Unity, and peace, hinge on US

WASHINGTON (IPS) - Eighteen months after Hamas evicted Fatah forces from Gaza, the prospects for restoring Palestinian unity are more elusive than ever, with both factions believing that time is on their side, according to a new report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) released Wednesday.

But changes in the regional and international landscape, particularly if United States President-elect Barack Obama follows through on his campaign pledges to engage with Iran and Syria, could spur a reconciliation, one which a growing number of experts here believe is essential for progress toward a Palestinian-Israeli peace accord.

A more flexible attitude towards Hamas by Washington — which organized a western diplomatic and aid boycott against it after the Islamist group won elections in 2006 and later formed a government of national unity with Fatah — could also play a critical role in encouraging intra-Palestinian reconciliation that would in turn enhance chances for a peace settlement with Israel, according to the report.

“(I)t will require … a clear signal from the US and European Union that, this time around, they would judge a Palestinian unity government arrangement on its conduct rather than automatically torpedo it,” the report stated.

“Ultimately, the responsibility to put their affairs in order must fall on Palestinian shoulders,” according to the report, which was based on extensive interviews with leaders from both factions. “But the division of the national movement, which came about at least in part because of what outsiders did, will not be undone without outsiders’ help.”

The report, which comes amid growing tensions over the fate of an increasingly shaky six-month-old ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that formally expires Friday, was released as speculation has grown over possible changes in US policy priorities in the Middle East under Obama when he takes office 20 January.

While Obama repeatedly pledged during his campaign that he would work for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his first year in office, he was less clear about how precisely he would do so.

Indeed, apart from pledging to engage Iran and Syria diplomatically, he repeatedly promised to maintain the Bush administration’s “isolation” of Hamas until it meets specific conditions set down by Washington and the EU, including explicitly recognizing Israel and renouncing violence. Some influential voices, including the ICG, are calling for the incoming administration to take a more flexible position.

Obama’s main advisers appear divided on the priority to be given to the Israeli-Palestinian track. Some, such as elder statesmen and former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, have called for a major effort on the Israeli-Palestinian front, arguing that any delay “would reinforce the feelings of injustice and neglect in the region” that could in turn “spur another eruption of violence between the warring parties” and even the abandonment by one side or the other of the question for a “two-state solution.”

But others, particularly those close to Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, such as her husband’s former top Middle East aides Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, argue that Obama should give top priority to the Israel-Syrian track. The reasoning is based on the assumption that a peace agreement should be easier to achieve politically and would yield much greater strategic benefits vis-a-vis Iran and its regional allies, particularly if Damascus agreed to cut its ties to Lebanon’s Hizballah and Hamas.

They have insisted that Obama should keep the Annapolis track between Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) alive and rally greater regional and international support for it. However, they also argue that the continuing political and geographical split between Hamas and Fatah, as well as the fierce divisions over the future of Jerusalem and the West Bank among Israel’s political leadership — not to mention the increasingly probable election victory of the right-wing Likud Party in the February elections — will make serious progress toward a peace agreement much more difficult.

Still, even these advisers, who are closely tied to what is sometimes called the “Israel Lobby” here, concede that the absence of diplomatic progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front increasingly threatens the eventual possibility of a two-state solution and that Washington cannot afford to neglect that track.

In an important report co-published by the influential Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution, Indyk, who is director of Brookings’ Saban Centre for Middle East Policy, and CFR president and Scowcroft protege Richard Haass argued that Obama should be much more aggressive than Bush in trying to “bridge differences” between the PA and Israel on key peace issues, in pressing Israel to follow through on past commitments to freeze settlement activity, and in rallying renewed Arab support for the peace process under the 2002 Saudi-sponsored Arab League peace initiative.

Explicitly recognizing that a “peace process that excludes [Hamas] could well fail” due to its control of Gaza and “support among at least one-third of Palestinians,” the two authors advised a more relaxed — if rather passive — US policy than that pursued by Bush.

“If the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas continues to hold and a Hamas-PA reconciliation emerges,” they argued, suggesting the latter goal should be pursued through third parties, such as Egypt, “the Obama administration should deal with the joint Palestinian leadership and authorize low-level contact between US officials and Hamas in Gaza.”

In a subsequent chapter in the same report, two other analysts, CFR’s Steven Cook and Brookings’ Shibley Telhami, went further yet, calling for Washington to drop its conditions for dealing with Hamas in exchange for the group’s respect for the ceasefire and explicit acceptance of the 2002 Arab League plan. That proposal offers to normalize relations between Israel and its 22 members in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders and a “just” solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

The new ICG report hails the growing consensus here that a reunified Palestinian government is essential for the peace process to make progress as a major breakthrough but warns that such a rapprochement is unlikely to take place without inducements from external actors due to the growing and hardening divide between Hamas and Fatah.

The report noted that PA President Mahmoud Abbas believes that any reconciliation could jeopardize Fatah’s administrative and security monopoly in the West Bank, its domination of the Palestine Liberation Organization, its negotiations with Israel and its access to diplomatic and economic support from abroad in exchange for little more than shared control over Gaza.

Hamas, on the other hand, sees reconciliation as a ploy to deprive it of its control over Gaza and of potentially legitimizing the extension of Abbas’s PA presidency beyond the expiration of its term on 9 January when new elections, in which Hamas could do well, are due, according to the report.

“The bottom line is that the kind of unity that seemed possible two years ago has become an appreciably more complicated endeavor,” according to Robert Malley, director of ICG’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, who resigned from an advisory position in the Obama campaign earlier this year in response to complaints from some quarters that he met regularly with Hamas officials.

“It will take a significant shift in the international and regional landscape to achieve it,” he said.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.