For Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hamas’ pen is mightier than bin Laden bullet

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

WASHINGTON — The pen that launched the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is likely to have more of an impact on U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the bullet that ended Osama bin Laden’s life.

In at least one respect, Sunday’s raid in Pakistan could have an indirect consequence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to experts: President Obama could try to capitalize on the boost he’s getting from bin Laden’s death to advance a peace process that Israelis and Palestinians have left fallow.

“These kinds of things always affect calculations of presidents,” said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who has worked as a negotiator for the Clinton and both Bush administrations. “He’s thinking I’ve got a moment of unity, I feel good.”

But ultimately, the experts say, the killing of America’s Public Enemy No. 1 may matter less to peacemaking than the willingness of the two sides to start talking again.

“The only problem for the president, who doubtless remains as obsessed with the peace process as he always has been, is that the Hamas-Fatah deal will seriously complicate matters,” said Danielle Pletka, a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute and a former top U.S. Senate aide who dealt with foreign policy.

The new Palestinian unity government makes it harder for Obama to use any additional leverage he has from bin Laden’s killing to push for Israeli-Palestinian peace, she said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already was planning a major announcement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in his address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress later this month, Netanyahu aides have said.

But after news broke last week of the unity deal between Fatah, the party controlling the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, the terrorist group that governs the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu warned PA President Mahmoud Abbas that Israel won’t deal with a government that includes Hamas. Netanyahu has the support of a long list of Congress members.

With the inking of the Hamas-Fatah deal in Cairo on Tuesday, all pressure is off, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“What Abbas has done in a stroke of the pen has helped win domestic peace, but he’s also helped Netanyahu,” Makovsky told JTA. “It will be hard to pressure Netanyahu when there’s a power-sharing deal with Hamas. He’s extricated Netanyahu from the pressure.”

Obama has indicated his displeasure with the Fatah-Hamas deal, which was set to kick in Wednesday, but he has not committed to cutting off U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority.

If Obama was contemplating releasing his own parameters for Israeli-Palestinian peace ahead of Netanyahu’s speech, as has been reported, he is more likely to do so now given the success with bin Laden, Miller said.

“It would not surprise me if the administration gave a much more forward-leading speech, although it will be tough to rationalize in light of Hamas-Fatah,” Miller said. “Abbas has given Netanyahu a gift that will not stop giving.”

If the bin Laden killing has any effect on Netanyahu come the third week of May, when he delivers his speech in Congress, it will be to reinforce his claim that Israel and the United States are in the same boat when it comes to terrorism, Makovsky said.

“There’s no doubt that Netanyahu will try to associate Israel with Hamas like America is associated with al-Qaida,” he said.

That’s a view that would garner sympathy in Congress and with the American public, Miller said.

“It’s not the right time for a fight with the Israelis,” Miller said. “Running a counterterrorism operation against Enemy No. 1 is a far cry from bringing pressure on a close American ally.”