The Man Behind the Mecca Agreement

The Palestinian unity agreement negotiated last week in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, comes with some big "ifs": whether it will last more than a few news cycles, whether it puts a halt to the low-grade civil war between Hamas and Fatah, whether the international community -- and Israel -- recognize this new government, and whether they will restore its funds and international recognition. But there are a few important certainties in this process that shouldn't be missed by Israel or the United States.

For starters, consider who attended and who did not attend the meetings. And consider that the meeting was in Mecca -- not Tehran or Damascus. One of the many unintended consequences of Bush's sloppy Middle East policy has been Iran's surge as a regional power, including their arming and supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, insurgents in Iraq, and reportedly, insurgents in Gaza. The Iranian challenge has made the Saudis nervous, so they have made a more active effort to be moderators. That's one reason for the Saudi peace initiative that has been knocking around the region for the last year.

The Bush ban on talking to Iran and Syria has lumped both countries together, but if the United States is serious about tempering Iran (something that is also vital for Israel's security), then it must be serious about at least considering a different approach to Syria.

There's also a question of whether Khaled Meshal, Hamas's political director and de facto leader, and his minions can be tempered through political means. (In a recent interview with me, Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi said that he thought there was room for moderation within Hamas; that many of their hard-line views reflected politics more than religious zealotry.) It should not go unnoticed that Meshal left his perch in Damascus to negotiate this agreement under the Saudi umbrella. His thumbprint was necessary for the agreement.

When Hamas was first elected, there was near-universal agreement across the Israeli political spectrum that the party had no reform wing. That's still the official position, although unofficially, the consensus is wavering a bit. Hamas may be completely unyielding, but there is a slim chance that it will moderate, based on its actions in the Mecca agreement and in an earlier agreement between the Fatah and Hamas prisoners holed up in an Israeli jail. The key player in negotiating both of these agreements -- and without doubt the most important person missing from Mecca -- is Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison for leading the Tanzim's violent uprising (including suicide bombings against Israeli civilians) during the second intifada.

According to the authoritative Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea, who wrote about these talks in Friday's Yediot Ahronot newspaper, two Palestinians key to jump-starting the Mecca negotiations were Kadura Fares and Khader Shkirat. Both men are close political allies of Barghouti's and meet regularly with him to bring his word back to the Palestinian leadership.

When I met with 44-year-old Kadura Fares in Ramallah this past July, we spoke briefly in Hebrew, but had to stop because his was better than mine. He learned the language during the 14 years he spent in Israeli prison. Jailed as a member of a militant Fatah cell, Fares was released from prison by the 1994 Cairo Agreement. He is a leader in "young Fatah," a group of independent parliamentarians led by Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti still calls the shots from prison, as he did with this latest negotiating round.

A low-key man with a polite demeanor, Fares and I talked in his Ramallah office on a residential street where he heads a non-profit on behalf of Palestinian political prisoners. Fares, who comes from the same West Bank village as Meshal, is also his distant relative. He told Barnea that Meshal is "a seasoned politician, very shrewd. Compared to the Hamas leadership in Gaza, he is a man of the world."

Back then, Fares stressed the importance of the Palestinian Prisoners' document of May 11, 2006, which was negotiated between Barghouti and other Fatah-affiliated prisoners with a group of imprisoned Hamas leaders. Fares later told Barnea that the document was a precursor to the Mecca accord, calling for a two-state solution with Israel returning to 1967 borders, among other things. While the overall document was more hard-line than even the most dovish Israeli government would accept, it was a significant change of tone for Hamas, one that showed moderation on the part of their leadership.

"The importance of this document is that Hamas said we should build a state on the 1967 borders for the first time," Fares said. "To sign a document is the first step in agreeing to the principle of a two-state solution and to recognize the political programs of the PLO. The Israelis should not read this agreement by Israeli eyes. As Fatah, it took us more than 20 years to make a change. With Hamas, it takes five months." (Which is how long Hamas had been in power.) "Abu Mazen [the popular name of Mahmoud Abbas] can use this new climate to make a new government, new politics and new messages."

The Israeli Foreign Ministry brought Fares to their headquarters this past week to brief the incoming class of Israeli diplomats on recent happenings among the Palestinians. He was a signatory to the Geneva Initiative, an extra-parliamentary document negotiated by Meretz leader Yossi Beilin and Mazen-advisor Yassar Abbed Rabbo. Fares told me that he believes that "there will be a majority of both peoples" ready to sign a Geneva-based agreement, if there is forthcoming Palestinian and Israeli leadership. It's widely assumed that Fares signed the agreement after discussions with Barghouti.

Israelis and Palestinians have more in common with each other than either side is usually willing to admit. Befitting their biblical roots as cousins, their habits often follow one another, as in their tendency to conduct negotiations among themselves and then feel as if they've accomplished something in the long march to peace (Hamas and Fatah, or Labor and Kadima in Israel). This newest negotiation could be more of the same -- an attempt by Fatah to tame Hamas and strengthen the severely weakened Mazen, just as Ehud Olmert's overwhelming weakness as Israeli Prime Minister has him unable to do virtually anything other than internally negotiate to maintain his own fractious coalition.

The question remains: Can these two peoples negotiate with each other? One thing that many Palestinians and Israelis agree on is that someday, Marwan Barghouti will be president of a Palestinian state. Meanwhile, Olmert is too weak to let Barghouti out of prison. And so the most famous of Israel's political prisoners is playing a moderating leadership role from his cell. Mazen is the Palestinian president and Meshal is the Hamas leader pulling strings from Syria, but without Barghouti, it's unlikely that any agreement -- at last one that Israel can live with -- will ultimately hold. Though they imprisoned Barghouti, Israeli leaders are now stuck trying to figure out how to use his power and his skills in negotiations that will lead to a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Jo-Ann Mort writes frequently about Israel for TAP online, The Forward, and elsewhere. She is co-author of Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today's Israel?

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