By Pinhas Inbari
In sharp contrast to previous summits between President Barak Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, last week’s meeting did not focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, Iran was at the center of the leaders’ discussions. Nevertheless, in his speech to the AIPAC Policy Conference, President Obama allocated considerable time to the Palestinian problem. Furthermore, upon Prime Minister Netanyahu’s return from Washington, tension returned to Gaza.
President Obama made four references to the Palestinians in his speech to the Jewish community in America. He pointed to the hardship of finding a solution to the conflict; stated that despite this fact, resolving the conflict is one of America’s strategic goals; noted that Hamas could not be a partner for peace as long as it remained a resistance movement that did not recognize Israel; and reiterated his support for the "Jewish state."
Put together, the issues President Obama raised before the AIPAC members indicate his intention to return to the Palestinian file following his [possible] re-election in November. In response, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyadh al-Malki stated that the US administration had already notified certain senior Palestinian officials that it may give "some support to the UN statehood bid", and would return in full force to the Palestinian issue further to President Obama’s re-election. Al-Maliki also noted that Palestinian leaders were worried of possible American restrictions, but did not elaborate further on the subject.
It is indeed likely that President Obama will exert pressure on all parties involved in the conflict in order to put an end to it once and for all. He will lean on Hamas in an attempt to have the radical movement renounce its policy of violence and accept the possibility of a negotiated settlement with Israel. The American president will also ask that Ramallah recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" and pressure Israel to accept the 1967 lines as the future borders between it and a Palestinian state, though this last point was not mentioned in his AIPAC speech.
Moreover, the United States will likely insist on a negotiated settlement between the sides, and will block all unilateral initiatives envisaged by the PLO. It may force the PLO to return to the negotiating table after removing Hamas’ veto power either by force or by intervening in the political processes through its influence on the Muslim Brotherhood as part of an on-going dialogue between the US and the leading Sunni movement. FM al-Maliki, however, mentioned that PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will apply to the UN to attain Palestinian statehood, but would also do his best to preserve relations with President Obama.
The success of American pressure on Hamas largely depends on the organization’s internal conflicts. While Hamas’ homeless leader, Khaled Meshal, is ready to meet the Muslim Brotherhood’s requirements and switch from being a belligerent muqawama (resistance) movement to a political party in order to join the international Muslim Brotherhood Shura and settle in Cairo, Hamas’ Gazan leadership would like to shift Hamas’ center of gravity from the Diaspora to Gaza at Meshal’s expense. Hence, while Meshal is inching closer to the Sunna establishment, the Gazan leadership is nurturing its contacts with Iran in order to preserve the muqawama principle and spoil Meshal's prospects.
This fracture manifested itself last weekend when Hamas leaders issued almost simultaneous and contradictory statements. Gaza’s Mahmud Zahhar stated that Hamas would retaliate if Israel were to attack Iran, while Ahmad Yusuf, former political advisor to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, said that his organization would not participate in wars of "others".
The current exchange of hostilities between Israel and Gaza must be viewed against the backdrop of this dynamic. Israel preempted a terrorist attack planned in Gaza that was to be carried out through the Sinai. The preparations for the attack were made by the pro-Iranian "Muqawama Committees", a terrorist group, under Hamas’ watchful eye. Preparations for the attack began much earlier than President Obama's speech and were not directly tied to it.
However, it is impossible to rule out that Hamas’ leadership in Gaza suspected that President Obama would not exclude an Israeli attack on Gaza in his second term in office, in order to trigger a process that would make Hamas acquiesce to a political solution and join Ramallah in the resumption of peace negotiations in the aftermath of a hypothetical war with Israel.