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March 12, 2009

Palestinian Unity as Elusive as Deal With Israel

by Jim Lobe

RAMALLAH - Intensive unity talks are under way in Cairo as five Palestinian committees, representing 13 factions and independents, face each other across a table in a bid to form a new Palestinian unity government.

But significant obstacles, differences in ideology, internal power struggles and manipulative proxy sponsors with competing geopolitical interests threaten to derail any progress.

This in turn could negatively impact future peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, which could have a domino effect on regional stability.

Bloodshed and bitterness have dominated the relationship between the two main Palestinian political factions. The Islamist Hamas, funded and backed by Iran controls the Gaza Strip, while the secular and Western-supported Fatah movement controls the West Bank.

A unity government was set up after Hamas won legislative elections in January 2006. But Hamas took full control of Gaza in June 2007 when it overthrew Fatah in a pre-emptive coup. Elements of Fatah, under the leadership of strongman Muhammad Dahlan, backed by the U.S. and Israel, had been planning to get Hamas out of the unity government.

Since then the two sides have repeatedly failed to establish common ground, despite repeated attempts.

Last month representatives from Fatah and Hamas met in Cairo and agreed to form committees to begin tackling various thorny issues. These include restructuring and reforming Palestinian security services and discussing the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah.

The structure of a new interim government, and agreeing a timetable for next year's presidential and legislative elections in the Palestinian Authority (PA) are also on the agenda.

A deal based on Hamas getting 10 portfolios, Fatah eight, and the remaining portfolios to be dived between the other factions and independents has been put on the table.

However, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Fatah-affiliated PA, which controls the West Bank, is reportedly opposed to such a government; he is in favor of a government of technocrats and independents. Hamas for its part has said that it wants the prime minister's post or the power to select a new prime minister.

With this as a major point of contention, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad resigned last week in order to ease transition to a unity government.

Fayyad was appointed prime minister of an emergency government established by Abbas following Hamas's Gaza coup and the subsequent formation of two separate Palestinian authorities in Gaza and the West Bank.

Fayyad, a former World Bank official and an independent, is heavily favored by the West, the U.S. in particular, which has insisted that any new government be led by him.

A new government will need Western support for Gaza's reconstruction. At last week's aid conference in the Egyptian resort Sharm El Sheikh, international donors pledged approximately 5 billion dollars to rebuild Gaza, so long as the money did not go to Hamas.

Ironically, the destruction of Gaza's infrastructure during Israel's three-week offensive on the coastal territory has in some ways forced both Fatah and Hamas to be more flexible in negotiations.

Rehabilitation of the strip is vital but Hamas knows that this will not happen without Palestinian rapprochement and a government approved by the international community.

The Islamic movement is no longer in total control of Gaza, and neither is it unilaterally calling the shots in regard to the territory's future. And neither side wants to be blamed for being an obstacle to reconciliation and the rebuilding of Gaza.

On the other hand Fatah needs Hamas too. It has been weakened by Hamas's legitimate argument that Abbas's current emergency cabinet is unconstitutional since it has no parliamentary mandate.

Furthermore, Hamas has grown in popularity, according to recent opinion polls. Many Palestinians are critical of the weak stance Abbas took as Israel slaughtered civilians and laid waste to much of Gaza's infrastructure.

Any unity government which is perceived to be too pro-Western would be weak to begin with due to lack of a popular mandate.

Further strengthening the possibilities of compromise between the two main players is pressure from moderate Arab countries. Their support is imperative, and they have shown signs of growing impatience at the continued deadlock after trying to reconcile the parties on numerous occasions.

They too are leaning on Hamas disproportionately to be more compromising. The Arab leaders fear the Islamic movement's growing strength could encourage their own home-grown Islamists, who tend to sympathize with the Gaza leadership, to rebel against their autocratic regimes.

Another factor giving Palestinians impetus to close ranks is the new right- wing Israeli leadership, to which the ending of Israeli occupation and permitting a viable Palestinian state to be established is apparently anathema.

Israel continues to build and expand settlements, and to establish facts on the ground at an alarming pace. Both of the main Palestinian factions are aware of Israel's divide-and-conquer strategy as they jockey for power and prestige.

But the million-dollar question is whether Hamas will agree to the preconditions of the Quartet (the U.S., EU, UN and Russia) and of much of the international community for their support to a future Palestinian government. These involve Hamas renouncing violence, recognizing Israel's right to exist, and accepting previous peace agreements signed between the PA and Israel.

There are moderate factions within Hamas who have already stated that they would accept Israel's de-facto existence, if not its legitimacy, within the internationally recognized borders of 1967. This would be in return for Israel recognizing the legitimate rights of Palestinians. The Islamic resistance group had previously also offered Israel a 20-year Tadahiya (truce) but this was rejected.

Furthermore, there are elements within Fatah who not only sympathize with Hamas's struggle but see it as a legitimate liberation organization with an agenda not too dissimilar to their own.

These two factions within Fatah and Hamas would also gain the support of a broad majority of Palestinians who argue that negotiations with Israel have gone nowhere.

But if Fatah allows Hamas to join a unity government without the latter agreeing to the Quartet's demands, and if Hamas subsequently refuses to significantly alter some of its core objectives, the international community will not be on board. And any pragmatist knows that without regional and international support no Palestinian government will survive, let alone thrive.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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