Opinion: Abbas Playing Game of Chicken with Israel

Photo Courtesy of UN Photo/Marco Castro

It’s like a dare-version of Russian roulette: Two competitors, often in vehicles, rush at each other at top speed. The goal to this disturbing and potentially lethal “game” known as Chicken is to see which one will blink first and get out of the way. By reconciling with Hamas, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is playing Chicken with Israel. But what happens if neither side blinks?

The attempt to cement reconciliation with Hamas, which was signed in May but never fully implemented, may appear to be an honest effort by Abbas to bring unity to the Palestinians. Uh, no. The move is quite possibly politically suicidal—and the bloodletting may not stay there.

Abbas keeps saying he’s done after this term, which is already years past its original expiration date. Hastening elections hastens his time out of office. Maybe he wants that. But the last round of elections led to a Hamas victory and eventually to a bloody coup in which Abbas’ Fatah party was literally fought out of Gaza by Hamas.

A key reason why Israel and the Palestinian security forces have worked so well is they faced a common enemy: Hamas.

Plus, the international community isn’t so fond of Hamas, who has yet to renounce violence or recognize Israel. True reconciliation, especially elections that put Hamas at the top of the Palestinian system, could jeopardize huge amounts of donated funds from the West the Palestinians desperately need.

It’s true: Hamas isn’t very popular either. Could they win elections? Perhaps. The Gilad Shalit deal did make them look more productive than Fatah. But Hamas is otherwise disliked by quite a few Palestinians. For years the advantage in polls has been to Fatah. But regardless, true reconciliation with Hamas allows them back into the West Bank where Fatah holds its power currently, and it also threatens American and perhaps European dollars.

So why do it? Is Abbas crazy? No. Desperate? Yes.

Analyst Dr. Jonathan Rynhold, of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, hit the nail on the head in a conference call last week hosted by The Israel Project by noting that Abbas is running low on options. The grand plan of getting the United Nations to shame the US and potentially pave the ground for sanctions against Israel has fallen apart in the UN Security Council. It turns out there were fewer nations that saw things from the Palestinian viewpoint than originally thought.

But Abbas backed himself into a corner: He justified the UN move in part by refusing to negotiate with Israel, claiming settlement construction and a refusal to set some of the terms for borders before the talks even began made renewing dialogue a waste. That Israel already tried a settlement freeze and Abbas only talked to them because the US made him didn’t matter.

And now? With the UN move fizzling, Abbas can’t back down so easily off his refusal to negotiate either. He made a stand politically, and giving up on that isn’t so easy. So Rynhold correctly noted that Abbas is “looking for some other things that can fill the vacuum and restore his popularity.” Plus, Rynhold notes that Islamism is making waves in the region and even Jordan is taking steps towards Hamas. If Fatah doesn’t try and reconcile with the Islamist Hamas now, they could find themselves on the wrong side of regional momentum later.

So re-enter Hamas.

In addition to wanting to show the UN he can control Gaza as well as try and head off an Islamic rise in the traditionally more secular Palestinian society, Abbas’ play with Hamas does gives him a chance to achieve one of his hopes for the UN ploy: frightening Israel into significant concessions before talks even begin. Hamas is Israel’s most lethal enemy among the Palestinians. Terrorism has plunged in part because Hamas is severely hindered in the West Bank.

But if the Palestinian Authority (PA) stops helping the IDF on Hamas, the Israelis will have to do a lot more of the work themselves. Suddenly the reduction in security checkpoints could be a liability. The odds probably increase for more attacks like the vehicle shootings, the small-scale Jerusalem bombing or the horrific Itamar murders.

The Second Intifada probably did more to destroy the peace process than almost any other factor, and Abbas knows it didn’t help the Palestinians. So he won’t pull the trigger. But he can tell the Israelis he can’t stop Hamas from doing so. And if Hamas knocks Abbas and those like him out of power, the Israelis will face more problems than they do today, at least in the security front.

If Israel stopped handing over funds to the Palestinian Authority due to Hamas’ involvement, Rynhold said the PA “would collapse and that Hamas would fill the vacuum. And this seems to be something that Abbas is playing on. He’s saying, ‘Go on, try me. I’m going to jump off the ledge. Save me.’ Because he knows that his ‘suicide,’ if you like, would be bad for Israel and the US.”

So consider it a game of Chicken. Abbas has until elections in May to pull out. He can restart peace talks with Israel and tell Hamas to accept it or leave—which they would do. It’s one escape.

But the game isn’t played to be the first one to blink. He’s playing to see if Israel will make major concessions first and let him down from his “I won’t negotiate until…” tree.

Will Israel step aside and concede at the last moment? It’s doubtful. They didn’t do anything too drastic with the UN option staring them down. And the promised Palestinian elections have been set aside before.

So expect a collision course: Abbas risking his own career and the stability of his party to try and force Israel to freeze settlements again and accept less favorable terms for borders, while Israel stands still and waits to see what happens. Israel could make small moves, sure. But they won’t make big ones.

After all, why should Israel make concessions that could negatively impact their security (borders concessions) because of a threat that could negatively impact their security (Hamas back in play)?

The Palestinians are facing another problem: The US is in an election year soon too, and President Barack Obama will find it hard to keep funding Palestinians that include Hamas. And losing the millions of US dollars over reconciliation with one’s arch-enemy is cutting off the nose to spite the face.

It’s a gamble that Abbas’ party will win enough in the next elections to maintain those dollars, or that Israel will concede first. Then again, with Hamas’ buddies in Egypt taking power, maybe it’s Abbas’ last chance.

The reality is Abbas better blink now while he still can, because it’s geopolitical Chicken on many levels for Abbas. And he’s not heading straight for another car, and that’s not a light at the end of the tunnel either. It’s a train.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, December 9, 2011)