b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    June 16, 2008 Edition 23                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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Ramifications of Palestinian reconciliation efforts
. Excluding Hamas has been a failure        by Ghassan Khatib
Israel is very comfortable with the political division on the Palestinian side.
  . Fateh-Hamas talks and a Gaza ceasefire        by Yossi Alpher
The Abbas initiative and the Gaza ceasefire talks point to the last available set of options short of war with Hamas.
. Tahdiyeh and dialogue depend on each other        by Walid Salem
The US is not against Abu Mazen's dialogue.
  . Deal with the Iranian factor        by Saul Singer
What is important is not declarations and even talks but the power balance that underlies them.

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Excluding Hamas has been a failure
by Ghassan Khatib

One year has passed since Hamas defeated the pro-Fateh security forces in Gaza. Since then there have been few serious attempts to reconcile the rival parties in order to allow the political reunification of the two parts of the Palestinian Authority territories, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The fighting a year ago came only three months after a Saudi-brokered deal to establish a national unity government that had the full support and consent of other Arab countries including Egypt. The failure of that experience thus discouraged Arab countries from repeating such mediation efforts.

Most of the pressure for reconciliation came from the Palestinian public and civil society including political parties. Israel and the United States intentionally and publicly tried to prevent reconciliation. The feeling among most Palestinians is that Israel is very comfortable with the political division on the Palestinian side and the disintegration of the territory of a potential Palestinian state.

Indeed, Israel physically separated the West Bank from Gaza immediately after it evacuated Gaza of Israeli soldiers and settlers in 2005. That unilateral strategy was about consolidating its occupation of the West Bank while ridding itself of the densely populated Gaza Strip, thus answering Israeli fears over the so-called demographic threat.

Over the past year, we also witnessed a renewal of the political negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis during which Israel left the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas and Fateh with one of two choices: either dialogue and reconciliation with Hamas or negotiations and political process with Israel.

It's only now, when Abbas appears to have reached the conclusion that his negotiations with Israel are heading for deadlock that he made his recent initiative, inviting Hamas to enter into an unconditional dialogue.

It is possible that this is a tactic to put pressure on Israel to be more forthcoming in negotiations. It's also possible that Abbas has concluded that he has been chasing a mirage by negotiating with the Israelis while sacrificing his domestic front. It is possible that the two scenarios are valid at the same time.

Although it is still early days, the situation is reminiscent of that of Yasser Arafat a few years before his death. Arafat was significantly weakened domestically as a result of putting all his eggs in a peace process basket that could not prevent the continued expansion of illegal Jewish settlements. At the last moment, he decided to try to regain the confidence of his public, confidence he had sacrificed chasing the same mirage that Abbas has been chasing.

Even before Hamas' takeover of Gaza, the US had adopted its exclusion policy vis-a-vis the Islamist movement. This policy not only entailed refraining from having contacts with Hamas, the party that won Palestinian elections in 2006, but also entailed putting pressure on others to do the same. Notably, Washington joined Israel in pressuring Abbas not to talk to Hamas. There were clear direct and indirect messages that such a dialogue might jeopardize the different means of financial support the PA depends on.

The American exclusion strategy in Palestine is similar to its exclusion strategy in other parts of the Middle East and has failed. After one year in control of Gaza, Hamas is in direct negotiations with Egypt over borders and indirect negotiations with Israel over a ceasefire and exchange of prisoners. In addition, there is now a good chance of a dialogue between Fateh and Hamas that Egypt is preparing to host.

In fact, the isolation and siege imposed on Hamas in Gaza prevented a domestic dialogue among Palestinians while at the same time allowing all kinds of contacts with Hamas, including by many European countries. The siege has thus neither weakened Hamas nor prevented it from pursuing its armed resistance.

The approach that was adopted by the PA, Israel and the US toward Hamas and Gaza needs to be revised. On the one hand, there has to be some attention to the humanitarian and economic needs of Gazans as an alternative to the sanctions regime that has been harming the population and playing politically into the hands of Hamas.

In parallel, there has to be serious progress in the peace process and a radical change in Israeli behavior in the occupied West Bank so it becomes consistent with Israel's obligations under that process. This, most importantly, must include an end to the settlement expansion policy in the West Bank including occupied East Jerusalem. This is the only way to empower the peace camp in Palestine and reverse the trend of radicalization, thus creating an atmosphere conducive to reunifying the Palestinian territories under the leadership of that peace camp.- Published 16/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.

Fateh-Hamas talks and a Gaza ceasefire
by Yossi Alpher

Two weeks ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) invited Hamas to renew negotiations over a modus vivendi and unity government comprising the two movements. Hamas spokesmen in Gaza were quick to welcome Abbas' statement and Egypt is once again taking the lead to bring Fateh and Hamas representatives together.

Abbas' initiative parallels the current Israeli-Hamas indirect ceasefire talks and should be welcomed. That Jerusalem and Washington have said virtually nothing about it is significant since it runs completely contrary to their declared position.

Under present circumstances, were Hamas and Fateh to agree to reestablish a unity government along guidelines that do not correspond to those of the Quartet (recognition of Israel, abandonment of violence and acceptance of the Oslo accords), this would almost certainly catalyze the suspension of the current American-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Accordingly, one explanation for Abbas' step is that he has concluded there is little chance of a peace breakthrough with Israel and he has to cover his political flanks by talking to Hamas.

This explanation reflects Palestinian despair with both the Israeli and American positions in negotiations. Yet it doesn't correspond with anything Abbas and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei (Aba Ala) have stated recently in public or with the latest Palestinian opinion poll results.

Given the somewhat nebulous nature of Abbas' initiative--it's not clear whether he has withdrawn his own precondition for an agreement with Hamas that essentially reverses its takeover of the Gaza Strip a year ago--a number of alternative explanations appear possible. One is that Abbas is simply trying to "light a fire" under the peace negotiations by suggesting he has alternatives. Another is that he wants to position himself for the advent of an Israel-Hamas ceasefire in and around Gaza. A ceasefire would likely boost Hamas' popularity on the Palestinian street and could be a prelude to more expansive Israel-Hamas contacts over prisoner exchange and the Gaza passages. By offering unity talks with Hamas, Abbas could be ensuring that he and the peace talks won't be overshadowed by a ceasefire. Alternatively, Abbas anticipates an Israeli military offensive into Gaza and wants to ensure that he and the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership are not castigated by angry Palestinians and other Arabs as collaborators with Israel.

Indeed, Abbas may have considered all of the above. As long as an agreement with Hamas does not come at the expense of progress in peace talks with Israel--in other words, as long as Abbas doesn't do a deal with Hamas that makes it impossible for Israel to pursue peace talks with him--Abbas appears to have improved his capacity to withstand any anticipated new developments.

This is particularly so given the increasing likelihood that nothing will come of Israel's peace negotiations with Ramallah and that some sort of Israeli decision--either a ceasefire or a major military operation--will be made regarding Gaza. In this sense, Abbas' initiative offers a convenient point of departure for new and long overdue Israeli policy initiatives.

The Olmert government should modify its conditions for negotiating with Hamas. The Israeli/Quartet conditions never made sense; Hamas' acceptance of the prisoners' document and the Arab peace initiative should be sufficient to qualify it for direct contact with Israel insofar as they offer recognition of Israel and acceptance of past agreements; an end of violence is something to be negotiated--precisely what is happening now regarding a ceasefire. Israel should also encourage the formation of a Palestinian unity government insofar as it is the only conceivable Palestinian institution that could deliver on an agreement with it. And Israel should be prepared to end its economic boycott of Gaza. Like all attempts over the past 41 years to use economic carrots and sticks to influence Palestinian behavior, it hasn't worked, while the depravation and poverty it has engendered in Gaza are not something Israelis can be proud of.

The alternative to these proposed Israeli policy changes is war and/or Palestinian elections in which Hamas wins all. In all honesty and in view of Hamas' extremist Islamist program, we must recognize that all-out war to reoccupy the Gaza Strip and eliminate Hamas may ultimately be our default option. This is particularly the case if and when it becomes clear that Hamas is incapable of modifying its extremist positions regarding Israel.

Meanwhile, the Abbas initiative and the Gaza ceasefire talks point to the last available set of options short of war with Hamas. And sinoce there is no guarantee that war with Hamas will turn out the way we want and there is every certainty it will be costly in human lives and detrimental to Israel's international standing, we have good reason to welcome Abbas' latest move.- Published 16/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Tahdiyeh and dialogue depend on each other

by Walid Salem

Regardless of whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) got a green light from the United States and Israel to re-initiate dialogue with Hamas, an already large consensus is growing among Palestinians, Arabs and many international decision-makers that it is his right to do so, given that Israel is indirectly speaking to Hamas through Cairo. Fateh's Revolutionary Council ended its meeting in May calling for the formation of a national unity government, something that will require either dissolving or expanding Salam Fayyad's government. The Council also asked Abu Mazen to pursue dialogue on the basis of the Yemeni initiative in order to end the coup in Gaza.

A dialogue with Hamas will not necessarily go against Israeli interests, if these interests are defined as bringing security to Israeli citizens. It might be assumed that an Abu Mazen dialogue with Hamas will provide momentum to the ceasefire (tahdiyeh) process, given that a tahdiyeh is one of the conditions Abu Mazen wants Hamas to comply with in order to ensure Israeli reciprocity. A ceasefire will also help Abu Mazen move ahead in negotiations on permanent status by implementing Palestinian obligations under the first phase of the roadmap.

The dialogue with Hamas is based on the Yemeni initiative, which states that Hamas should end the coup in Gaza, commit to PLO obligations, accept Arab and international legitimacy and agree to early elections for the Palestinian Authority. Hamas wants the articles of this initiative to be subject to negotiation and modification, while Abu Mazen wants the dialogue to be about the mechanisms for implementation and not content. That position may help explain the lack of objection from the White House and the silence from Israel.

Would the American position allow Abu Mazen to negotiate with Hamas on how to implement these obligations? The answer is yes. The US is not against Abu Mazen's dialogue. The US is engaged in a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, where Washington is defending the Islamist movement's right to participate freely in Egyptian elections as part of an American policy to open dialogue with Islamist movements in order to isolate al-Qaeda as a group that uses Islam to justify terrorism.

It is still not clear when the dialogue between Abu Mazen and Hamas will begin in earnest. Hamas is talking about the need for proper preparation and to agree in advance on the principles of the dialogue before delving into details. Abu Mazen and Fateh consider the Yemeni initiative as constituting those principles. Hence there is a big gap between the two sides. There is one area of solid agreement though: both sides want Egypt to mediate and Hosni Mubarak to personally sponsor the dialogue in cooperation with the Arab League, following the model of the Lebanese dialogue when an Arab country (Qatar) sponsored that dialogue in cooperation with the Arab League.

The other issues of the dialogue pose problems, however. The two sides agree that a new government should be composed of independent personalities decided upon by both sides, but they disagree on the issue of whether this government will be committed to the Arab and international resolutions regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In this regard the two sides might go back to article number 6 of the National Reconciliation Document of 2007 that spoke about the establishment of a government able to get international and Arabic support.

When it comes to elections, Hamas is against the idea of early elections. The movement considers itself legitimately elected for a period of four years. Nevertheless, Hamas accepts to have elections on an agreed upon date and under an agreed upon elections law. On the latter point, Abu Mazen wants a fully proportional system, while Hamas still supports the current law under which 50 percent of seats are decided proportionally and 50 percent are based on district results.

Another thorny issue is that of returning to the situation before June 2007. Hamas wants this to include the situation in the West Bank, i.e., a release from prisons of Hamas members, the re-opening of charitable organizations affiliated with the movement, the dissolution of the Salam Fayyad government and canceling of all that government's decisions regarding Hamas as well as all presidential decrees issued after June 2007. Abu Mazen and Fateh want only a return of the status quo ante in Gaza and consider all that happened in the West Bank legitimate and not subject to change.

The issue of reorganizing the security services in Gaza might be close to a breakthrough, however. Both sides seem to have agreed that security forces headquarters can be temporarily put under Arab control and Arab forces be put in charge of restructuring and retraining Palestinian forces. This was a solution hinted at by Abu Mazen in a speech on June 6, and was supported by a number of Hamas leaders in subsequent statements.

Finally, the issue of restructuring the PLO in order to include Hamas is one of the more difficult ones to resolve because it is related to reaching agreement on a single political program. Without such agreement, restructuring the PLO will be hard.

This dialogue with Hamas will not resemble the one Abu Mazen undertook in Mecca in February 2007, which led to the establishment of a national unity government. First, the context is different, since we are not witnessing international consensus in objection, and secondly Israel is already in indirect negotiations with Hamas in Gaza.

Moreover, the aims are different. Abu Mazen, who is still convinced of the negotiations path with Israel despite the absence of tangible results, is not looking for a national unity government with Hamas that might bring back the Israeli and American boycott. Rather, he is negotiating for a transitional and agreed-upon government of independent personalities, to prepare for elections on the one hand and give him the space to pursue negotiations in quiet with the hope of reaching agreement by the end of this year, on the other.

Will Abu Mazen succeed? It is difficult to say, but his effort to bring Hamas into the service of the peace process rather than against is certainly worth it. One thing is clear: Abu Mazen's chances of success depend on the conclusion of a tahdiyeh agreement in Gaza that introduces real calm, the release of Gilad Shalit as part of a prisoner exchange and the reopening of the Rafah border and other crossings into Gaza. Without this, Hamas will not be ready to give Abu Mazen anything.- Published 16/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Walid Salem is director of the Center for Democracy and Community Development and a member of the PLO's Palestinian National Council.

Deal with the Iranian factor

by Saul Singer

It is not clear whether Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' recent call for "national and comprehensive dialogue" with Hamas is a significant change of position. Some PA leaders claim that the Hamas coup in Gaza must be reversed before talks can begin, others that such "political conditions" have been dropped.

What is clear is that following the ups and downs of the Hamas-Fateh relationship is a somewhat pointless exercise, since what is most important is not declarations and even talks but the power balance that underlies them.

For example, let's say that Hamas and Fateh were able to reach a modus vivendi and in some way join forces. Would the missile attacks from Gaza on Israel continue? Would this joint Palestinian entity meet the Quartet conditions regarding recognition of Israel and ending support for terrorism?

The answer to these questions will be a function not of the formal relationship between warring Palestinian entities but rather of which broad camp--the Islamists in Hamas and Hizballah or the "nationalists" in Fateh--has the upper hand. This, in turn, will be most likely determined by forces arrayed in concentric circles outside the Palestinian-Israeli arena.

The first of these circles is the Arab world. If the Arab states, principally Egypt, are exerting increased pressure on Hamas--perhaps by ending the flow of weapons across the Egyptian-Gaza border--then Fateh might be willing and able to tip the Palestinian balance toward negotiations rather than aggression. But what determines the stance of the Arab states?

At Annapolis and since, we have seen that the Arab states are not happy about the rise of Iranian power and are willing to make gestures toward an American-led peace process. At the same time, these states will not, despite limited American urging to do so, significantly advance this process by setting an example and taking concrete steps toward Israel.

Egypt's ambivalent position is typical in this regard. Aside from attending Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, President Hosni Mubarak has never visited Israel. Egypt could greatly reduce or end the weapons flow into Gaza but does not. And Egypt is not above pushing for Hamas-Fateh reconciliation on terms that would not meet the Quartet's conditions and would represent a defeat for the pro-negotiations Palestinian camp.

All of this is a function partly of the historic Arab preference for a process over peace itself. But at this time it is even more related to uncertainty regarding the surrounding concentric circle, that of the struggle between Iran and the West.

So long as the Arab states see an approaching Iranian nuclear shadow on the horizon, they will not grant the West a victory that they have fought and resisted for the past century: ending the war to destroy the Jewish state. The same goes for the Palestinians, whether in Hamas or Fateh.

Rather than attempting to read Palestinian tea leaves, anyone who cares about the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace should be looking to European capitals, to the US election in November and perhaps also to the leadership crisis in Israel. If the current too-little-too-late approach toward Iran continues, everyone knows that Iran will get the bomb, radical forces in the region will automatically be strengthened and current peace efforts will fail--among many other negative consequences for the region and the world.

Fortunately, there is also no doubt that the situation can be changed given a modicum of willingness in the West to act upon its values and interests. While less than one percent of Europe's trade is with Iran, 40 percent of Iran's trade is with Europe. The Iranian regime is unpopular and vulnerable to determined economic and diplomatic isolation and, as a last resort, its nuclear program is vulnerable to military measures.

Dealing with Iran may seem like a round-about way to address an Israeli-Palestinian impasse, but the refusal to see the Iranian angle actually reveals other blinders. Granting radical Islamism a nuclear umbrella would not just end any prospects for Arab-Israeli peace but would launch a regional nuclear arms race, jack up the price of oil, spell doom for moderate Lebanese, Iraqis and Palestinians, presage attempts to destabilize Arab regimes and invite a new rash of terrorism in western countries.

No amount of putting out fires will stop a pyromaniac. While dealing with the pyromaniac may be daunting, there is no choice, and it also presents the opportunity, if successful, of advancing many situations at once. If the Iranian regime falls or is forced into a Libyan-style capitulation, the prospects for regional and global peace, freedom and security will be dramatically enhanced. It is not just the future of Israelis and Palestinians that hangs in the balance.- Published 16/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Saul Singer is editorial page editor of and a columnist for The Jerusalem Post. He is on leave this year while writing a book.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.