, but to correct the mistakes it made in 2006. It must deal with the entire Palestinian government, even if that government includes Hamas representatives. Israel can, of course, repeat its mistakes, but then Israel, and not the Palestinian state, will become a country that threatens its own citizens.
The path to Palestinian reconciliation is still long, and the path to statehood even longer. In the alleys of Jenin and the tunnels of Rafah there is still nothing to celebrate. In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv there is still nothing to worry about, to feel threatened by or even to rejoice about – as if we have been given a public relations “asset.” If a unity government is set up, and if free elections are held, there will be a new possibility. Israel needs to welcome this, with the appropriate reservations.
How depressing was the South African Freedom Day party in Tel Aviv over the weekend. While South African ambassador Ismail Coovadia, a person who knows a thing or two about “terrorist organizations” with which it is “forbidden” to negotiate, and whose representatives have been governing for the past 20 years a free and relatively impressive country, spoke about the chances of Palestinian reconciliation, minister Benny Begin sought to frighten those present about the prospect of democratization in the Arab world, painting as black a picture as possible. That is because we are unchanged. The days go by, a year passes, but the song remains the same.