Calling Israel's bluff
Washington's purported peace conference could be bad news for Abbas, figures Khaled Amayreh
The Palestinian Authority (PA) is warning Israel that it will seek reconciliation with Hamas if the upcoming American-sponsored conference in Washington fails to produce a breakthrough towards ending the 40-year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the Hamas-led national unity government, headed by Ismail Haniyeh, following Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip in mid-June and appointed a de facto government in Ramallah, headed by Salam Fayyad, the former Palestinian finance minister, who is liked by the US.
The rift with Hamas did lead to the lifting of draconian financial and political sanctions on the PA, but further weakened the overall Palestinian stand vis-à-vis Israel.
This week, Abbas voiced his frustration with regard to Israel's adamant refusal to reach agreement with the PA that would deal with the core issues constituting the heart of the Palestinian plight.
These include ending the Israeli occupation, determining the borders between a prospective Palestinian state on the West Bank and Israel proper, Jerusalem and the right of return for the estimated five million Palestinian refugees.
Nimr Hammad, a close advisor to Abbas, has been quoted as saying that the PA president won't attend the putative peace conference in November unless Israel agreed to reach a final-status settlement. "If Olmert says there'll just be a declaration, it is not worth going to this meeting in Washington," Hammad reportedly said.
Another unnamed close confidant to Abbas gave a similar warning, saying that "we are not going to go there just for the sake of it [the conference]. We can live without the summit, but if it does take place and fails, then it will be dangerous for the entire region. Therefore, we must not take part in such a conference."
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought to lower expectations of a breakthrough at the conference. He told members of his party, Kadima, that there will be no final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians at the conference. "We are not talking about a detailed agreement but rather a joint declaration of intentions," said Olmert.
According to Palestinian political commentator Hani Al-Masri, a declaration of intentions would be "a euphemism for failure. It would mean avoiding the core issues which define the conflict with Israel. And that would be a clarion fiasco as far as the Palestinians are concerned," Al-Masri told Al-Ahram Weekly.
It is uncertain though that the Abbas regime, which is nearly wholly dependent on Western, especially American, political backing and financial support, will be in a position to rebuff Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who will preside over the conference.
Rice arrived in Israel Tuesday in order to assess the level of success of the fortnightly meetings between Abbas and Olmert, which according to both Palestinian and Israeli observers, achieved very little in term of substance.
It is also unclear whether threats to boycott the conference and resume the "dialogue" with Hamas are genuine or just an expression of frustration stemming from a growing impression on Abbas's part that Israel is not really serious about reaching a just and durable peace that would enable the Palestinians to get rid of the Israeli military occupation.
"Many people within Abbas's immediate circle believe that if Israel and the US don't deliver, the Palestinian leadership will be absolved from any commitment or undertaking vis-à-vis Hamas," said Al-Masri.
"It is ironic that the failure of the conference will be good news for Palestinian national unity, and vice versa. In other words, the Palestinians would have to choose between a successful conference, whatever that means in real terms, or restoration of at least a semblance of national unity."
Last week, Abbas visited Saudi Arabia and met King Abdullah. The Saudi leadership had privately blamed Fatah for the collapse of the Mecca Agreement reached between Fatah and Hamas on 8 February. The invitation reportedly came after Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Gaza-based Hamas government, held a telephone conversation with Crown Prince Sultan during which the Hamas leader told the Saudi leader that Hamas was willing and ready to do whatever is needed to restore Palestinian national unity pursuant to the Mecca Agreement. Abbas reaffirmed his and Fatah's commitment to the Mecca agreement, calling it the only basis for rectifying the rift with Hamas.
Interestingly, Saudi officials, too, have been warning that they will not attend the upcoming peace conference if it fails to take important decisions. "If this conference will not discuss serious topics aimed at resolving the conflict, put the Arab initiative as a key objective, set an agenda that details issues as required and oblige Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, it will fail and turn into protracted negotiations," said Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal this week.
Faisal has also signalled his country's continued engagement with both Hamas and Fatah. He was quoted as saying that "the terms of the Mecca Accords are clear and agreed upon. If there is a desire for reconciliation, they have to refer to the terms of the accords and implement them."
The continued commitment by both Fatah and Hamas to the Mecca Agreement should facilitate Saudi efforts to bring the two contentious sides together. However, there is little certitude that Abbas is truly committed to reconciliation with Hamas. Such a reconciliation, especially at this time, would be a liability, not an asset, for the Palestinian leader, especially with regard to relations with the Americans and Israelis. Both Israel and the US have been warning Abbas that a return to the partnership with Hamas wouldn't be acceptable.
However, threats or warnings by Abbas to boycott the Washington conference may actually be intended, at least in part, to prompt the Israeli leadership to take the Palestinian leader more seriously, possibly by giving him a "certain concession" which he could present to his people as a worthwhile achievement and further isolate Hamas.
Hamas is also facing a real predicament, stemming mainly from the hermetic political, financial and economic blockade imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip ever since the Islamic group wrested control over the coastal territory from Fatah three months ago. According to Ahmed Youssef, a key aide to Haniyeh, the Gaza leadership is contemplating "a series of steps and gestures that would facilitate national reconciliation." Youssef told the Weekly that Haniyeh would declare his government's willingness to return to Fatah its former security headquarters in Gaza which Hamas forces seized in mid-June.
On Sunday, Haniyeh phoned king of Bahrain and emir of Kuwait, asking them to use their good offices to end the intra-Palestinian rift. Furthermore, a Hamas MP intimated to the Weekly that, "Hamas will take the first step for certain psychological reasons, and then the ball will be in Fatah's court." Hatem Qafisha, one of a few West Bank Hamas-affiliated lawmakers not incarcerated by Israel, also revealed that Abbas has asked a former independent Palestinian cabinet minister to make contacts with Hamas.