The regional battle over administering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, writes Dina Ezzat
, is almost as complex as the struggle itself
Click to view caption|
For more than five decades, the Arabs have been engaged in a tug of war, as they negotiate the vagaries of the Palestinian struggle. In the process, scores of meetings have brought Arab parties further apart - rather than closer. The camera has captured some of these crucial moments. Clockwise from top: In 1946 Arab delegations decry the US confusion regarding the humanitarian plight of European Jews which ensued, as a consequence of political Zionism in Palestine; in 1955 Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser meets with Arab leaders to form the first fedayeen unit in Egypt; in 1979 in Washington, former US President Jimmy Carter presides over a cheerful late President Anwar El-Sadat, and former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, as Egypt and Israel sign the first peace treaty in the history of the Arab-Israeli struggle; in 1991, Arab parties go to Madrid for the international Arab-Israeli conference which established the land-for-peace principle; in 1993, former US President Bill Clinton induces the late Palestinian and Israeli leaders Yasser Arafat and Yitzak Rabin into their much celebrated handshake; in 1996, Arab leaders meeting in Cairo declare peace with Israel to be a strategic choice; last week in Damascus, Hamas leaders Khaled Meshaal and Ismail|
Haniyah discuss future Palestinian tactics
"I wouldn't rule out ending the ceasefire in a few days if the enemy persists in this manner," Hamas spokesman Abu Obeideh said on Monday in reference to the arrest of 16 Palestinians. Addressing parliament on the same day, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared, "it was already clear there would not be an absolute halt to hostilities, but we must remember that until now we haven't found an alternative way to stop rocket fire and arms smuggling." The statements have been read and reread by the two regional camps engaged in a tug-of-war over the administration of the Palestinian-Israeli file: the "accommodation camp", including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan (and reflecting the views of the Fatah faction of Palestinian government), saw the threat to an already fragile ceasefire, obtained only recently with difficulty, as a signal to intensify efforts to build trust (exchanging prisoners, activating talks and maintaining the momentum of compromises reached); and the "confrontation camp", led by Syria and Iran (and reflecting the views of Hamas), found in the statements a vindication of their view that the situation called for confrontation not only with Israel but with the US.
Following a visit to Cairo by Hamas leaders Khaled Meshaal and Ismail Haniyeh, the possibility of a political breakthrough had seemed imminent, with Palestinian Prime Minister Haniyeh suggesting that the formation of a Palestinian national-unity government was so close that such a government might as well be declared then and there. Now, speaking in Damascus on Monday, Haniyeh adopted a different tone. Though he denied that efforts to form a national-unity government had reached a dead end, he went on to say, "the door to inter-Palestinian dialogue must stay open [but] if there are parties among the Palestinians who would rather put an end to dialogue," a clear reference to Fatah, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, "they alone will bear the responsibility." On Tuesday Haniyeh's statements betrayed an even greater inclination towards the confrontation camp: "We have stressed our commitment to upholding Palestinian rights and principles. First and foremost among these is the right of return and the right to resistance until the occupation is defeated and a fully sovereign Palestinian state established with Jerusalem as its capital." As one well-informed source explained, this will have shattered Abbas's hopes that the accommodation camp could persuade Hamas of a less defiant line: "In effect, the issue for Abbas is for Hamas to let him negotiate with Israel. But while Hamas is willing to give up cabinet posts for the sake of a national-unity government, they are as reluctant as ever to endorse negotiations to be undertaken by Abbas... All parties concerned must consider the fact that a national-unity government may not be in the cards right now." Arabs agree that the regional battle will rage on. But will it give way to inter-Palestinian conflict? No one has a clear answer to this question.
"The fact of the matter," Ahmed Al-Tibi, a Palestinian Knesset member, opined, "is that, from the Palestinian point of view, official Arab policies are part of the problem. And this is likely to remain the case." Indeed for many Palestinians besides Al-Tibi, Arab governments have for many years used the Palestinian question, whether as a bargaining chip in their relations with Washington (or, for that matter, Tel Aviv) or to play out their own differences among themselves. "Look at the current quarrels and deadlocks between Hamas and Fatah, and think whether these problems originate in regional capitals." It is no longer a secret that the failure of the 1990s tripartite coalition of power uniting Syria with Egypt and Saudi Arabia (a failure that started with the death of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad in 2000) is reflected on the Palestinian front, with Hamas and Fatah officials acknowledging their alliance with Syria on the one hand and Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the other -- something that applies equally to smaller Palestinian factions. More recently Hamas, an offshoot of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, went so far as to acknowledge alliance with (Shia) Iran, warning (Sunni) Arab capitals that, if they failed to provide support, Hamas would pursue Iranian policy. Since declaring peace as the strategic choice of all Arab countries at the 1996 Cairo extraordinary summit, however, the coalition had only gone downhill. Egyptians and Saudis argued that Bashar Al-Assad lacked his father's manoeuvring skill and was far too ready to take a confrontational position (Syria has since been replaced by Jordan).
While Riyadh and Cairo tried to speed up Palestinian-Israeli negotiations with a view to exerting pressure on Washington to reach a settlement (and furthering their economic interests while they were at it), Damascus, the two regimes claimed, sought to slow down the peace process. It was the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in February 2005, in which the Syrian government was said to be implicated, that dealt any alliance with Syria the final blow, however. Branded a "rogue state", Damascus set out to show how much it could impact or indeed obstruct developments throughout the region but particularly in Palestine -- and particularly since the election of Hamas earlier this year -- both have been more isolated than ever as a result. "It was a grave mistake to lose Syria," Palestinian commentator Azmi Shoeibi contends: an "Arab miscalculation" handed Syria over to Iran on a silver platter. Together both countries are now accused of meddling with Palestinian affairs to block peace. For its part, Syria is accusing Arab regimes of selling off Palestinian rights and the Palestinian cause, in favour of peace at any cost. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Syrian diplomat explained, "Damascus is always blamed for not helping and for not being flexible. Well, we told our brothers that for Damascus cooperation and flexibility have their limits -- determined by what we in Syria see as strategic Arab national interests." Accusing Syria of a radical stance in line with Iran's regional agenda is "the easiest cover-up for the choice, made by regimes [and we say 'regimes', not 'countries'] to succumb to the will of the US, even at the expense of Palestinian national interests".
Nor are Palestinians undivided: many -- like Shoeibi -- are equally angry with both Syria and Egypt, for different reasons: "One has to concede that the tripartite Egyptian-Syrian-Saudi coalition must be reinstated." Throughout the Palestinian struggle, it was when Syria and Egypt adopted the same stance that Palestinians stood to benefit; when they were at odds, Palestinians sustained long- and short-term political losses. Given Syria's current problems with Washington, it is on Egypt, Shoeibi contended, that the bulk of the responsibility lies. Yet in Cairo's official circles, the task of reuniting with Syria is shrugged off: Egypt, it is said, has done all it could to support Syria in its recent quarrels not only with Washington but with Lebanon and Iraq; Syria's stance, especially when it comes to equitable relations with Lebanon, cooperation in the ongoing Hariri investigation or lax security on the movement of militants into Iraq, is altogether too difficult. But in standing firm despite its isolation, Arab officials agree, Syria has made excellent use of "the Palestinian file". For Cairo, Amman and Riyadh, Palestinian rights are in the end only part of the concern, even if officials insist they are a priority.
The possibility of an Islamic takeover -- Hamas being an unequivocally Islamic body -- is at the heart of strategic planning. In Jordan, analysts admit, the monarchy is particularly vulnerable given the weight of Palestinians in Jordanian society. As one informed source puts it, "Palestinians in Jordan are as influential as Jordanians themselves and political Islam is always using the injustices suffered by Palestinians in the occupied territories or in Jordan as refugees to garner support." It was to counter Islamic Palestinian influence that the government turned down the Israeli offer to administer the affairs of the West Bank, as it had done prior to 1967 -- an idea Amman had "toyed with" prior to the rise of Hamas. For its part Egypt has stationed a high-level security team in Gaza to help contain inter-Palestinian disputes, coordinate with Israel and, most importantly, ensure that Gaza -- according to one Hamas minister, "the stronghold" of his movement -- would not export militant Islam into Egypt. At the same time the government has worked hard to blow life into the peace process. Last week Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit even spoke of "success", though he insisted much work has to be done before talks can be executed, including the successful swap of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped last June by Palestinian militants, with a few hundred Palestinian prisoners, as well as an improvement in Abbas's credibility as a capable leader not handicapped by Hamas; despite current obstacles in the way of the formation of a Palestinian national-unity government, in Cairo it is believed Hamas might be willing to let Abbas explore what avenues he might in the context of negotiations with Israel. Under the circumstances, Arab League attempts to bring some cohesion to the Arab stance has not met with success.
Last September, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met her counterparts from six Arab Gulf countries as well as Egypt and Jordan in what has since been dubbed "the alliance of the pro-US moderate forces" and might soon expand to include other North African states. Since then, it has been hard to see an end to the regional struggle. The fourth meeting of the new alliance was held in Jordan last week, on the fringe of the Future Forum held to discuss reform in the Middle East -- an occasion for both Egypt and Saudi Arabia to prevail on Washington to activate the peace process, insisting that the future of the entire region -- whether it will be moderate or radical -- depends on it. On the occasion Jordanian Prime Minister Maarouf Bekheit said, "the settlement of the Palestinian question is the key to the settlement of all other regional issues." So far, so good: most of those who were present agreed. But which style of settlement would it be, accommodation (as per the present meeting) or confrontation? No one at the Future Forum mentioned that, at the same time, under the pretext of launching an athletic championship in Doha, their confrontation counterparts were meeting Palestinian Prime Minister Haniyeh at the same time.