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March 31, 2012 / Nathaniel Markowitz

The Sound and Fury of the SCOTUS Oral Arguments


The extent to which the media’s “Oh, shiny!” reflex leads it to abandon careful analysis and seek the warm embrace of attention-grabbing speculation continues to exceed all expectations.  What Jon Stewart referred to as the MSM’s bias toward sensationalism and laziness was on display again in its treatment of the Supreme Court oral arguments over health care reform.

The Justices offered some harsh questions  for the defenders of health care reform (and some questionable humor) and the Solicitor General offered an eye-poppingly dismal job presenting the government’s case.  His one and only job was to offer a cogent limiting principle for the mandate; a job he failed in spectacular fashion.  His failure in no way means such a limiting principle doesn’t exist (it does, in a variety of forms).  Rather, it highlights just how much the last few days have been theater rather than jurisprudence.

The media consensus is now that the law will be struck down 5-4.  What that consensus forgets is that despite the unexpected drama that unfolded in the highest court, there was one important element missing—the law.  Despite Scalia’s reprimand to society for obligating ourselves not to allow sick people to die in the streets, despite the court pondering whether it should limit itself to gutting the commerce clause or whether it should go after Congressional spending power while they were at it, despite attempts to argue that judicial restraint might best be served by acting to the maximum possible—despite all this, very little actual law was discussed (as a testament to this, the deliciously boring debate over the Anti-Injunction Act ultimately revolved around whether or not the Justices thought it was dumb).

Even normally stolid Dahlia Lithwick, one of the great court-reporters around, has allowed herself to be pulled into the intellectual race to the bottom that has characterized so much of the coverage to date.  The fact is, despite the Court’s thespian indulgences, the justices must at some point return to the law.  Even in the wildly unpopular Citizens United case, there was solid jurisprudential reasoning behind their decision.

At the end of the day, the argument in favor of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act is situated well within traditional understandings of both the commerce clause and the necessary and proper clause.  Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s failure to articulate a limiting principle will most certainly become less relevant as the Justices make their way through the amicus briefs (and of course we hope Justice Scalia will actually read the bill, Eighth Amendment notwithstanding).  While the novelty power of the idea that government can mandate private citizens to purchase something from a private company provides a serious obstacle to upholding the law the novelty of the challengers’ argument against it (as noted by the conservative DC appellate court) will no doubt weigh hard on the decision to strike down the law.

None of this is to argue that the ACA will be upheld.  Strange things can happen at the court.  But this week’s oral arguments aren’t likely to be predictive of the ultimate outcome.  The last few days have largely been “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

January 17, 2012 / Nathaniel Markowitz

Whither Hamas?


With little fanfare and nary a front page headline, Hamas seems to be seriously reconsidering its strategic posture in the region.  Alienating old allies, trying to make new friends, adopting a new rhetoric—even if all of these are completely disingenuous, they signal that Hamas is at a crossroad, a signal that the West should take seriously.

One of the most interesting revelations is that Iran recently cut off Hamas’ funding in retaliation for Hamas’ refusal to offer its full-throated support of Bashar al-Assad.  In fact, Hamas has even taken the moral high ground vis-à-vis the PLO by refusing to be a signatory to a document in support of the embattled dictator.  What’s more, Hamas’ presence in Damascus has reportedly dwindled from over 100 members to no more than a few dozen as the movement’s leaders have begun exploring shifting their base of operations, a move that also reportedly angered its patron in Tehran.

As it turns away from its erstwhile allies, Hamas has been courting Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt.  While relations have soured between Israel and Turkey and Egypt over the last year, such a transition would bring Hamas much more within Israel’s sphere of influence.  At the very least, Hamas’ range of action would be constrained, as Ankara and Cairo would likely bring pressure to bear on the Islamist movement if their diplomatic relations, however strained, were endangered.

Hamas has punctuated its rift with Iran by brutally cracking down on Gaza’s Shi’ite inhabitants.  Upticks of assault, detention, and torture of the religious minority have been reported recently because of what Ha’aretz characterizes as Hamas’ “fear of growing Iranian influence in Gaza.”  This is a statement probably no one ever expected to hear from the Israeli media.  This also seems to place Hamas on a collision course with Islamic Jihad, as Iran has apparently shifted its patronage to the latter group, which reportedly now contains a small group of Shi’a converts.

As if these developments weren’t dramatic enough, Hamas has also made some remarkable statements as it prepares for PLO membership.  First, it has announced that it will “shift its emphasis away from armed struggle to non-violent resistance.”  As the guardian article just linked reports, spokesman Taher al-Nounu characterizes it thusly, “Violence is no longer the primary option but if Israel pushes us, we reserve the right to defend ourselves with force.”   This is far less than what Israel and the West have demanded, but far more than Hamas has ever been willing to concede.  Hamas’ rhetoric has always been that violent resistance was the only legitimate option (though its actions often contradicted this rhetoric).  Equally noteworthy is Hamas’ acceptance of the 1967 lines as the basis of the borders of a Palestinian state.  While emphasizing that this in no way constitutes recognition of Israel, this again represents a dramatic shift from their long-standing position on the scope of Palestine.

The above should not, however, be interpreted as a clear adoption of new policy.  Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said in his recent trip to Tunisia that violence is the only option for the liberation of “all of Palestine,” a euphemism for the elimination of Israel.  However, taken with the sudden announcement that Hamas Chief Khalid Mishal would resign in order to pass the leadership to the “next generation,” it is clear that Hamas is undergoing a major transformation.

Whither, then, Hamas, and what are Israeli and Western policy-makers to make of it?  Any one of the above developments warrants a careful analysis in its own right.  Taken all together, they are almost dizzying.

The first thing to remember is that Hamas’ pragmatic leadership has been in the ascendency for at least five years now.  The first sign of this was their unilateral cease-fire in 2005 in preparation for the 2006 elections.  Recognizing the precarious nature of their position (and the opportunity to weaken their rivals) Hamas worked hard to maintain security up until the split with Fatah.

None of this is meant to paint a nice picture of the movement.  No one from Israel or the West will be joining hands with Hamas around the campfire singing Kumbaya any time soon.  But this does present an unexpected and remarkable opportunity to alter the trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The shift from violence to non-violence is a long process.  Often, it begins as a tactical shift to gain a short term advantage that yields tangible benefits resulting in a strategic realignment.  That’s what many think happened with the IRA and the PLO.

Israel and the West should reexamine its assumptions about Hamas.  They should refrain from hasty action and allow Hamas to either explore the costs and benefits of the new position it is staking out or be hoist with its own petard.  Moreover, Hamas’ break with Syria and Iran should be exploited to the maximum extent possible.

Moreover, the Palestinian people are by and large tired of the conflict.  They have called for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and there is growing support for non-violent resistance.  Hamas’ shift is likely to heighten expectations among the Palestinian people for peace and a sovereign state.  Either it will live up to those expectations by moving the peace process forward (or at least allowing it to move forward), or they will dash those expectations and further undermine their support at home.  The one thing Israel and the West must not do, however, is act like nothing has changed.

January 7, 2012 / Nathaniel Markowitz

Egypt Votes: Islamism, Democracy, and the New “New Middle East”


A former graduate school professor of mine once made the comment that Egypt was not suffering from a dearth of secularism, but rather from an excess of it.  This comment was made days after Hosni Mubarak stepped down and days before my professor, an Egyptian academic and opposition leader in his own right, was scheduled to fly back to Cairo to meet both revolutionary leaders and members of the interim government in order to advise them on how to proceed along the difficult path ahead.  My professor was not advocating Islamism.  Rather, he was pointing out that the concept of “secularism” had been sullied by decades of oppression, corruption and poverty under Mubarak.  Secular regime had become synonymous with dictatorship.

Many outside observers, however, have viewed the recent Egyptian elections as a contest between secular forces and the Islamists.  This fundamentally misunderstands the dynamics of Egyptian politics in particular, and Arab politics in general.  Reza Aslan’s No God But God presciently told us some 6 years ago where the locus of conflict would be in the Middle East.  It would not be, as Samuel Huntington proposed, a clash of civilizations between east and west.  Rather, the battle would play out within Islam itself as competing forces battle for the heart and soul of the religion.  We are seeing that battle play out today in Egypt and the region, and democracy is perhaps the best arena to host such a battle.

With the third round of votes complete, the rough contours of Egypt’s 498 seat lower house of parliament are clear.  Islamists control approximately 60% of the seats, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) garnering about 37% and the Salafi coalition led by a-Nour (meaning the light) winning about 25%.  Analysts should not have been surprised by this result, but they were.

In addition to the general antipathy to the idea of secularism mentioned above, there are several concrete reasons why the Islamists performed so well.  For one thing, the Islamists’ history of charitable activities no doubt provided a boost at the polls.  The government had long failed to consistently provide even basic services like sanitation, health care, or education while its leading officials led a disgustingly ostentatious lifestyle.  This served to reinforce the association (however undeserved) between secularism and corruption and Islamism and incorruptibility.

Moreover, Mubarak’s crackdown on every form of secular political activity created an inevitable Islamist backlash.  This is typical of secular Middle Eastern dictatorships in general.  While tyrants can persecute political organizations, invading the mosques is a significantly riskier proposition.  The mosque, then, becomes a nexus for political opposition.  The MB certainly was persecuted under Mubarak, but their religious affiliation no doubt accounted for the little protection they enjoyed.  Thus they were also of course the most ready to capitalize on the power vacuum created by Mubarak’s fall.  This is the most likely scenario any time a secular dictator falls in the Arab world, as we’ve already seen in Tunisia and, to a lesser extent, Libya.

The battle, then, is not between secularism and Islamism (secularism is doomed to lose every time).  It is between liberal Islamism and reactionary Islamism.  Another comment my professor made was that the liberals need to reclaim the language of Islam.  The Egyptians are a pious people and religious language resonates with them.  There is a wealth of Islamic history that promotes inclusiveness, tolerance and plurality.  The path to victory for Egypt’s left lies not in tip-toeing around religion, but by going straight through it.

American policy-makers should realize that, with one caveat to be explained below, the results of this election are a lot less important than ensuring that this fledgling democracy is nurtured and protected until it becomes self-sustaining.  It is not so much the first election that matters as the second one.  It is at this point only that the governing parties begin to feel the force of accountability.  It is only within the context of the election cycle that the moderating forces of democracy come in to play.  The FJP did not receive enough seats to form a government outright.  They have made it clear that they will not form a coalition with the Salafis.  This means that they will have to form a coalition with the left and the various compromises that entails.

The Muslim Brotherhood is already showing signs of splintering and much of the Egyptian electorate is only recently starting to learn the details of the Salafis’ fundamentalist governing agenda.  It is therefore absolutely critical that the Egyptian people get a chance to vote again in 4 years (or however long the election cycle will be in Egypt).  The West wants a moderate Egyptian government.  The best way to ensure that is by doing everything it can to support the Egyptian political process, even if the initial results are not exactly what the West had hoped for.

In general, a ruling coalition cannot do much irreparable damage in a single election cycle.  There is one exception, however.  Laws can be altered or repealed, but constitutions are designed to be fiercely resistant to change.  This is the one area where America and the West have genuine cause for concern.  As it stands, Parliament is slated to choose a 100 person committee charged with drafting the new constitution.  Given that Islamists control upwards of 60% of that body, it is not unreasonable to fear that this document will be heavily influenced by religion.  It is one thing to assert that “Islam is the Religion of the State, Arabic is its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia)” as article 2 of Egypt’s current constitution reads.  It is quite another thing to define specifically what that means.

Egypt’s military has already hinted that it will intervene to prevent too strong an Islamist role in drafting the constitution.  This raises two troubling possibilities, however.  One is that the military uses its extra-parliamentary powers to not only curtail the Islamists but to shield its economic interests from scrutiny or civilian oversight, as it already tried (and failed) to do with the Selmy document.  The other perhaps more alarming alternative is that they will bargain with the Islamists, agreeing not to interfere with the drafting of the constitution so long as those economic interests are protected.  On a more positive note, the MB has promised All Factions Will Be Represented During Drafting of Constitution.  To date, the MB has been remarkably faithful to the electoral promises it has made.

Washington should pursue a two-pronged approach regarding Cairo.  First, it should welcome the results of Egyptian self-determination and immediately begin laying the groundwork for constructive engagement with the government on their terms.  Second, it should maximize the leverage of the nearly 2 billion dollars in military aid it sends to ensure that the military both protects the constitutional process from the more illiberal elements of the Islamists and that the military accepts full civilian accountability and oversight.

December 13, 2011 / Nathaniel Markowitz

Egypt Votes: A Follow-Up


The dust has settled and a clearer picture of the results of the first phase of Egypt’s election have emerged.  The Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) seems to have run the table, winning almost all of the contests they participated in, with 40 % of the vote and about 80 of the 168 seats up for grabs.  The Salafist a-Nour comes in a distant second with 33 seats, and the remaining seats are sprinkled among the several other parties.  Eighteen seats still require a run off.

I have already discussed the anticipated (over)reactions to these results.  Now I would like to take a look at what they imply going forward.  The first issue to address is the MB’s promise to hold no more than a third of Parliament’s seats.  For those who fear an Islamist takeover of Parliament, the idea that the FJP might contest less seats in the upcoming elections in order to abide by that promise might be appealing.  But not so fast.

The Nour party performed unexpectedly well.  While the MB have clearly demonstrated that they can beat even very prominent Salafis, the conservative and pious Egyptian electorate have indicated a desire for Islamists to play a leading role going forward.  A retreat by the MB in upcoming elections could create space for their ultra-conservative religious rivals.  Of course, the MB may also use this justification to abandon their promise completely and contest even more seats.

It is not clear, however, that the same distribution will hold for the next two phases of the election.  For one thing, if the rhetoric coming out of the Salafist camp is continued, it is entirely possible that they will diminish their chances for electoral success.  There is also the argument that, due to their higher level of prior organization, Islamist electoral participation is near its maximum.  Alarmed by the outcome and having gained experience in the first round, the argument goes, there is a lot of room for the liberals to increase their turnout.  And while Islamists captured 40 of the 50 seats that were run-off, the Salafists only captured 6, as compared to 10 for the liberal parties.  At least one prominent liberal leader has internalized the lesson that they “must close ranks and tone down their anti-Islamist fears.”

Of course, this neglects the fact that the first round of voting included the two major urban centers of Egypt, Cairo and Alexandria.  It is not unreasonable to think that as more rural (read conservative) districts go to the ballots, the results could skew even more toward the Islamists.  In this case, liberals and secularists might find themselves in the bizarre position of hoping for more MB competition.

In the meanwhile, the MB continues to try to allay fears of the Islamization of Egypt.  General Guide Mohamed Badie reaffirmed their promise not to field a presidential candidate.  In a recent interview, he struck a conciliatory tone, emphasizing the idea of national consensus.  At the same time, as journalists pound the pavement trying to understand the results of the election, two things become clear.  First, the success of the Islamists was boosted by their social services and charitable activities.  The Islamists have long been providing services that the regime was unable or unwilling to provide.  Second, the piety of the Islamists is often seen (whether this reputation is deserved or now) as a bulwark against the oppressive corruption that has characterized so many decades of Egyptian government.

Egyptians will go to the polls tomorrow for the second phase of the elections.  In all likelihood, the Islamists will continue to do well.  The two interesting things to look for are the extent to which the liberal parties changed tactics influence the distribution and whether the Salafi success has rattled the Egyptian electorate.

December 4, 2011 / Nathaniel Markowitz

Egypt Votes: A Preliminary Analysis


The preliminary results trickling in from the first phase of the Egyptian elections seem to at least partially vindicate my analysis from early May. Specifically, the military’s attempt to protect its economic interests in the private sector and constrain the Islamists’ influence on the drafting of the constitution as well as the likelihood that the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) would capture approximately a third of the seats in Parliament have come to pass. Given the media’s seeming inability to get anything about the Middle East right, it is worth drilling down on these results.

The first headline most in the West will see is “Islamists win 60% of the vote.” This is true, but only in the most trivial way. At best, such a statement is specious–derived from the media’s laziness, at worst, it is deliberately misleading. One breakdown had the results as follows (caveat—these are preliminary results and subject to revision, though they seem broadly consistent with the current reporting): FJP with 40%, the Salafist party a-Nour (meaning the light) with 20%, the liberal, secular Egyptian Bloc with 15%, al-Wasat (the Center Party) 6%, al-Wafd (the Delegation) 5%, and “other parties” capturing 14%. Another prediction puts the FJP winning 35 of the 168 contested seats outright, a-Nour with 21, and the Egyptian Bloc with 14 seats. This doesn’t account for seats that are still too close to call, or that will require a run-off.

This leads to a second headline that is likely to be popular with the media, “Brotherhood breaks promise to only contest one third of Parliamentary seats.” It’s more accurate to say that MB sought to win one third of the seats. They claim they contested half of the positions to ensure such a result. This goes hand in hand with another headline that might be prominent, “Senior Muslim Brotherhood Leader to Run for President Despite Promises.” This neglects the fact that the MB expelled Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh after he announced his candidacy.

Fotouh himself is also likely to be a target for media misinformation if his presidential bid gains any traction. He will no doubt be portrayed as “the Islamist” in the race. This will, of course, completely ignore his reputation as a liberal reformer within the MB and in Egypt in general.

Moreover, the “Islamists win 60%” headlines completely disregard that the FJP has been strenuously trying to put as much distance between themselves and a-Nour as possible. Shortly after the polls closed and before the extent of the Islamist victory was known, the FJP took the position that the governing coalition should reflect the results of the polls. Shortly after this, a report came out that there would likely be an alliance between the FJP and a-Nour.

The speed and frequency of the MB’s denials were remarkable, however. Within hours, the FJP announced on their website that there would be no alliance with the Salafists, and that they are seeking a broadly representative coalition. On Saturday, they reaffirmed this, saying they wanted a national coalition, not an Islamist one. Other leaders quickly followed suit. Perhaps feeling rebuffed, a-Nour announced they would not seek a coalition with the FJP because they “will not water down their views to ally with the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood.”

There is no doubt the MB will play a leadership role as Egyptian democracy emerges. What this means, however, is not entirely clear. To borrow a good headline from an August 24 article of The Nation, there are “Fault Lines in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.” To wit, the MB is not, nor has it ever really been, an ideologically cohesive group. It is a loose coalition of pious people who believe more or less in both political participation and provision of those social services that were lacking in previous regimes.

It is likely that the pressures of democracy will force this coalition apart. Assuming that this is the first of many elections (rather than the dreadful first and only election common to so many attempts to transition from dictatorship), the necessity of cooperation and compromise as well as accountability to constituencies will reshape the contours of the MB. As democracy is wont to do (though there are occasional exceptions) pragmatism will be rewarded and ideological rigidity will be punished.

In my May article, I predicted that the MB would be politically savvy enough to avoid spooking the Egyptian people, and that the military would limit the Islamists’ influence on drafting the new constitution. The former prediction has been mostly true. While the latter remains to be seen, the military has already taken clear steps to do so. The accuracy of the other predictions I made remains to be seen—in particular, that while the Egyptians are a very pious people, there is little popular support for an Islamic Republic vis-à-vis Iran and that the military is a much bigger threat to Egypt’s freedom and democracy than the MB. The former will be determined by how the FJP governs going forward, the latter by whether they’re allowed to govern at all.

November 29, 2011 / Nathaniel Markowitz

What Israel Should Learn from the UNESCO Vote


Israel should take note of the important implications from the recent vote to admit Palestine as a full member of UNESCO.  First and foremost, this demonstrates that Israel is much more internationally isolated than was perhaps realized.  Second, they are likely in for more of the same as Abbas pursues membership to other UN bodies, such as the WHO, WIPO, UPU, and others, not to mention the upcoming Security Council vote.

That Britain abstained from this vote (and from a conservative government no less) should send alarm bells ringing throughout Netanyahu’s administration.  While Israel’s primary ally has always been America, they could usually rely on London to toe the party line.  If nothing else, Washington, not wanting to be isolated in its protection of Israel, could be expected to pressure the British.  Britain’s abstention implies either that the Obama administration did not in fact apply such pressure, or that they asserted themselves contrary to Washington’s desires.

Despite accusations of Obama not being a strong friend to Israel, it is unlikely that the former is true.  Though his sour relations with Bibi are now well known, no President seeking reelection can afford to look weak on Israel.  Second, with Britain’s abstention and France’s yes vote, the United States faces the rather uncomfortable prospect of being the only permanent member on the Security Council to vote against Palestinian statehood.  If the UNESCO vote is predictive of the UNSC vote, the result would be 2 nay, 4 abstain, and 9 aye, which would be enough to pass if there were no veto.  Most likely, American pressure on at least Colombia will cause them to switch from abstain to nay, but it still leaves the uncomfortable fact that the United States alone is standing in opposition to both the rest of the P5 and the popular vote.  Though if France does indeed abstain, as it recently claimed it would, that would deprive the Palestinians of the 9 votes needed to pass.  This may change in the face of other successful membership attempts, however.

Moreover, the fact that Washington could only muster a paltry 14 votes against is a testament to its waning influence regarding the issue of Israel.  Sure, Vanuatu and Palau are on board, but what about all of Western Europe?  What about Colombia and South Korea, with whom Washington just signed controversial free trade agreements?  What about any major developing country in the world?

And this is just the opening salvo for Abu Mazen.  While opting out of UNESCO may be inconvenient, what happens if the Palestinians gain membership in the WHO, WIPO, or the UPU?  While the UPU is not the sexiest UN organization, the inability to send and receive mail internationally will have a hugely disruptive effect on an economy that is at the heart of global trade.  Yet it seems reasonable to think that if the international community thinks the Palestinians warrant cultural heritage sites, they will also warrant the ability to send parcels.  It is an open question whether Washington will risk membership in these key organizations to protect Israel, and such uncertainty is in and of itself remarkable.  Also, if Israel still assumes automatic American protection, it should reflect on the fact that Condi Rice, on behalf of President Bush, abstained from the Security Council resolution calling on Israel to halt its Operation Cast Lead (it is remarkable that Olmert considered forcing an abstention was a victory).  Israel’s tension with the United States in fact began under the leadership of what was considered one of the most pro-Israel Presidencies in American history.

Politics is a lot like poker.  The good player folds to the winning hand which, in this arena, goes to Abbas.  If Israel escalates the conflict as a result of future Palestinian UN bids, it will certainly further alienate itself and even risk rupturing its relations with its final great power friend—The United States.  The smart thing to do is accept this round as a loss and keep mum about future attempts to join UN bodies.  The US will most likely veto the Security Council measure, and then hopefully Israel and the Palestinians can get back to the negotiating table.

November 25, 2011 / Nathaniel Markowitz

Israel Benefits from Palestinian Reconciliation


It is in Israel’s national security interest to support reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.  Yet at a time when bolstering President Abbas seems almost self-evident, Israeli policy seems determined to isolate and undermine him.  Hamas’ long-standing reluctance to pursue reconciliation should in itself be enough to encourage policy makers to give the idea their support, let alone the particular factors that make the present particularly advantageous for such a course.

First and foremost, Hamas’ popular support is at an all time low.  If elections were held in the Occupied Palestinian Territories today, Hamas would most likely be handed a crushing defeat.  In fact, recent polling shows Fatah outperforming Hamas for both the presidency and the legislature, including in Gaza.  Part of this comes from dissatisfaction over political crackdowns.  In addition, Hamas’ image of being incorruptible played a large part in their electoral victory in 2006.  That image is being eroded as Hamas officials have increasingly flaunted their wealth.  Even the recent prisoner swap, though popular, has been insufficient to rehabilitate Hamas’ image.

Second, while Israel and the West were angered by Abu Mazen’s UN bid and recent acceptance into UNESCO, they are passing up an opportunity to support a leader who has, until recently, had difficulty retaining the trust of his people.  Ironically, Israel and America have pinned all of their hopes on Abbas’ ability to unilaterally lead the peace process on the Palestinian side, while simultaneously castigating him for an action that has lent him rare credibility with the Palestinian people so necessary to fulfill the role Israel demands of him.  This isolation is being reinforced by Israel’s recent withholding of tax revenues, and its impact on the PA’s ability to pay public sector salaries.  Nothing would serve to more effectively deflate the Palestinian President’s newfound popularity than failure to deliver paychecks.

Moreover, there is good reason to believe that there is a limited window of opportunity to capitalize on this confluence of circumstances.  An Israeli or Western strike on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities could well provide Hamas an opportunity to deflect attention from dissatisfaction at home.  Moreover, if Hamas’ rocket and mortar fire is able to provoke another large scale Israeli military action along the lines of Operation Cast Lead, Hamas may be able to burnish its resistance credentials and convince Gazans of its importance as the “sole protector against Israeli agression,” despite the harsh conditions in which they are living.  Moreover, Abbas’ actions have raised Palestinian expectations significantly.  It is unlikely the people expect UNESCO membership to lead immediately to statehood, but there is a real expectation that this will move the process forward.  Waiting too long could result in Abbas negotiating reconciliation in the context of bitter disappointment and resentment, rather than hope and optimism.

Hamas’ decision to enter reconciliation talks is most likely due to the Palestinian version of the Arab spring—large protests demanding unity.  Hamas currently enjoys uniquely low popularity, while Abu Mazen’s is uniquely high.  This is a rare opportunity for Abbas to negotiate an agreement that is highly favorable to his allies in the West and the donor community.  Despite Israel’s and the West’s indignation over what they saw as a Palestinian end run around the peace process, despite the humiliation of being unable to prevent the UN bid despite threats of harsh punishment, Israel should view immediate reconciliation as the strategic advantage that it is.

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