Prof. Hillel FrischThe author is Senior Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies. Hillel.firstname.lastname@example.org. Cambridge University Press has just published his book Israel's Security and its Arab Citizens.
When Abbas arrives in Washington, he and his retinue will be focused on exclusively three issues – making sure that the settlement freeze continues, that aid which covers over 70 per cent of the Palestinian Authority budget will
The fanfare of appearances in Washington, then, is calculated to make up for the absence of substance.
continue to flow into its coffers, and that there will be sufficient "momentum" in the peace process to placate the "Arab street." Any meaningful progress towards peace is simply beyond these West Bankers’ hopes or capabilities. Oddly enough, this very low threshold of expectations is supported by the only states that matter to the West Bankers – the United States, Egypt (and far less importantly, the other moderate Arab states) and of course Israel. The fanfare of appearances in Washington, then, is calculated to make up for the absence of substance.
Substantive progress in negotiating peace is hardly what Abbas and the West Bankers want, let alone feel they can get. The real reason for their reticence in making such progress since 2007 is related to the danger Hamas poses to the West Bank leadership. Though the number of West Bankers arrested by Israeli forces declined from 8,000 in 2006 to 5,000 in 2009, their sheer numbers still indicate that Hamas, and to a much lesser extent, Islamic Jihad, remain a substantial threat to Abbas, and that the threat of a Hamas takeover in Judea and Samaria has yet to dissipate.
Dealing with this threat entails good security cooperation between Abbas and Israeli security forces – an arrangement in which Israel deals with the Hamas terrorist infrastructure by night while Abbas’ security forces harass Hamas terrorists Israel releases by day – as well as the dismantling of social infrastructure that Hamas has created painstakingly over the years.
Abbas is essentially using the IDF to gain the kind of political and security foothold Arab leaders recognize as being essential to the art of ruling. He is also assuming the role of the traditional Arab ruler – controlling all the funds, avoiding elections (which will only be held if the outcome is a foregone conclusion), reducing the regime’s party to an arm of the executive, allowing no opposition, and making sure that his picture appears daily on the front page of the media. Only such a ruler qualifies as a member of the quintessential Arab leaders’ club.
Such security cooperation can hardly take place once any kind of peace arrangement is achieved. At that point, Israeli security presence in Judea and Samaria, a daily feature of West Bank life since the Defensive Shield operation in April 2002, would have to cease. This would leave Abbas’ security forces to face Hamas alone. So, Abbas prefers not to make progress in the peace talks until the terrorist swamp is more effectively dried up. He is treading on that path but has not gotten far enough to make the kind of progress in the peace process that would make Israeli security forays politically impossible.
All the major political actors with whom Abbas has to deal – the US, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and of course Israel, concur on this point. Every al-Qaida gain in Somalia, every Islamist attack in Iraq, Yemen, and even as far away as Morocco; every Hizballah provocation against al-Hariri’s government in Lebanon, often at Iran’s bidding, not to speak of terrorism in Sinai that may be related to Hamas, reinforce the idea that a Hamas takeover in the West Bank must be averted at all costs. This means, then, that no substantial progress in the peace talks can be made before such a danger is dealt with.
At the same time, the Iranian and Islamist threat to the “Western” alliance requires from the perspective of these political actors, with the exception of Israel, the impression of movement in the negotiations between Abbas and Netanyahu. This is necessary in order to placate the “Arab street” – to prevent it from threatening the moderate governments or feeding the ranks of the radicals – and to create the kind of political environment that would allow
No matter how adept Abbas becomes at ruling the West Bank, he is incapable of bringing the Gazans into the peace process.
the United States and Israel to deal with the far more imminent Iranian nuclear threat.
Israel must not be diverted from pursuing its national interests by the “Arab street” argument. The Arab states, including Yemen and even the major political forces in Iraq, will fight to the death to maintain their privilege to rule. Note how successfully the Arab Gulf states have coped with the terrorist fallout in Iraq. They know how to reign in the Arab street with or without impressions of movement, which the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are intended to convey.
In any event, the Arab street cannot be fooled by impressions.
So too, Israel should live under no illusions of its own. While it is true that bolstering the Arab state system is the bulwark against both the Iranian and Islamist threat, Israel must challenge the idea that this is predicated on the creation of a Palestinian state. No matter how adept Abbas becomes at ruling the West Bank, he is incapable of bringing the Gazans into the peace process. If ever a peace treaty were signed between Israel and Abbas, we can be assured that Hamas will launch Qassam rockets to make sure that the conflict is not terminated.