Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 May - 3 June 2009
Issue No. 949
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In Focus:

Galal Nassar

Put the foot down

Egypt should act to end the charade that has enveloped the Palestinian arena, forcing squabbling factions to step towards unity, writes Galal Nassar

It has been said a major use of force -- or at least a threat thereof -- is needed for any political breakthrough. I am beginning to think that this is the case with the Egyptian-sponsored Palestinian dialogue. Nearly two years ago, Hamas took over power in Gaza, saying that it had no other choice since Fatah was blocking it from exercising the legitimate power it had won in free elections. Since then, Egypt has been trying to make the two sides find their way back to national unity. Five rounds of talks have been held over the past three months, with little or no progress. The time spent in talks was enough for Fatah and Hamas to explore their common ground and sort out their differences. But as it turned out, time was wasted.

The fourth and fifth rounds were particularly disappointing, so much so that one is tempted to say that the dialogue reached an impasse. At present, inter-Palestinian talks resemble to an alarming extent Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Much time and effort is spent and no progress is made. This is particularly depressing since the dialogue didn't start with the first round of talks on 26 February 2009, but much earlier. An Egyptian team has been talking to all factions since August 2008. At this point, one would be excused for believing that someone is stalling on purpose.

Here are the sticking points that surfaced during the talks:

First, there is the issue of what government should run the country and what factions are to be represented in it. Hamas wants a national unity government reflecting the parliamentary weight of every faction. According to Hamas leaders, the national unity government programme of the Mecca Accords is acceptable, for it states that the government would "respect the agreements and commitments signed by the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] and the Palestinian Authority." Fatah wants the government to "abide by" those agreements and not just "respect" them.

Fatah says that the Quartet won't recognise the government unless Hamas agrees to its conditions. So it is suggesting a government of technocrats with transitional powers allowing it to organise elections in January. Such a government, Fatah says, should seek to lift the siege, open the crossings, reconstruct Gaza, and run the political scene in a consensual manner. Recently, Hamas proposed a government without a political agenda, but Fatah dismissed the idea. The Egyptians proposed an interim leadership council, one that would have superior powers to both the Ramallah and Gaza governments, but the Palestinians didn't seem to like the notion very much.

Then there is the question of security. The two major Palestinian factions acknowledge the need to coordinate security measures before the elections, but disagree on the best way forwards. Hamas turned down a proposal to form a joint security force in Gaza, even though it would be under Hamas command. It says that similar measures should take place in the West Bank. So far, mutual distrust seems to block any agreement.

Desperate to open the crossing points, Hamas was willing to meet Fatah halfway with regard to security arrangements on the borders. But Fatah refused, saying that security is indivisible and Hamas cannot go around picking and choosing.

Elections are another sticky point. Both sides now agree presidential and legislative elections must be held by the constitutional deadline of 25 January 2010. However, they disagree on what electoral system to follow. In the meetings among all factions -- which preceded the Hamas-Fatah talks -- most groups were in favour of a proportional representation system (or election by lists). Hamas favoured a hybrid system, with 50 per cent of the candidates running on lists and 50 per cent running under a constituency system (or winner takes all). Later on, Fatah suggested 85 per cent of seats be decided through proportionate representation and 15 per cent through the constituency system. Hamas countered with a proposal for 60 per cent and 40 per cent respectively, and talks went on, and on.

That's when the Egyptians stepped and told everyone, with a firmness bordering on ultimatum, that unless they agree on something by the first week of July, they will be denounced for obstructing the dialogue. The way I see it, the differences between Fatah and Hamas are mostly doctrinal and the rift is mostly due to domestic squabbles. Some say that international and regional meddling is what holds back the dialogue. I dread to think so, for the Palestinians cannot be that spineless. It cannot be true that the Palestinians are letting others decide matters for them. The fact, however, is that time is being wasted, and the rift is getting deeper and deeper.

Most alarmingly, current divisions have weakened the ability of the Palestinians to respond to the intrigues of Israel's far right government. For all we know, Israel is preparing more wars in the region, starting with Gaza. Any achievement, however humble, the Palestinians have ever made is at risk right now.

Egypt should put its foot down. It should push the Palestinians past collective procrastination. It should pressure them until they get over their disagreements. With Qatar giving up on mediation and Syria's Al-Assad telling all that he supports Mahmoud Abbas and the efforts for dialogue, Egypt has an opportunity to push hard for an inter-Palestinian deal, and it should use it.

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