Can Qatar do it again?
On the back of its success in mediating Lebanon's political standoff, Doha may soon be placing a toe in Palestinian waters, writes Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah
Having succeeded in getting erstwhile warring Lebanese factions to get their act together, Qatar is now exploring the prospects of mediating between Fatah and Hamas in the hope of restoring Palestinian national unity.
However, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamed Bin Khalifa Al-Thani and his influential premier and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasem, seem to be treading cautiously (some say too cautiously) in the more complicated "Palestinian minefield".
According to reliable Palestinian sources, Qatar has voiced its "initial willingness" to help "the Palestinian brothers" overcome their differences and re-establish national unity. The same sources were careful, however, to add that Qatari officials -- especially Bin Jasem -- wouldn't be in a position to help the Palestinians if they were not willing to help themselves.
The warning, sources said, amounted to an essential precondition that unless Fatah and Hamas were willing to compromise and move away from entrenched positions, Qatar wouldn't be able to do much. Meanwhile, some Islamist circles have been urging the Qatari emir to use his good offices to end the Hamas-Fatah crisis.
Among those who publicly called for active Qatari mediation is Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, the prominent Egyptian religious scholar who is believed to exert a certain moral influence on Hamas. Qaradawi, a long-time resident of the small but influential Gulf emirate, has also been calling on "Arabs and Muslims" to break the year-long blockade on Gaza that has effectively destroyed Gaza's economy and pushed its estimated 1.5 million inhabitants to the brink of starvation.
Earlier this week, Hamas's number-two leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Al-Zahar, held talks with the Qatari emir, briefing him on the "nightmarish" situation in the Gaza Strip and asking him to personally intervene to help lift or at least relax the suffocating blockade of the small and heavily-populated coastal territory. Al-Zahar also told the emir that Hamas was willing and ready to restore national unity with Fatah based on the Saudi-mediated Mecca Agreement, signed in February 2007, as well as the National Reconciliation Programme originally prepared by leaders of the estimated 11,000 Palestinians prisoners in Israeli jails.
Qatar, a close friend of the United States that also maintains diplomatic relations with Israel, last week called for lifting the "oppressive siege" on Gaza. The Qatari call appears, however, to have fallen on deaf ears both in Washington and Israel. Israeli leaders and their US allies have long believed that maintaining the blockade will eventually weaken Hamas and enable Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to give "the necessary concessions" to Israel, which then would facilitate the creation of a Palestinian entity, albeit with the right of return consigned into oblivion.
Al-Ahram Weekly asked Ahmed Youssef, a key political advisor to Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas-dominated government in Gaza, if he thought Qatari mediation was promising. Youssef replied the Qatari mediation was still at an early stage, adding that contacts are being made with all parties concerned. "I believe there is a good chance that Qatar could carry out a successful mediation between Fatah and Hamas. However, that depends on the extent to which the PA is willing and able to say 'No' to Israel and the Bush administration," Youssef said.
Youssef argued that the main obstacle impeding inter-Palestinian reconciliation laid in the "veto power" the US and Israel have over decision- making in the PA. Israel has repeatedly warned that any rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas would spell an end to the peace process and the termination of all contacts with the PA.
Meanwhile, PA officials vehemently deny that the US and Israel prevent the PA leadership from reaching out to Hamas. "This is a baseless lie," said Fatah spokesman Ahmed Abdul-Rahman. "The ball is in Hamas's court, and if Hamas ends its coup, the whole world will see that Fatah will rebuild Palestinian national unity."
For his part, Abbas has not rejected fledgling Qatari efforts towards reconciliation. On 2 June, Abbas said he would welcome any "Arab or international effort" to build bridges between Fatah and Hamas. However, his statement ought not to be viewed as a departure from his long-standing position that reconciliation with Hamas is conditional upon Hamas ending "its coup against Palestinian legitimacy". This position is a non-starter for Hamas.
Two weeks ago, two Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council -- Sheikh Hamed Al-Beitawi, who was released from Israeli captivity recently, and Nasseruddin Al-Shaer, former deputy prime minister of the Hamas-led government -- met with Abbas for one hour in Ramallah. The meeting didn't succeed in thawing the ice between Fatah and Hamas. Some Palestinian pundits believe that the peace process, or whatever semblance of it exists, can't survive true rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas. This is the view of some high- ranking Fatah officials, such as Nabil Amr, the new PA ambassador to Cairo.
Abbas and other high-ranking PA leaders have pointed out on several occasions recently that peace talks with Israel are making no substantive progress, especially on such key issues such as Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. This, some Palestinian observers thought, was key to restoring Palestinian unity.
The PA leadership, however, is still clinging to the peace process for two main reasons: first, that international -- especially US -- financial and political backing of the PA is conditional on isolating "extremists"; second, the PA is worried that in the event of it withdrawing from peace talks with Israel, the Bush administration would hold the Palestinian leadership, not Israel, responsible for the collapse of the peace process.
Hence, according to one PA official who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, "it may not be politically wise for Abbas to re-embrace Hamas now." He added: "I think Palestinian unity can wait until the end of this year because by then things will be clearer with regard to the peace process with Israel. Also there will be a new president in the White House, and Olmert, and perhaps Abbas, may be out as well."
Fatah, despite an outer façade of unity, is a divided movement. This explains its failure -- some say inability -- to convene the movement's 19th General Congress that has not been held for two decades. According to some Fatah insiders, Abbas and colleagues are worried that if the ballot box were to be the ultimate arbiter, the vast majority of present Fatah leaders, including Abbas himself, would be voted out.