The US administration and Israel are accelerating their coordinated meddling in the internal Palestinian divide between the Fatah-led presidency and the Hamas-led government to preempt a series of Arab mediation efforts, the latest of which is a UAE-Syrian try according to a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
The PLO official, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that President Mahmoud Abbas authorized the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to negotiate with Syria on behalf of Hamas, whose politburo chairman, Khaled Misha’al, is based in Damascus, a draft for forming a Palestinian national unity government on the basis of the national consensus document (the prisoners’ document), recognizing the PLO by Hamas, and respecting the accords signed by the PLO with Israel.
However the undeclared UAE-Syrian effort-in-the-offing seems to have been overtaken by the latest Israeli-US moves to foil Arab mediation. Faced practically with choosing between national unity and lifting the Israeli-US siege, the PLO leadership has opted to give priority to the second option, a choice that led it to voluntarily accept bypassing the Palestinian government by visiting western leaders and diplomats, to turn a blind eye to the western diplomatic boycott imposed on this government and to receive selective “humanitarian aid” through the PA presidency.
Within this context, Abbas met with the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem on Saturday in a long-awaited summit, during which Olmert only “promised” to release $100 million out of more than $600 million illegally held by Israel as a “humanitarian” gesture, but failed to agree on a prisoner swap and deferred to joint committees the Palestinian demands of releasing some of more than 10,000 Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails -- including the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and more then 60 cabinet ministers and lawmakers -- the easing of West Bank travel military restrictions and increasing the traffic through the main cargo crossing between Gaza Strip and Israel.
The meager results of the meeting won’t lift or essentially alleviate the year-long tight economic and financial siege. Expressing Moscow's support for Abbas' efforts to resolve the crisis through national consensus, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a press conference in Moscow last week that foreign interests had “knowingly and deliberately intervened to thwart the Palestinian dialogue on the formation of a national unity government.”
The question now is not of getting the Israelis and Palestinians to talk, but of getting the Palestinians to talk to each other so they can talk to others.
Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa canceled a plan for an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers on Monday to resolve the inter-Palestinian crisis after conferring with the Palestinian president. Abbas “told me that there are mediations by some Arab states which may lead to a result and progress in (solving) the Palestinian crisis,” he said.
The Palestinian unity government would be anathema to Israel and timing of Olmert’s move and other U.S moves leave no doubts about their aim to preclude Arab mediation, thwart the potential for a successful Palestinian dialogue, and suggest reasons other than those mentioned by Mousa and Abbas for shelving the Arab League plans.
Egypt, Qatar and Yemen are heavily involved in mediation with the rival Palestinian factions. A Qatari mediation effort was foiled in October by the PLO insistence on Hamas’ commitment to the Israeli-initiated, US and Quartet-adopted conditions.
The Israeli interest in “thwarting” Palestinian dialogue is self-evident. However, the US “thwarting” efforts unilaterally and through international forums need elaboration. On Thursday, President George W. Bush signed the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act barring direct US aid to the “Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority” (PA) as long as Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, renounce violence and recognize existing agreements.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is expected in Israel and the PA in January, said she would ask the Congress for $100 million to “strengthen the security forces” of the PA loyal to Abbas. But strengthen these forces against whom?
Also as part of western efforts to shore up Abbas and further tighten siege on Hamas, the Quartet of the US, the UN, the EU and Russia has backed the continuation for three months of the Temporary International Mechanism to provide aid directly to the Palestinian people by bypassing the Hamas-led Government.
Hamas considers forming a national unity government the right approach to lifting the siege, and not vice versa. Without consensus and prior consultation, the Islamic Resistance Movement fears a crackdown in Abbas’ call on December 16 for early presidential and legislative election and has welcomed and invited Arab mediation efforts to alleviate its fears, which are vindicated by the Israeli and US incessant calls on Abbas to dismantle it or pressure it into accepting the Israeli conditions, which the Quartet adopted as preconditions to lift the siege.
Hamas is now insisting on Israeli reciprocity, an overdue Palestinian demand and a principle that the PLO should have set as a precondition since Israel showed its bad faith when it sliced Jerusalem out of the rest of the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 immediately after signing the Declaration of Principles in Washington in 1993, but especially after extremists in 1995 assassinated the Israelis’ hero of peace, Yitzhak Rabin, which carried the right to power ever since.
The PLO has demilitarized to more than 90%, according to Abbas, the six-year old Intifada, and practically brought the demilitarized uprising to a standstill too, while incessantly repeating its willingness to immediately go into unconditional negotiations with the Israel.
Late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat led the PLO and his Fatah movement to a mutual recognition with Israel, renounced violence and revoked the Palestinian National Charter, and reinforced the autonomy of the PA, which he got in return, with “state security courts” in order to swiftly punish the “enemies of peace” with Israel; in 1996, more than 2000 of those “enemies of peace” were imprisoned and tortured. His successor Abbas condemned their violent anti-occupation resistance as terrorist acts.
Both men received nothing in return for all their “good will.” They were disavowed as no partners in the deadlocked peace process. Israel besieged Arafat in his own office in the West Bank town of Ramallah for three years until his death on November 11, 2004, suspiciously by poison. Their signed accords were all violated by Israel who reoccupied their autonomous gains as the Israeli state terrorism against their people continue to this day unabated, rendering all their peace endeavors counterproductive and futile and leading to Hamas’ landslide electoral victory.
For years, Israel had been leaving no stone unturned in its effort to precipitate a Palestinian civil war. In the early days after the Oslo Accord, it pressurized Arafat to crack down on Hamas, but he did not fall into the Israeli trap. Abbas also evaded falling into the trap by insisting on dialogue to maneuver Hamas into ceasefire through joining the political process, leading Israelis to accuse him of “dialogue with terror,” and successfully averted infighting, but the tight siege imposed on the PA since Hamas’ electoral victory in January 2006 seems to be loosening his resolve.
Should the US and Israel push the Hamas-led government to the wall, they may trigger a third Palestinian Intifada, Misha’al had warned in Cairo. Should the Palestinian divide be denied Arab mediation and further fueled to slide into a civil war the Palestinian-Israeli peace process would be deferred indefinitely and none in the proximity would be spared the repercussions.
Mediation by marginal PLO factions, Egypt and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) secured last week a ceasefire in the low key infighting in the Gaza Strip, which claimed more than 325 lives and more than 4,000 wounded in 2006, according to Abbas, but the national dialogue is still deadlocked.
Under the pressures of the potential risks of an escalating Palestinian crisis, King Abdullah II on Tuesday contravened Jordan's unannounced boycott of the Hamas-led government, and in clear divergence from the all-demanding declared policy of the country’s US strategic ally, invited Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh for a joint summit in Amman, but his royal invitation has yet to be honored.
However the UAE’s and Syrian middle ground between Hamas and Fatah and Palestinian presidency and government qualifies both countries for a successful mediation.
Syrian President Bashar Al Assad arrived in the UAE on Dec. 18, flying in from Yemen, and held three meetings with President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan; the next day, he met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow and told reporters that “Syria backs the Palestinian national unity through forming a Palestinian national unity government.”
Briefing reporters on the Russian vision of the Palestinian issue, President Assad said, “in fact . . . The Russian vision on Palestine is a detailed, objective and real vision and we fully agree with it . . . it is a vision based on the Palestinians' unity.”
Assad's earlier talks in Yemen with President Ali Abdullah Saleh also discussed mediating the Palestinian divide, two days after the arrival in Sanaa of US assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, David Welch, for talks with President Saleh. “I'll leave it to President Saleh to convey their views to President Assad,” Welch said. “They know the views of the United States,” Asia Times online quoted him as saying on Dec. 22.
Should the Bush administration reconsider its currently known “views” of the Palestinian divide and engage Syria instead of alienating it, as recommended by the Baker-Hamilton report, to initiate a US-Syrian understanding that could allow Damascus, hand in hand with Abu Dhabi, to break through the Hamas-Fatah divide, history could be replayed to avert a Palestinian civil war as it had put an end to the Lebanese civil war in the seventies of the last century. It could potentially make the resumption of the peace process closer on both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks of peace talks with Israel.
Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Ramallah, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
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