Sustaining Palestinian Division, Reviving a Partner

Saving a Palestinian partner, whom they have rejected until Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in mid-June, has become the most important mission preoccupying the U.S. Administration and the Israeli government, a mission which nonetheless Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is taking seriously, against all the odds, pursuing a “hope” that their preoccupation could yet be a window of opportunity to revive serious Palestinian – Israeli peace negotiations and break through the siege imposed on him and his people by the both deadlocked inter-Palestinian and the peace process crises.

While all media attention is focused on Hamas in the tightly sealed off Gaza Strip, the real battle of the inter-Palestinian political strife is being fought in the West Bank, where Israeli and American efforts are trying to secure the survival of the Fatah – led Palestinian Authority (PA) and preempt the repetition of the scenario that left Hamas in control of the besieged Mediterranean coastal strip.

Betting the survival of the PA as well as his own presidency on a faint hope that the U.S. Administration might deliver on their promises to revive the peace process with Israel, Abbas is risking a Palestinian infighting in his power base in the Israeli occupied West Bank in the hope that the continued outbreak with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and outlawing their military wings could help international friends to convince Israel to translate the “diplomatic process” he is conducting with the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert into an honest and serious negotiations over the final status issues, the only diversion to the prevailing status quo that could spare the West Bank a flare up of violence.

In spite of all his reservations on U.S. President George W. Bush’s vague proposal for an international conference in the fall to revive the peace talks, to which neither he nor other potential participants have yet received any invitation, Abbas seems desperately determined to pursue his faint hope that the world community might yet intervene to make something out of the November event. His Fatah-led PA is similarly optimistic on betting all on the outcome of the coming gathering, which nothing concrete has leaked so far to support its success prospects to vindicate their optimism or to dispel the pessimistic expectations of the overwhelming majority of Palestinian, Israeli and Western observers.

Reviving a Partner

On July 16, Bush set off a flurry of diplomatic motion when he proposed to hold a conference this fall to help resume the Palestinian – Israeli peace talks, deadlocked since the collapse of the trilateral Camp David summit meeting late in 2000, but so far this diplomatic flurry has been much ado about nothing. The aim of this diplomatic flurry is to lay the ground for a successful conclusion of the proposed international gathering. However the Bush administration’s refusal over several years to bring serious attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict has ranked high; Bush’s proposed conference is promising to change nothing.

The U.S. and Israeli officials have been repeatedly on record to pre-condition the convening of the proposed conference and their support to Abbas on sustaining his outbreak with Hamas. A hint by the Italian Premier Romano Prodi about having a dialogue with Hamas and an outright call for such a dialogue by the British House of Common’s Foreign Affairs Committee in August drew sharp criticism from Livni as a “huge mistake” that “will only cripple the process of reconciliation and will halt the current positive momentum,” according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

Israel has ruled out Abbas as a peace partner since his election in January 2005; the U.S. has done nothing essential to make the Israelis reconsider. It was left to Hamas to convince both sides to come to their political senses. The Islamic movement’s landslide electoral victory in January 2006 and control of the Gaza Strip in mid June this year have only prodded them to reconsider tactically how to keep Abbas in place lest a similar scenario carries Hamas close to Israeli door steps in the West Bank.

The PA is overreacting in their anti-Hamas measures to assure that the new diplomatic momentum continues; the majority leader in the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives Steny Hoyer emerged from a meeting with Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad in Ramallah on August 14 to tell reporters: “Mr. Fayyad made very clear that Hamas could not and would not be a partner in moving forward.” Abbas and Fayyad are resisting huge Palestinian, Arab and Muslim pressure to sustain their rejection of dialogue with Hamas, which is also demanded by Russia, Norway, India and the Non-Aligned Movement; they have so far aborted at least eight mediation efforts to restore Palestinian unity, which was also recommended by the International Crisis Group (ICG) early in August.

The U.S. sponsors of the upcoming conference are not leaving prospects to good faith and hopeful wishes; the success for the U.S. Administration is judged by convening the conference and not by any results it may yield because the White House and the State department planned it as a public relations event on the one hand and as a “banana” to bring in Arab heavy weights like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to meet face to face with Israel, in a public show of Arab normalization with Israeli officials, allegedly to boost Olmert’s fragile political standing at home to encourage him to take the next step towards peace.

Bush is urging Olmert to make “concessions” to Abbas to avert a Hamas takeover in the West Bank. Reportedly, Olmert is now forthcoming to cooperate with Abbas in writing something like a “framework agreement” that will lay down the principles of an agreement that may be achieved later on, but without details or a time-table or guarantees, which is a non-starter for a breakthrough. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s expectation of a possible early election next year and his recent assertion that Israel would not be ready to make a large-scale pullback from the West Bank for at least 2 1/2 years raise more doubts than assurances.

After meeting with Olmert in the West Bank town of Jericho in August, the two men met again in Jerusalem later in the month, met for a third time also in Jerusalem on Tuesday and said they will be meeting again this September before another encounter during a Palestinian – Israeli business conference in Tel Aviv in October, where they will meet also with the special envoy of the Quartet of the U.S., U.N., EU and Russia, Tony Blair. Between September 16–19 both men will receive the visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; her Assistant for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, paid both men a visit ahead of Rice’s planned visit. Later in September Abbas will head for New York.

Two-pronged Effort

The Americans are now leading a two-pronged effort to strengthen Abbas – the Washington conference is planned to present the “political horizon,” while Quartet envoy Tony Blair — who arrived in the region last week for a ten-day visit but hardly a word was heard from him — and U.S. Security Coordinator Keith Dayton are working to rehabilitate and bolster the PA’s security and civilian institutions in the West Bank. Visits by the Japanese Foreign Minister, Taro Aso, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Italian top diplomat Massimo D’Alema, Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner were perceived as contributing to Blair’s and Dayton’s mission. The European Union’s foreign ministers meeting last week for two days in Portugal, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, discussed measures to make their mission a success.

Israeli daily Haaretz on September 12 reported the United States will host the conference in Washington, D.C., in November, the week before Thanksgiving. Rice will chair the meeting, which “will seek to win support for arrangements being drafted” by Olmert and Abbas “but will not have any negotiating role” the daily said, adding that Rice and her Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, initiated the “political horizon” or “shelf agreement” whose implementation will be put off until the Palestinian Authority (PA) is strong enough to carry out. Olmert agreed to the plan.

U.S. and Israeli officials seem faithful to a sixty-year old strategy of managing the conflict. Recently they seem to have taken the advice of an old hand in this strategy like the veteran U.S. peace negotiator Dennis Ross, who wrote in The New Republic on July 16: “There does need to be a sense of possibility about peace with Israel. A process, negotiations, dialogue, and the promise of changes on the ground will count for a lot. Ironically, I did not find the Palestinians I spoke with–and the number is now over 40 in my two visits here in the last six weeks–wanting to raise false expectations. No one expects an immediate breakthrough and resolution of the permanent status issues.”

“Over the years, the Palestinians have learned that for Israelis, nothing is more permanent than the temporary,” Akiva Eldar wrote in Haaretz on August 24. In their effort to find a formula for bridging the temporary and the permanent, Olmert and Vice Premier Haim Ramon have adopted the method of “constructive ambiguity,” which allows each side to have its own interpretation. In the case of temporary borders, the compromise formula is expected to stipulate temporary borders in the first stage, but with no declaration of statehood until there is an agreement on final borders.

The United Nations and the Vatican voiced optimistic hope that the fall conference could yet deliver a long – awaited revival of the peace process. The conference raised new hopes and created a “particularly favorable context” for progress in the “crisis that has lasted 60 years and that continues to spread grief and destruction,” a Vatican statement said on September 6. The U.N.’s top Middle East envoy, Michael Williams, added a warning against failure to hopeful prospects: “There is a hope now which has been absent for almost seven years. A setback at this stage could have serious consequences,” Williams told the Security Council recently; he cited among the “signs of hope” the proposed conference, the revival of a pan-Arab peace initiative, “and, perhaps above all,” the dialogue between Abbas and Olmert.

Ruling out Syria, Hamas Non-starter

Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and international critical analysts question Bush’s proposal as a public relations ploy that aims at luring moderate Arab governments into a U.S. – led political, diplomatic and, probably later, a military Arab – Israeli camp of moderates to serve the U.S. strategy against what he had earlier termed as an Iranian – Syrian “axis of evil” and to help save whatever could be saved for Americans in Iraq should the anti-war escalating campaign inside the United States force him to consider an exit strategy. Critics highlight the fact that Bush’s proposed gathering is increasingly sowing divisive discord both among Arabs and Palestinians.

On the official level, during a regular Arab League (AL) meeting held recently in Cairo, Arabs said the U.S. initiative must be dealt with cautiously. AL Secretary General Amr Moussa said that the conference, if fails, would pose a threat to Arab interests and regional stability. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned that if the conference fails to produce a breakthrough, the negative repercussions would affect the whole region, increase feelings of frustration and strengthen extremism. Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, on September 12 said it was imperative to set an agenda for the conference to clarify the goals and participants, the foreign ministry said in a statement. Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who early this month toured France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in efforts to energize the peace process, said after meeting with Blair in Amman on September 9 the conference should lay out a working plan with a “specific timetable.” Arabs and Abbas are demanding that Syria be invited to secure the success of the conference, but not Hamas.

All those involved in the current diplomatic flurry recognize Abbas as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and all rule out dealing with the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip. How then will any agreement signed with Abbas be accepted by Hamas as well? For example how can they, and Abbas, begin handling the rocket and mortar shell fire directed at Israeli targets from Gaza, like the one that hit the southern Israeli military base of Zikim on Tuesday and wounded at least fifty soldiers? Or with whom they are to negotiate the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit from his Palestinian captivity in Gaza?

Ruling Syria or Hamas is a non-starter; ruling both out only casts doubts on the sponsors’ real goals; do they intend to prove later that Abbas could not deliver and consequently is not qualified as a partner as an excuse to absolve themselves of commitments they might take upon themselves during the upcoming conference?

Abbas, Olmert Don’t See Eye to Eye

Judging by Abbas – Olmert meetings, despite the reports that the two sides had agreed to set up negotiating teams to advance their talks, neither side issued a statement, announced any breakthroughs, had anything in writing or reported a tangible progress, but both sides confirmed they did not address any details of the final status issues. Chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, denied any exchange of memos of understanding. Ynet had quoted a senior political source in Olmert’s Office as saying, “at this point no agreement has been reached” and made it clear that “it is too soon to tell if such an agreement would find its way to the proposed conference,” probably in Washington.

However Abbas and Olmert still do not see eye to eye to what their dialogue should deliver to secure the success of the proposed conference. Abbas demands they should reach a “framework agreement” for a “declaration of principles” with a timeline and mechanisms for implementation on the final status issue, including the core issues of borders, Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees, ahead of the conference. “A genuine project for peace should be presented to this conference so it can serve as a basis for negotiations and reach towards a final settlement,” Abbas told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah last week. “We are concerned that November 15 will come — if this will indeed be the date for this international conference — without arriving at a specific agreement on all the issues,” then “this meeting will be described as a failure. We do not want a meeting that results in merely a statement. We do not want a meeting that will end up a failure for everybody.”

But Olmert seeks agreement on a broadbrush “declaration of principles” that would be a general statement of intent rather than a concrete diplomatic commitment. On August 3 Olmert said even he was not sure he would be able to reach a deal with Abbas on statehood principles ahead of the November international meeting.

“I have been holding meetings with Abu Mazen (Abbas) and I hope that in the near future this will lead to a … joint declaration. If we can achieve a draft by November, we will achieve it, but I am not sure we will be able to do that,” he told reporters. His government’s spokesperson, Mir Eisen, said: “We think that the Palestinian Authority needs to build itself, its government, its security forces, before we define this state.”

Earlier, Abbas had said the proposed conference would be a “waste of time” if it focused solely on a “declaration of principles.” He even hinted indirectly to boycotting the event: “If there is a clear framework including final status issues, we will welcome this and go to the [November] conference,” he added. Reportedly, Olmert is now forthcoming to cooperate with Abbas in writing something like a one-page “framework agreement” that will lay down the principles of an agreement that may be achieved later on, but without details or a time-table or guarantees for implementation, which is a non-starter for a breakthrough.

“I am really terrified that these meetings and the meeting in November … will create the illusion with a certain part of our publics, on both sides, that peace is possible and both leaders are capable,” Nazmi Al-Jubeh, a Bir Zeit University professor and one of the Palestinian negotiators on the Geneva Accord, told The Globe and Mail on August 29, warning the collapse of such an illusion “will lead us into another kind of intifada.”

In an interview with the “Palestine-Israel Journal” (Vol.14 No.2 2007), former PA security adviser, Jibril al-Rajoub, responded to U.S. President George W. Bush’s call for an international peace conference: “The Palestinian people are fed up with good will statements we have been hearing them for years now. We are looking to see something moving on the ground. We are looking for practical mechanisms to start implementing the Road Map and the Bush vision, and international legitimacy.” On the appointment of Tony Blair as the Quartet envoy, he said: “as far as I know, his mandate has nothing to do with politics.”

Many Israelis are skeptical as well. “The Bush initiative is a basic strategic pitfall, premised on driving a wedge between Mahmoud Abbas’ “moderates” and Hamas’ “extremists,” former Israeli foreign minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, wrote in on August 17. In an article titled, “Saving President Abbas,” Israeli leader of Gush Shalom wrote on June 23: “At present, all Olmert’s actions are endangering Abbas. His embrace is a bear’s embrace, and his kiss is the kiss of death… If I might offer some advice to Abbas, I would call out to him: Run! Run for your precious life! One touch of Olmert’s hand will seal your fate!” But Abbas has been embracing Olmert on a biweekly basis for almost six months now!?

Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Nicola.