For Benjamin Netanyahu, timing is a beautiful thing.
When Mahmoud Abbas announced the formation of a Fatah-Hamas unity government on Wednesday, Bibi knew he had it made. He pulled out of the peace talks on Thursday, doing the smartest possible thing at the smartest possible moment. Not the wise thing, not the morally right thing — but, strategically speaking, the smart thing. Here’s why.
1. Abbas gave Israel the perfect out, at the perfect moment
The deadline for U.S.-brokered peace talks — April 29 — was looming, and it really looked as if John Kerry’s endeavor was going to come to an end with a whimper. If that were to happen, Israel would come out looking pretty bad, what with the ongoing settlement building and merciless mocking of Kerry that have characterized its participation in the process.
But then, all of a sudden, Abbas announced something nobody was expecting: a unity accord with — Hamas! Hamas, the internationally recognized terrorist group! What could be easier to condemn? Could anyone have imagined a better excuse to call it quits? It was almost too good to be true.
2. Condemning Fatah-Hamas unity implies a Catch-22, but the public won’t see it
There is, of course, a glaring Catch-22 inherent in condemning Fatah-Hamas unity. The Forward’s J.J. Goldberg summed it up perfectly:
Last week there was no point in Israel closing a deal with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority because it could only speak for the West Bank half of the Palestinians, given that Gaza is controlled by Hamas. Today there’s no point in closing a deal because the Palestinian Authority is finalizing an agreement for joint rule with Hamas, which will put it in partnership with a terrorist organization sworn to Israel’s destruction.
Luckily, Bibi could feel reasonably confident that most people wouldn’t latch onto this absurdity. The pro-Israel right, happily Facebooking and tweeting the gruesome Hamas-inflicted death stats that the Israeli government loves to disseminate on social media, would feel that Abbas had just confirmed their suspicions (“See, he never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity!”). As for the left-wingers scrolling down the long list of countries that have designated Hamas a terrorist group, they would find themselves at an uncomfortable loss for what to say — after all, Hamas has shed a lot of innocent blood — and so would say nothing.
And here, too, timing was on Bibi’s side. Because it just so happened that Abbas’s announcement came…
3. Just in time for Holocaust Remembrance Day!
That the Fatah-Hamas unity accord was announced just days before Yom HaShoah was icing on the cake for Bibi. It allowed him to make Hamas/Nazi comparisons galore. It gave him the perfect excuse to fill his speeches and social media platforms with statements like “Hamas denies the Holocaust even as it attempts to create an additional Holocaust by destroying the State of Israel.”
If some Jews around the world thought it was tacky of him to exploit the memory of the six million for the sake of a political play — well, what of it? He was on a roll.
4. Abbas’s announcement caught Kerry completely off guard
And just when he was about to throw them a party, too.
As Haaretz reported, Kerry could not help taking the Palestinians’ surprise move as a personal insult — especially since it happened exactly one day ahead of a big shindig he was organizing for them in Washington. This party turned out to be a particularly embarrassing affair, since it was supposed to be about firing up the Palestinian economy and laying the foundation for a future Palestinian state.
Since Abbas was the one who rained on Kerry’s parade, the Palestinians were the ones to catch the initial brunt of his outrage. In those first public-image-defining moments, he was too furious with the Palestinians to spare much fury for the Israelis.
5. Bibi knows Israel will get what it wants out of the U.S. anyway
Bibi has been around the negotiations block before and, as Emily Hauser pointed out, he knows by now what will happen if he contravenes American wishes: nothing. A slap on the wrist, maybe, but no real consequences. The U.S. will still support Israel at the U.N., will still bankroll it, will still insist on its right to be recognized as a Jewish state. Maintaining the status quo has always served Israel well — it means that, with every year, more settlements get built and the national conversation tilts a little more heavily to the right — so why change gears now?
Of course, there are a million reasons why changing gears now would be the right and wise thing to do: 47 years is a long time to perpetuate an occupation, no matter what your rationale; international opinion is increasingly turning against Israel, with negative economic results; the Palestinians, having already achieved statehood status at the U.N., are bound to find more sympathy and success in that arena before long; as far as its own population, Israel is sending a message to the messianic right-wing fringe that they should keep on putting their ugliest face forward, because it works; even trusty old Kerry is starting to say that, if it goes on this way, Israel risks becoming “an apartheid state”.
There’s no doubt about it: If Bibi had really wanted to do what was right and wise, he would have handled the peace negotiations very, very differently. But then he wouldn’t be Bibi.