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New Palestinian unity – but how will Israel respond?

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AS Europe reels from its debt disaster, and the Arab Spring turns into an exciting summer, Israel faces a crossroads.

With its political house stagnating in a quagmire of right-wing coalitions, its leadership now finds itself out-of-step in the region, and besieged by imaginary demons such as Iran – a country whose aged air-force it could wipe out in ten minutes.

The Middle East has changed, and as Israel’s point men in Arab states such as Egypt’s Omar Suleiman disappear, obstacles to peace and progress on the Palestinian situation melt away too.

This leaves Israeli hawks, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, facing a dilemma: for how much longer can they bluff and bristle that Palestinian leadership can’t be negotiated with?

This is because the divided Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, agreed to a unity deal in May this year. Largely brokered behind the scenes, it was a deal that would see the establishment of a caretaker government with an eye to presidential and parliamentary elections.

After the elections – and this is probably what spooks Israel too – is that there would be a concerted effort to open and rebuild Gaza, its infrastructure and economy shattered by years of attrition and siege.

This Egyptian-brokered pact has not received much international publicity, but its potential long-term effects could be far-reaching. With Israel having refused to talk to a divided Palestinian leadership, the ball will very soon be bouncing invitingly in it’s court – particularly in light of Hamas’s presence at the table.

Brokered by Egypt with the co-operation of Syria and significantly, Turkey, the conciliation between the two parties ended a destructive four-year stalemate, one which began when Hamas stunned Israel by winning the 2006 parliamentary elections.

With Israel proclaiming it would not work with a Palestinian government that included Hamas, an organisation whom it regarded as “terrorist”, sanctions and a Western-led boycott were instituted.

Things were further complicated by the Bush regime’s covert meddling in Gaza by supplying arms to Fatah, and Fatah security forces refusing to take orders from Hamas. A stand-off in Gaza resulted. President Mahmoud Abbas suspended Hamas’ government in 2007, and created an emergency one on the West Bank.

The Egyptian deal – apart from ending the Palestinian political impasse – has seen Khalid Meshaal, Hamas’s leader in exile, formally agreeing that the organisation would recognise Israel’s 1967 borders. This is an idea that had been floated from various Hamas platforms since the days of Shaikh Ahmad Yassin.

Meshaal’s stamp of approval is, effectively, recognition of the state of Israel – something demanded vociferously by Israel and the US as a pre-condition for settlement talks.

In addition, Meshaal agreed that Hamas – like Fatah – would abide by international law, the UN Charter and UN Resolutions on Palestine. To this effect, Robert Fisk of The Independent quotes Munib Masri, one of the chief intermediaries, as saying that Meshaal had also made undertakings on the nature of Palestinian resistance.

Resistance, Meshaal had said, would only be seen in the broader “national interest of the country” and would have to be ethical. In other words, there would be no more rocket attacks on civilians from Gaza.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction was predictably brusque, and he brushed aside any suggestion of positive developments. He said he would not talk to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as long as Hamas was in government.

But in 2011 the Arab street, that sociological chestnut, is no longer prepared to accept Israeli bluster. There are no longer pliant despots ruling in Cairo, Tunis and other capitals willing to enforce unpopular US-Israeli policy under the counter.

The clichés are fast being swept aside, and there are few Palestinians or Arabs anywhere, for example, who will agree today that the notion of pushing Israel into the Mediterranean will solve the Palestinian conflict.

Talk may be of resistance (resistance justified by international law), but it is no longer that of quixotic jihad or regional war. Israel, thrust into the midst of the Arab world by political events of the 19th century, is now seen as a political reality that has to be dealt with realistically.

What Tel Aviv’s policy makers have to appreciate is that the crude sabre-rattling days of Gamal Nasser, Saddam Hussein and the Islamists have gone. Sentiment from Amman to Ankara is that Mid East security will best be served by sound economic policy, military disengagement, political diplomacy and Palestinian enfranchisement.

Israel may indeed be the only Middle Eastern state with nuclear power, but in the region old-fashioned Cold War psychosis no longer has any intimidatory effect. The Arab world that has lost the terror of its own bloodthirsty dictators has also lost its fear of Israel.

It’s a new mindset, and one that must confound Tel-Aviv’s security establishment. Its hasbara of international jihad, Islamic terror and incompetent Palestinian leadership have become as anachronistic as the idea of an Arab Sheikh buying a new Cadillac just because his ashtrays are full.

But there is a fine distinction that has to be made here: Palestinians will recognise Israel as a political entity, but not as an ethnic state. This, apart from being racial exceptionalism, will deny the historical identity of Muslim and Christian Arabs within its borders.

This notion of a non-ethnic pluralistic state, of course, sends right-wing Israel into paroxysms about assimilation with Arabs, some passionately arguing that this could lead to the second Holocaust.

This is arrant nonsense. Nearly half of the Israeli Jewish population has Arab roots. Of course, what these people fail to understand is that it is not their Jewish identity that is under question, but rather, secularly-inspired Zionism, a late 19th century ideology of ethnic exclusivism.

In other words, what needs to be understood is that opposition to Israel is not, and never has been, anti-Semitic. Zionism is an oppressive political system that has denuded Judaism, not only of its Messianic expectation, but also of its dignity as a great monotheistic faith.

The great yearning in the Middle East is not for Jews to leave, but to cast off the cloak of Zionism, or ethnic exclusivism. Even Hamas, the bête-noire of Israelis, has declared that a distinction has to be made between Zionism and Judaism.

That the Egyptian deal has quietly changed the landscape of fractured Palestinian politics, and given it new focus, is undeniable. But whether it will have any meaningful impact upon Tel Aviv is, tragically, questionable.

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