Reports on a possible agreement reached between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas gave rise to numerous comments on the possibility of a quick settlement of the Middle East conflict and the emergence of an independent Palestinian State on the political map of the world. Taking into account that the sides have repeatedly arrived at similar agreements before – those were not only reported by the press but actually agreed upon by Israel and Palestinian Authority – the recent forecasts for the light at the end of the tunnel look far too optimistic.
For instance, we may as well recall a deal struck by Ehud Barak, the then prime minister of Israel (currently serving as the Israeli defense minister) and Yasser Arafat. At the time experts and commentators also speculated at length over a larger part of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and even a part of the Old Town and the exchange of territories for the sake of retaining the major Israeli settlements. The deal seemed to be quite sensational yet it failed to materialize. The agreement, which could have led to the speedy formation of an independent Palestinian State, brought about “al-Aksa Intifada” instead.
Consequently, the peace process in the Middles East came to a standstill. Compared with his successor to the chair of the Palestinian Authority, Arafat was in full control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip at the time. Besides, Arafat’s Fatah faction was a classic example of a “ruling party” back then. Any strengthening of Hamas or a victory of the militant group in the parliament election seemed completely out the question. Despite the above factors, the Palestinian revolt broke out. Perhaps Arafat saw Barak’s concessions as evidence of Israel’s weakness. On the strength of such an interpretation, Arafat might have decided that he should take a tougher stand on his partner who “had chickened out.”
Unlike Arafat in his time, Mahmoud Abbas does not have much room for maneuvering these days. Abbas would face political suicide (and most likely the physical variety of it) should he try to pull up a fight against Israel with a standoff between Fatah and Hamas still in progress. On the contrary, Hamas may see a possible agreement as a sign of weakness shown by both Abbas and Olmert. It is worthy of notice that the militant group now holds sway over the part of the Palestinian Authority which is supposed to become part of the new Palestinian state too. It would be odd to assume that the new state would be created at a time when Fatah is growing stronger on the West Bank while Hamas is strengthening its defenses on the Gaza Strip.
Moreover, Abbas expects that his deal with Israel should primarily enable him to regain control over the whole territory of the Palestinian Authority; the formation of the Palestinian State should be his next priority. Hamas has a powerful grip not only on the Gaza Strip. The militant group looks set to make every possible effort to get in the way of Abbas and break up any possible agreement. The intentions of Hamas became quite clear following last week’s interview by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to EuroNews TV Channel. Haniyeh made clear Hamas would not make any compromises to Israel or the West. Hamas leader also stressed the point that his group was still expecting to succeed by pursuing the same touch policy.
That is the reason why Israel would not see any agreement with Abbas as a sign of readiness for the emergence of the Palestinian State in the near future; rather as a display of Israel’s free will for the sake of settlement of the current crisis in the Middle East. The agreement could raise Abbas’ hopes for staging a comeback in the Gaza Strip, whereas Hamas would take it as a signal for mounting an offensive on the West Bank. All in all, it would be difficult to see an independent and viable Palestinian State looming on the horizon if any of the scenarios takes shape.
Translated by Guerman Grachev