Tentative moves toward new Palestine government

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas meets with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah on 14 January 2007. (MaanImages/POOL/PPO)

WASHINGTON, D.C., 23 March 2007 (IPS) - How seriously and to what ends is the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush willing to engage the new Palestinian government of national unity?

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice makes her seventh visit to the Middle East in the last eight months, that is the question that foreign policy analysts and diplomats here are asking, and the answers are as yet far from clear.

Is the administration committed to resuming a genuine peace process designed to fill out the “political horizon” of a final settlement to which both Israel and the Palestinians, including Hamas, will be willing to commit?

Or is it merely “going through the motions” in order to satisfy demands by Saudi Arabia and Washington’s other Sunni-led allies in the region for the appearance of a viable peace process, as their price for forging a broad alliance against what one administration briefer this week referred to as “the Quartet of Evil” — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas itself.

“My sense is that something is moving,” said Daniel Levy, an Israeli expert and former peace negotiator currently based at the New America Foundation and the Century Foundation here. “I think she has a mandate from the president to come up with a plan, but, to be effective, it cannot be all process and must include real substance.”

What is moving for now are a lot of diplomats, particularly to Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Authority (PA), over the objections of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Olmert has argued that the year-long diplomatic boycott of any Hamas-led Palestinian government should continue until it explicitly renounces violence, recognises the Jewish state, and affirms its adherence to previous peace accords negotiated between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel.

Ignoring those objections, the administration Tuesday dispatched its Jerusalem consul-general to Ramallah to meet with one of the new government’s top officials, Finance Minister Salam Fayyad.

In the last few days, Fayyad, who hopes to persuade the West not only to renew diplomatic ties with the PA, but also to resume direct economic aid and financial support, has also received visits by special Middle East envoys from the European Union (EU).

Norway, which does not belong to the EU but initiated the Oslo peace process in the early 1990s, went even further, sending a deputy foreign minister to meet with the Hamas Prime Minister, Ismael Haniya, himself.

And Rice herself is expected during her visit to the region this weekend to meet with Fayyad, a long-time Washington favourite, and possibly with the PA’s new foreign minister, Ziad Abu Amr, as well.

The tentative engagement signaled by these visits comes in the wake of last month’s Saudi-brokered “Mecca Agreement” between Fatah and Hamas to end months of escalating conflict and forge a unity government that was formally unveiled last Saturday.

While the new government’s platform recognised previous peace accords signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation and asserted support for the leadership of PA President Mahmoud Abbas — the Fatah leader who has acted as the sole point of contact between the West and the PA since Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary elections — in future peace talks with Israel, it failed to meet Olmert’s conditions for ending the boycott.

Nonetheless, the new government’s inclusion of non-Hamas ministers, including Fayyad and Amr, has spurred the European Union (EU) and the U.S. — both members of the so-called Middle East Quartet that also includes Russia and the U.N. — to revise their stance toward the PA.

In addition to sending their senior envoys to meet with non-Hamas ministers, the Quartet issued a statement Wednesday hinting at the possibility of greater engagement.

While insisting that it stood by Olmert’s three conditions, it also stressed that the new regime will be judged not only on its “composition and platform, but also its actions,” including its “support (for) the efforts of President Abbas to pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

“The question of meeting the three conditions appears to be more and more of a sideshow,” remarked Robert Malley, Middle East director of the International Crisis Group (ICG), who just returned here this week from extensive talks with Palestinian leaders.

“The objective now should be to ask Hamas whether it is prepared to accept a two-state solution,” he said, noting that in his discussions with the Islamist group’s leaders, they raised no objections to Abbas’ pursuit of peace talks with the Israelis. “There’s never been a moment when Palestinians were more united on the goal,” he said.

One formal occasion for answering that question could come as early as next week when the Arab League convenes in Riyadh to reaffirm its 2002 Beirut Summit offer to normalise ties with Israel if it returns to its 1967 borders, contributes to a just solution for Palestinian refugees, and recognises a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza.

If the new Hamas-led government signs on to the Arab League’s offer — as its exiled leader, Khaled Meshaal, indicated it would after meeting with Saudi King Abdullah in Jeddah Tuesday — pressure to enhance western engagement is certain to increase.

While such a move would strengthen those members of the EU which are already pushing it to follow Norway’s lead in engaging Haniyeh directly, the Bush administration’s response is more uncertain, largely because it still appears to see Hamas as an irredeemable part of the Tehran-led “Quartet of Evil”.

Since Hamas unexpectedly won last year’s parliamentary elections, the administration has joined with Israel in doing what it could — from leading the international diplomatic and aid embargo against the PA to underwriting Abbas’ own Fatah-led security forces — to weaken its power and popularity in hopes that it would be ousted either in new elections or by other means.

But those efforts have proved largely ineffective, if not sometimes counter-productive, according to many regional experts who argue that the Islamist group remains strong enough — both militarily and in terms of popular support — to sabotage any peace process that it feels does not take its interests sufficiently into account.

The question now is whether the administration is willing to revise its view of the group and adopt a less-hostile approach.

“Will the administration allow this new government to consolidate and move forward?” asked Levy. “Or is Rice’s ‘political horizon’ part of an ousting-Hamas strategy, rather than a co-opting-Hamas strategy?”

Indeed, even as Rice reached out to Fayyad this week, she was also asking Congress for 50 million dollars more to build up Abbas’ security forces. In her meeting with her counterparts from the so-called “Good Quartet” — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states — in Aswan Saturday, she is also expected to make the case why they should increase their own assistance to Fatah.

“The U.S. hasn’t abandoned the idea that this will boil down to a fight between Hamas and Fatah,” said Malley. “(But) how do you get a ceasefire from Hamas if they’re convinced the U.S. is trying to push Fatah into a new confrontation?”

“Building a peace process by excluding Hamas seems to be in the realm of fantasy, rather than reality,” according to Malley.

Clayton Swisher, a specialist at the Middle East Institute here, agreed. “This administration wants six to nine months to inject steroids into Fatah and Abu Mazen (Abbas’ nom de guerre), to make him look like a rock star, go to elections, defeat Hamas, and only then go to a ‘political horizon’,” he said, adding that he felt that such a strategy would ultimately fail due to the strength of Hamas’ support among the general Palestinian population.

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