RAMALLAH, West Bank - Israeli-Palestinian peace talks appear to have hit a
dead end, while efforts to bridge the yawning chasm that divides Hamas and
Fatah politically and ideologically appear to be going nowhere.
The two main streams of Palestinian politics are already locking horns over
when the next legislative and presidential elections will be held, and whether
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen as he is better known, is
legally entitled to stay in power beyond January 2009.
Abbas said earlier that presidential elections would be held in January 2009
and legislative elections in January 2010. But he has now stated categorically
that he would not step down until 2010. "I think that the elections for
parliament and the presidency should take place together, in January 2010,"
he said last week.
Abbas further said that any future unity government would have to respect
agreements signed with Israel.
The more militant factions in Hamas have stated they will not recognize Israel.
But there are more moderate and pragmatic factions within the resistance movement
who have hinted that some kind of future accommodation with Israel is possible.
Following Hamas' landslide legislative election win in January 2006, the Fatah-affiliated
Palestinian National Authority (PNA) changed the electoral proceedings to provide
for full proportional representation in an endeavor to weaken Hamas' chances
of winning again. Earlier, half of legislative members were elected directly
by constituencies and the other half through proportional representation.
The earlier system minimized the possibility of smaller parties who had won
substantial votes from getting even a few seats in parliament. However, this
backfired badly when it turned out that the majority of people in most of Gaza's
constituencies were supporting Hamas, thereby preventing smaller pro-Fatah
parties from forming a coalition with the PNA.
Hamas' politburo chief-in-exile, Damascus-based Khalid Meshaal, reacted angrily
to Abbas' intention to stay in power longer. "After January 2009 there
will be no legal Palestinian Authority president except after elections. A
president can't make his term legal through extension and through breaching
the law," he said.
Dr. Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies and
senior fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement
of Peace, says the domino effect of this would mean no peace between Israel
and the Palestinians while there is no unified Palestinian side.
"There can't be two Palestinian governments ruling over two Palestinian
states. Israel will not be able to reach a settlement with the Palestinians
under these circumstances, and neither will the Palestinian population accept
the status quo," he told IPS.
Several analysts have said that Israel is playing a game of divide and conquer
while creating facts on the ground in favor of the Jewish state.
It is widely believed that Israel, together with the U.S., was responsible
for arming and training Fatah cadres in the Gaza strip to overthrow Hamas,
before Hamas short-circuited the move with its own military coup that brought
it into power in Gaza last year (after winning the election in 2006).
Many believe that Hamas was provoked into taking over. Extensive media reports
both regionally and internationally had spoken of shipment of arms from Egypt
through the Rafah crossing to beleaguered Fatah men in Gaza. As Israel monitors
the Rafah crossing, these would not have reached Gaza without its complicity
and tacit coordination with Cairo.
In May of last year, shortly before Hamas overthrew the PNA, U.S. Security
Coordinator to Israel and the Palestinians Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, in testimony
before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East, admitted that the U.S. was
helping and training Fatah in its fight against Hamas. Earlier the U.S. State
Department had denied this.
A factor further complicating the multidimensional dynamics of political developments
is Hamas' recent differences with Egypt.
Egypt has been trying to mediate a prisoner exchange between the Islamic resistance
organization and the Jewish state, and to strengthen the shaky truce.
Last week a delegation of Palestinians, including groups considered hard-line,
such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic
Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), Islamic Jihad, and the Popular
Struggle Front (PSF), held exploratory negotiations in Cairo with Egyptian
intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Hamas was deliberately snubbed.
Egypt is sympathetic to Fatah and regards Hamas as radical. Egypt is also
afraid that the success of Islamic militants in Gaza could influence the Muslim
Brotherhood, which President Hosni Mubarak has been battling for decades and
sees as a threat to his long, dictatorial reign.
Hamas says Cairo has reneged on talks to reopen the Rafah crossing from Gaza
into Egypt, despite the cease-fire, which has held since June, though there
have been sporadic breaches by both sides.
Egypt has said the preliminary talks were a steppingstone for more comprehensive
negotiations to follow after the end of Ramadan. But this falling out between
Hamas and Egypt is likely to make it much harder for Egypt to help mend the
rift between Hamas and Fatah.
While Hamas and Fatah are at each other's throats, the PNA's peace negotiations
with Israel have ground to a halt over Israel's refusal to address core issues
such as water, settlements, security, borders, the return of refugees, and
the claims to East Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian state.
The Israeli foreign ministry was thrown into turmoil when U.S. Consulate-General
Jake Walles told a Palestinian daily that Israel had agreed to cede East Jerusalem
to the Palestinians. The report quoted Walles as saying that the U.S. Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice had said on her recent visit to Jerusalem that Israel's
withdrawal to the 1967 borders, with some territorial adjustments made by both
sides, would be the basis of a future peace settlement.
This was strongly denied by an Israeli government spokesman, but Moaz believes
that Walles' statement could be true.
"I believe the reason behind the Israeli Foreign Ministry's fierce denials
regarding agreeing to the division of Jerusalem is due primarily to fear of
losing the Israeli public's support, many of whom are strongly against any
division of what they see as their eternal capital."
The ruling Kadima Party's fragile coalition depends on support from smaller
right-wing ultra-orthodox parties. These groups have previously threatened
to leave the coalition should Jerusalem's future even be discussed.
Moaz believes that two major developments could change the status quo and
nudge the deadlock toward some kind of breakthrough.
"A new Israeli government with a more pragmatic leader could possibly
give some political momentum to the peace process. But I'm not sure that Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's likely successor, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni,
will be any more conciliatory than her predecessor.
"What is really needed is a more pro-active American administration coming
into power and leaning on Israel, as the country needs to be pressured."