Prelude to Progress

Under Saudi auspices in the holy city of Mecca, overlooking the sacred Kaaba stone, Palestinian Fatah and Hamas leaderships finally reached a power-sharing deal last week. The deal came 13 months after the Hamas victory in Palestinian legislative elections, and the party's subsequent inability to form a functioning government in the face of an international boycott, Arab opposition, and an ongoing standoff with President Abbas and his Fatah movement.

The occasional armed clashes that occurred in the last year between Fatah and Hamas descended last month into an open and violent confrontation. The deteriorating situation included mutual kidnappings, assassinations of senior security figures, and external offers of help to rearm the respective sides (principally by the United States and Iran). A situation threatening to spiral out of control, Somalia-style, may have been what brought both parties back from the precipice. The Palestinian public was beginning to turn against both Fatah and Hamas in a “plague on both your houses” sense of exasperation. Conditions seemed unworkable for resuming a peace process and Israelis feared that internal Palestinian violence would spill over the border, as it in fact did in the recent Eilat suicide bombing.

As both The New York Times and Washington Post commented in weekend editorials, the U.S. administration has neutralized itself as a possible diplomatic deal-broker almost across the entire region, leaving others to fill the vacuum. In this case, it was the Saudis. It will be difficult to make the Hamas-Fatah deal stick given the intense mutual animosity. Yet this deal offers the best and perhaps only prospect for averting collapse and chaos on the Palestinian side, with all its implications for regional and Israeli security, as well as for facilitating the development of a meaningful Palestinian interlocutor -- with the capacity to deliver -- for peace talks.

The key players were in attendance at Mecca -- Fatah leader Abbas and security strongman Mohammed Dahlan and the Hamas internal and external leaderships, Ismail Haniyya and Khaled Mesh'al. Saudi pressure for the sides to adhere to the agreements will be intense, especially in advance of the Arab League summit that Saudi Arabia will host at the end of March. That should provide a breathing space of several weeks that may be enough to stand the government on its feet. The Saudi pressure is likely to be backed up by a hard cash incentive. Other Arab leaders had also been getting antsy at the accusations of their own impotence in ending the internecine Palestinian strife. Egypt, Syria, Qatar, and Jordan had all been facilitating their own backchannels between the Palestinian parties. The Arab press has been almost unanimous in welcoming the agreement.

The deal itself sets out the terms and basic platform for a new Palestinian Authority government and also for reform within the PLO. The meaning of the Mecca agreement has been and will continue to be spun in competing directions by the respective sides. What is already clear is that Fatah and Hamas will both live to fight another day, as will the opportunity for re-launching a peace process and for improving the security environment. It is difficult to see this as a total victory for either side -- and that very fact, obviously, enhances the prospects of the deal succeeding. Hamas will retain the Prime Ministerial portfolio, but will be a minority in the cabinet, despite having an overwhelming majority of seats in Parliament (the Cabinet will consist of 11 Hamas, 8 Fatah, and 4 Independents, all of the latter being more Fatah-leaning).

Hamas' claims of not having ceded an inch ideologically do not square easily with the text of a deal “that respects international and Arab resolutions and previous agreements signed.” As Israel's foremost Arab affairs commentator, Ehud Ya'ari, told Channel 2 viewers, “Hamas gave up on the key get-out clause it had fought for in the government platform, namely that agreements would be respected ‘only insofar as they served the Palestinian interest,' and after one year it has been proven that the Muslim brothers in Palestine could not govern alone without their secular brethren.” Haaretz Arab affairs editor Zvi Bar'el commented that the Mecca deal signifies “an historic concession in the [Hamas] movement's position … this fact will be recorded as evidence of Hamas' ideological moderation which it would be difficult for the movement to retract.”

Of course, Hamas spokespeople can be expected to play down the significance of this shift and have already begun to do so. But the Mecca deal continues a visible trend within Hamas over the last years of moving towards a 2-state position. It is a trend that, if carefully but seriously nurtured, could have encouraging implications, not only for Israel and the pursuit of peace, but also for the possibility of the United States and others working with nationalist-reformist Islamists throughout the region.

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It will be difficult for Israel, the United States or the international community to claim interest in supporting Mahmmoud Abbas and in reviving a meaningful Israeli-Palestinian political process while at the same time rejecting the Mecca deal. Indeed, the Palestinian unity deal has been met with cautious interest, rather than denunciation, in most quarters, Washington included. The administration has thus far resisted the temptation of climbing up a very high tree, and has focused instead on studying the details, waiting to see how things develop, and working together with its Quartet partners. This approach seems to be a way for the administration to lock itself in to a more calibrated response.

While reiterating their previous three conditions for a Palestinian government (non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of past agreements), the United States and the Quartet have welcomed the Saudi role and committed themselves to a further review of developments at a principals-level meeting on February 21 in Berlin. (Secretary Rice will attend.) Most significantly, plans will go ahead for the trilateral U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian summit on February 19, to be attended by Secretary Rice, PM Olmert, and President Abbas. The other Quartet members, Russia and the UN, have been more forthcoming in their willingness to work with the new Palestinian government, while on Monday, EU foreign ministers paid tribute to Abbas' effort to form a unity government, adding that such a government should “reflect” the Quartet principles -- thus, creating more wiggle room than U.S. statements have done. The Palestinian street, not surprisingly, was celebrating.

The official Israeli response has thus far been measured. Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting released the following statement: “Israel is not rejecting, nor is it embracing the Mecca accord. Israel is studying the details of the agreement.” Not atypically, the core Israeli response seems to be a tactical one centered around leveraging a maximum Israeli return in exchange for not falling too out of sync with the international community.

The main Israeli focus at the moment seems to be preventing any discussion of core political issues at the forthcoming trilateral summit -- which is regrettable. Wisely, Israel has emphasized practical expectations of a future Palestinian government. Less wisely, Israel has failed to develop a strategic response to the Mecca Agreement and other recent developments, and has come up with no plan for how a new government might be engaged. Such engagement should include political and security negotiations to delineate agreed permanent borders and mutually demanding and reciprocal commitments. Doing this would strengthen Israel's position in the region, wrong-foot its detractors, and set in motion the wider Arab recognition envisaged in the 2002 Saudi Initiative.

The one in-depth analysis regarding Israel's response options to the Mecca deal that has appeared so far is in Hebrew only. The Institute for National Security Studies (formerly the Jaffee Center) has just released a paper by Amir Kulick and edited by Brig Gen (Res) Shlomo Brom that is worth briefly summarizing for an English-speaking audience.

Kulick argues that while the Mecca agreement is far from ideal, Israel should concentrate on the positive potential that a unity government contains and that the central question should not be to recognize or not to recognize, but rather how to maximize this new opportunity. Kulick's analysis of the text of the Mecca agreement is that the phrase “respect of international and Arab resolutions and agreements signed by the PLO,” does indirectly incorporate the three Israeli/Quartet conditions, and that this formula provides something substantial to build on. Kulick goes on to list five significant advantages for Israel that could result from a unity government, and they are worth briefly mentioning:

    1. Strengthening the ceasefire and further distancing Hamas from the pursuit of armed struggle against Israel and towards political solutions.

    2. The prospect of halting or at least slowing down Hamas control of the PA government bureaucracy (civilian and security), particularly in the context of the Finance, Interior, and Foreign Ministries.

    3. Creating a possible horizon for renewing a political peace process. Paradoxically, strengthened cooperation between Fatah and Hamas may create a more fertile ground for peace negotiations, giving Abu Mazen likely greater room for maneuver in permanent status talks. This would especially be the case if Palestinian conditions on the ground are improved, thereby upping the internal cost for Hamas of derailing such a process.

    4. Helping to establish over the long-term a more stable and responsible Palestinian address next to the state of Israel. This would be in contrast to the continuation of anarchy, which would ultimately lead to the disintegration of the Palestinian Authority and of any negotiating option for Israel.

    5. Advancing the release of corporal Gilad Shalit -- a point that has been repeated by many inside the Israeli security establishment.

Of course for any of these positive outcomes to be realized, the temptation to score too many domestic political points in relating to the new Palestinian government will have to be resisted in both Israel and the United States. So it is not very encouraging that, in a memo to members and staffers on Capitol Hill entitled “Unity Government represents no change by Hamas,” AIPAC has managed to display none of the nuance or measured calibration so far adopted by the Israeli government and the rest of the world. The AIPAC memo only sees, to use contemporary Washington parlance, “the half-cup empty.” The memo contradicts itself on its key point, repeatedly asserting that the Mecca deal shows that “international pressure is having an impact” while at the same time claiming that the deal represents “no change from Hamas." One can only hope that the AIPAC position will be politely overlooked, and that neither Congress nor the administration will place additional obstacles in the way of what will be a very delicate process of peace and security building.

In the last days there have been some worrying indicators of slippage in the American position. Elliot Abrams at the NSC amongst others, seems to be pushing a rearguard action to prevent the formation of a new Palestinian government, partly by threatening to boycott any Ministers who sit in such a government (whether or not they are Hamas). Palestinians should stand firm against any such destructive interference.

To recap, in responding to the Palestinian Mecca deal, the United States and Israel should place an emphasis on implementation on the ground, rather than words on paper. For Israel this might center on ceasefire and security performance (that will have to be reciprocal), a deal securing the release of Shalit, and the creation of a clear negotiating mandate for President Abbas. The United States, in its own dealings, might also emphasize sound governance, especially on financial issues, more active exploration (indirect if preferred) of the possible moderating effect of having non al-Qaeda-affiliated political Islamists inside democratic governing structures, and a lessening of the PA link to Iran. In return, Israel and the United States should both move quickly to establish meaningful political negotiations and progress with President Abbas. This is the key ingredient, and its continued absence bodes very ill for the larger and pressing project of stabilizing the region.

Daniel Levy is a Senior Fellow at the New America and The Century Foundations and directs their respective Middle East Peace policy initiatives. He formerly worked as an adviser in Israeli PM Barak's office, as an official negotiator and as lead Israeli drafter of the informal Geneva Initiative peace plan.

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