February 13, 2012 Edition 6 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
The Doha declaration and Israel's response
A failure of Israeli strategic thinking  - Yossi Alpher
More distressing is what the Doha event says about Israeli strategic thinking on the Palestinian issue in general.

Dialogue is the way  - Ghassan Khatib
Hamas cannot be ignored as a means of "handling" its unacceptable politics or practices.

The Doha declaration and the Palestinian mindset  - Yisrael Harel
It was only a short while ago that we watched how Hamas threw Fateh activists from roofs of high buildings. And now? Smiles and embraces.

Putting Doha in context  - Hani al-Masri
The Doha declaration should be seen in light of regional events.

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A failure of Israeli strategic thinking
 Yossi Alpher
The Fateh-Hamas Doha declaration of February 5 is many things, some more grounded in reality than others.

At the regional level, the declaration represents yet another step forward for political Islam. This takes the form of new agreements between Hamas and Fateh, mainly to set up a technocrat government charged with organizing elections and beginning reconstruction in Gaza, and to move toward integrating Hamas into the Palestine Liberation Organization. It is also another feather in the cap of Qatari diplomacy, which has been quick to fill the void left by the weakening of the patrons of the two Palestinian movements, Syria (Hamas) and Egypt (Fateh).

For Fateh leader Mahmoud Abbas, the agreement represents Hamas' acquiescence in his leadership, at least temporarily. And it seemingly enables him, without making significant concessions, to keep juggling in the air the balls of negotiations with Israel under Jordanian auspices and national reconciliation and reunification with Hamas/Gaza. "Seemingly" enables, because the sharp "either Hamas or us" reaction of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the guarded response of part of the Quartet appear at least temporarily to preclude further talks. In actuality, the chances of either reconciliation or peace "pre-negotiations" reaching fruition are low, but as long as both balls are in the air, Abbas is virtually in control.

For the Hamas leadership, the Doha declaration exacerbated long-brewing tensions between Khaled Meshaal, who signed it, and the Gaza-based leadership under Ismail Haniyeh that immediately disowned it. While Hamas will presumably patch over the differences, this glaring dispute provides yet one more indication of the fragility of the entire reconciliation process.

For Netanyahu and his hard-line government, Doha delivered another eagerly seized rationale for avoiding serious negotiations with Abbas--as if Netanyahu had not ably invented enough excuses already. But then, Abbas' own positions and attitudes have in any case rendered negotiations under the Oslo framework pointless for the past three years. Perhaps more distressing is what the Doha event says about Israel's lack of sound strategic thinking on the Palestinian issue in general. Even the wispy prospect of Palestinian reconciliation should force us to confront this dual failure.

The Hamas-Fateh break in the Gaza Strip in 2007 caused Israel to lay siege to the Strip on the basis of totally unrealistic goals regarding the rewards of economic warfare: that Hamas rule would collapse or be overthrown and that Gilad Shalit would be released. Neither of these goals was achieved, while for several years collective hardship was imposed on 1.5 million civilians. (For Shalit's release we can thank Egypt's military rulers, and for a partial lifting of the siege we can "thank" the Mavi Marmara fiasco.)

Nowhere is there evidence of Israeli rethinking regarding Gaza. Are we at all interested in Gaza-West Bank reunification, whatever the terms, or are we better off with two "Palestines"? Should Hamas' offer of a long-term ceasefire be so readily dismissed in a regional reality increasingly dominated by political Islam that in any case rejects peace with Israel? If Hamas succeeds in exploiting reconciliation to take over the Palestinian national movement in the West Bank as well as Gaza, we may well regret our lack of creativity on this issue.

Then there is our failure of strategic thinking regarding the West Bank and our negotiating partner there, the PLO. The inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the demise of nearly 20 years of negotiations, including two attempts at the highest level (Camp David 2000 and Olmert-Abbas 2008) to resolve all final status issues, is that the Oslo framework has run its course and needs to be replaced with a new, post-Oslo format.

Abbas, alone, appears to have understood this when he turned to the United Nations and asked for recognition of a Palestinian state in order to create a new, state-to-state basis for negotiations. This, incidentally, is the third initiative he is juggling, and without doubt the most intriguing and potentially constructive.

Israel's strategic failings regarding both Palestinian camps are shared to an extent by the Obama administration and the rest of the Quartet. If, despite the odds, Fateh-Hamas reconciliation moves ahead, elections are held and Hamas is integrated politically into overall Palestinian governance, a new strategic paradigm will emerge to replace those that have confounded us so far. And it will be part of a broader, regional challenge to Israel and the West by political Islam.

At this point, we and our friends (and critics) in the West seem distressingly ill-equipped to deal constructively with that paradigm.-Published 13/2/2012 ©

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

Dialogue is the way
 Ghassan Khatib
The agreement that was announced in Doha last week between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the head of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, generated healthy debate and discussion among Palestinians, but especially within Hamas. Once again, the Palestinian argument that engaging Hamas in dialogue is always useful has been proven true.

In the agreement, Hamas accepts that Abbas serve as prime minister in a national unity government. Although this government will include no other Fateh members and none from Hamas, it will be approved and supported by both factions. Hamas had previously agreed that Abbas, with his well-known political positions advocating negotiations and the two-state solution, would be mandated to conduct negotiations with Israel, provided that any agreement resulting from those talks would go before the public in a referendum. Now Hamas has said that this same individual can head a cabinet that it supports. Given the clear and long-standing commitment of Abbas to the cause of peace, negotiations and the two-state solution, the Hamas movement's support for his role at the head of government shows again that dialogue with Hamas contributes to its moderation.

It is critical that this agreement is spurring debate between different tendencies within Hamas, where the relatively moderate elements are being strengthened and the relatively hard-line elements are being side-lined. Hamas is a genuine, significant Palestinian political movement that won the last free and democratic Palestinian elections. It cannot be ignored as a means of "handling" its unacceptable politics or practices. All experience has shown that when Palestinians from other factions engage Hamas, healthy debate and moderation result. The alternative of isolating Hamas always plays into the hands of the movement's most hard-line elements.

The first and most significant example of this was the dialogue that culminated in the 2007 Mecca agreement, a political framework very different from Hamas' elections platform just one year earlier. In the Mecca agreement, Hamas agreed to the Arab Peace Initiative, expressed willingness to respect signed agreements and agreed to honor the previous commitments of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which include agreements with Israel.

The second example was the dialogue that led to an agreement in May 2011 in Cairo between Meshaal and Abbas, where the two agreed on a plan for reconciliation and the holding of elections in May this year. That agreement included a clear commitment by Hamas, underscored later by statements from Meshaal himself, to pursue "popular resistance" in contrast with the movement's traditional tactic of armed struggle.

There is no doubt that these new signs of moderation have been encouraged by some of the events of the "Arab spring". The example of moderate Islamist parties such as Ennahda of Tunisia contributing to peaceful revolutions and then taking power in free elections was very inspiring to many people, including Hamas. The best way of diminishing the extreme tendencies of Hamas and its sometimes violent behavior is through examples, arguments and practices that show how legitimate aspirations can achieve legitimate objectives through legitimate means. Internal Palestinian dialogue, including the Doha agreement, has been instrumental in that direction.-Published 13/2/2012 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

The Doha declaration and the Palestinian mindset
 Yisrael Harel
I don't know what developments the Doha declaration will generate at the internal Palestinian level. It certainly won't produce peace between Israel and the Palestinians. When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared that Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) "chose Hamas over peace" this was a correct yet trivial statement.

Abu Mazen's act of adopting the Hamas refusalist strategy toward Israel did not begin last week when he embraced Hamas politburo head Khaled Meshaal in Doha. He has actually long adhered to this strategy--but unlike Meshaal, cleverly and "gracefully". When it comes to Israel, Meshaal at least speaks his mind. "Moderates" like Abu Mazen say one thing but think another. In statements intended for western and Israeli public opinion, he exudes the desire for peace. But when decisiveness is called for, the real objective emerges--the struggle to eliminate the Jewish-Zionist state--and there is no real difference between the two leaders and their organizations.

Abu Mazen has proven in recent years that he doesn't need Hamas in order to avoid all contact with Israel and refuse to accept every peace proposal it has made. Countless such proposals have been presented by nearly every Israeli prime minister. Abbas' choice is to flee from peace. If you like, the Doha declaration merely adds a visual, ceremonial imprimatur.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed in 2008 to near-total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. He was prepared to forego most of Jerusalem, including Jewish holy places, and compensate the Palestinians for the so-called "settlement blocs" with territory inside sovereign Israel. But Abu Mazen fled. He disappeared.

Most Israeli experts who deal with the Palestinians and the Arab world have adopted the concept, which over time some have turned into a political philosophy, that Fateh and its leader Abu Mazen have truly changed and genuinely seek peace with Israel. (Before Abu Mazen came Arafat, which really proves how badly the experts' political philosophy has distorted their judgment.) If peace does not materialize, it is Israel with its refusal to withdraw from the occupied territories that bears primary responsibility; after all, haven't the Palestinians declared their allegiance to peace? It is the remnants of this approach that we are hearing in the experts' analysis of the latest development in Doha and particularly their criticism of Netanyahu for hastening to condemn the Doha declaration.

But even if the experts are hard put to free themselves of their political philosophy--however quietly they now speak of it--most of the Israeli public apparently has. This is a slow process, not a sudden let-down. One of the symptoms is the public's low level of interest, bordering on indifference, regarding the "dramatic" Doha agreement.

Arabs argue that Jews don't understand their mentality and that this is yet another reason why peace evades us. True, and not true. Most Jews indeed do not and apparently never will understand how Abu Mazen can embrace Khaled Meshaal, the man responsible for the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of Fateh activists in Gaza. This didn't happen somewhere back in the middle of the last century, with memories of the event gradually fading. It was only a short while ago that we watched on our TV and computer screens how Hamas threw Fateh activists from roofs of high buildings in Gaza, while reports flowed in of murder by torture in Gaza prisons. Then there were the cruel vengeance attacks by Abu Mazen's people against Hamas activists in the West Bank. And now? Smiles and embraces. Are we liable to be accused of prejudice if we note that we will probably witness totally reversed displays sometime in the near future?

(Incidentally, I don't understand our own mentality in this respect either: Jews are now groveling to Germans and crawling on all fours to Berlin. Berlin! The German capital is now a favorite city for Israelis to live in, particularly youth who worship "freedom and progress".).

So it required a certain mindset to agree to sign the Doha understandings. And thanks to the same mindset, those understandings will probably last, as the Yiddish joke goes, from the Fast of Esther until Purim, which occurs the very next day and is the ultimate Jewish holiday of mirth, when everyone dons a costume and is permitted to get drunk.

For Israelis, the lesson is simple: even if you have an agreement with the Palestinians, there is no chance it will last. The proof is the suicide bombings and related atrocities that shed so much Israeli blood. They commenced before the ink had even dried on Arafat's signature to the Oslo agreements.-Published 13/2/2012 ©

Yisrael Harel heads the Institute for Zionist Strategy in Jerusalem and writes a weekly political column in Haaretz. He founded the Yesha Council (Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District) and headed it for 15 years.

Putting Doha in context
 Hani al-Masri
The signing of last May's reconciliation agreement would likely not have been possible without the shifting of various Arab, regional and international factors that were hampering reconciliation. The fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was committed to Israeli and United States conditions on Palestinian reconciliation for fear of strengthening Hamas' ally, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (the main threat to his rule), as well as the active opposition in Syria have positively influenced efforts to end Palestinian division and restore unity.

The Doha declaration should be seen in this context, i.e., in view of regional variables such as events in Egypt and the struggle in Syria, where the future remains unclear and could see civil war, sectarianism and partition, the reaching of a compromise, or the fall of the regime.

The obvious relationship of the Doha declaration to the conflict in Syria is that Qatar is leading Arab and international efforts to pressure the Syrian regime. Qatar sponsored the Doha talks and eclipsed Egypt in its long support of Palestinian dialogue that successfully culminated in the signing of the Egyptian paper on May 4 last year. The only way to understand the Doha declaration is that it is part of Arab and international efforts to resolve the situation in Syria, drawing Hamas away from the rejectionist axis--Iran in particular--and including it in the axis of moderation.

The declaration includes Hamas head Khaled Meshaal's agreement that President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) lead an interim government of national reconciliation, a change from the previous Egyptian paper that provides for the formation of a government of independent technocrats. If the dispute inside Hamas that resulted from the agreement is resolved, then Abu Mazen, who is accepted by the Arabs, the international community and Israel and who declares day and night his commitment to bilateral negotiations and by inference the Quartet conditions, will head the next government.

Supposedly, opponents of the Doha declaration in Hamas are bothered most by this decision because it defies the Palestinian Basic Law (which, we might add, is already being ignored on every front). This problem can be resolved easily, however, by calling the legislature into session and changing the terms of the Basic Law to allow for the joining of the posts of Palestinian Authority president and prime minister. The supreme national interest should be more important than laws that have already been discarded by the factional division of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But this means that the head of Fateh, Hamas' rival for the leadership of Palestinian people, would lead a government of reconciliation. It is clear that the dispute within Hamas is not over giving a green light to the Palestine Liberation Organization's political program, but rather over Abu Mazen's continued leadership at this time of Islamist political ascendency in the region. Hamas does not want to pay dearly for reconciliation, as it did after its success in the 2006 elections, and would rather invest in breaking the Arab and international boycott against it and gaining the legitimacy that would qualify it to lead the Palestinian people at a later stage.

Disagreements within Hamas are not really over the political program, but rather over the special circumstances and needs of the leadership inside the occupied territories and in exile, between the West Bank and Gaza, and competition between various individuals and how they impact the leadership and its decisions. Based on this, we note how the controversy over the Doha declaration has focused ultimately on legal issues, and not on politics, despite Hamas' stubborn opposition to the PLO's political program since the Islamist movement's inception. The dispute is really over access to leadership and the importance of retaining what Hamas has gained in Gaza, which is why Khaled Meshaal was "grabbed by the ear" by the Gaza leadership for signing the Doha declaration without prior consultation with the movement's institutions.

The installment of Abu Mazen at the head of the government is not the only divergence from the Egyptian paper, however.

The failure to set a date for presidential and legislative elections, which had been agreed on for May this year, means that this issue is left open. Its resolution appears to be linked to developments in the Arab world and the region, especially the outcome of the struggle over Syria and the prospects for a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. This, even though everyone knows that the latter track will see no breakthrough, especially this year. Moreover, Israel's Yitzhak Molcho told negotiator Saeb Erekat that the Israeli government will not allow elections to be held that might threaten its security.

It is also remarkable that the Doha declaration replaces the previous agreement that elections for the PLO's parliament, the Palestinian National Council, would be held simultaneously with the presidential and legislative elections. Now, the PNC is to be "restructured". This seems to be a sign that the leaders are prepared to abandon the reference of the Palestinian people, and respond instead to the international community and Israel, which will not allow elections to the PNC, and (as we noted above) will find it difficult to agree to elections that it will not benefit from.

It is dangerous, therefore, to combine the posts of president and prime minister, in addition to all the other positions assumed by Abbas, as this will monopolize all powers in the hands of one person, in the season of the "Arab spring" and its democratic transformations. This is especially true given the signs that the breeze is not blowing as Palestinians wish and that elections might not be held soon, but instead far in the future.

The differences within Hamas over the Doha declaration appear to have receded and might end with a change in roles that guarantees certain parties only need give up their control of Gaza after ensuring full participation in power and the organization. That there is this movement in Hamas reflects Arab, regional and international variables and the rise of political Islam in more than one Arab country. Hamas feels the need to change from being an ideological resistance organization that does not believe in pluralism to a pluralistic organization able to manage disputes internally and within a national public framework, transforming its governance as others are throughout the region.

The question that remains is not for Palestinians, including Hamas, but for Israel. Will it respond with moderation to the Palestinian collective and allow progress that can lead to a resumption of negotiations and a resolution? Or will it continue its intransigence and extremism and add the moderation of Hamas to its numerous demands for more Palestinian concessions, including the resumption of negotiations under Israeli conditions, a state with provisional borders, and Israel as a Jewish state. This is the most probable scenario. What, we ask, will be more likely than this to increase the nagging need to crystallize a Palestinian strategy able to frustrate Israel's project of fragmenting the path towards achieving Palestinian goals?-Published 13/2/2012 ©

Hani al-Masri is a columnist for several Palestinian newspapers.