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March 19, 2009

Palestinians Failing to Stitch the Split

by Jim Lobe

CAIRO – Reconciliation talks between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah in Cairo this week yielded an agreement to hold national elections early next year. The two sides, however, remain deadlocked over the proposed terms of a national unity government.

"Talks are at a standstill on the issue of the government," a member of the Palestinian delegation was quoted as saying Sunday (Mar. 15).

The latest round of talks began late last month in Cairo with preliminary meetings between Fatah and Hamas representatives, although it was later broadened to include 11 additional Palestinian factions. Five committees were devoted to core issues of reconciliation and goodwill, formation of a unity government, national elections, Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) reform and the restructuring of Palestinian security services.

Ever since Hamas won an outright majority in 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, the two factions have pursued bitter rivalry that has brought intermittent fighting and tit-for-tat arrests. Mutual hostility reached the boiling point in the summer of 2007, when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in a pre-emptive coup.

Since then, Hamas has governed the Gaza Strip, while the U.S.-backed PA has continued to control the West Bank from Ramallah under PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Further complicating the situation, Israel and Egypt – with the PA's blessings – have both closed their borders with the Hamas-run enclave, geographically isolating it from the rest of the world.

The new round of talks has seen some breakthroughs. On Mar. 12, compromise was reportedly reached on the issue of the Palestinian security services. And on Sunday (Mar. 15), officials close to the negotiations announced that factions had agreed to hold Palestinian presidential and legislative elections by Jan. 25, 2010.

"There has been relative progress on a number of issues," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum was quoted as saying Tuesday (Mar. 17). "Achievements have been made on essential questions."

On the terms of a national unity government, however, the two sides have reportedly hit an impasse.

Fatah insists on a government comprised of independent "technocrats," which will adhere to political conditions laid down by the so-called quartet (the U.S., EU, Russia and the UN). These conditions include recognition of Israel, compliance with past agreements signed by the PLO, and renunciation of violence, that is, armed resistance.

"Hamas is being asked to support a government of independents that would meet the quartet's demands, including recognition of Israel," Mohamed Bassyouni, former Egyptian ambassador to Israel and current head of the committee for Arab affairs in the Shura Council (upper house of parliament) told IPS.

Hamas, for its part, wants a majority share in any new government reflective of its sweeping parliamentary victories in 2006. The Islamist group also wants to appoint the prime minister, but is not insisting he be a Hamas member.

More importantly, Hamas adamantly refuses to recognize the self-proclaimed Jewish state, which it views as illegitimate, and cleaves instead to a policy of armed confrontation. Although described as a "terrorist organization" by the U.S. and Israel, Hamas – and its commitment to resistance – received a robust mandate from the Palestinian public in the last parliamentary election.

Fatah, by contrast, is committed to holding negotiations with Israel in hope of reaching a viable, mutually acceptable Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Until now, however, Abbas's frequent "peace talks" with Israeli counterparts, mandated by the 2007 U.S.-sponsored Annapolis Summit, have failed to yield any gains whatsoever for the Palestinian side.

According to Muslim Brotherhood, which represents Egypt's largest opposition movement and is ideologically close to Hamas, there is little chance of Hamas consenting to recognize Israel – particularly in the wake of Israel's recent three-week assault on the Gaza Strip.

"After the failure of the war on Gaza to destroy Hamas, the notion of armed resistance – as opposed to fruitless negotiations – was vindicated among the Palestinian public," leading Muslim Brotherhood member Essam Al-Arian told IPS. "As it now stands, the resistance factions, especially Hamas, will never recognize the Zionist state without exacting an extremely heavy price in return.

"Even if Hamas did acknowledge the state of Israel, other factions would spring up to take its place to reject the notion of recognition," he added.

According to Al-Arian, the idea of a government program based on negotiations with Israel – after the failure of Abbas's peace talks to produce any results – remains a non-starter for Hamas.

"The team in Ramallah and its program of negotiations had its chance, and failed," he said. "The Palestinian people and factions will absolutely never repeat the PA's experiment of recognizing Israel without receiving major concessions in return.

"Ramallah needs to respect the choice of the Palestinian people, who overwhelmingly support Hamas and its policy of resistance, according to all recent opinion polls," said Al-Arian.

Despite these fundamental differences, commentators say that the imminent rise of a hard-right – some would say extremist – Israeli government has made the need for Palestinian unity all the more pressing.

"The Palestinians must achieve a degree of unity now," said Bassyouni. "Otherwise, (expected incoming Israeli prime minister Benjamin) Netanyahu will be able to fall back on his old excuses and say that there is 'no viable peace partner' on the Palestinian side."

"Israel is in the process of putting together an extremist administration and the Palestinians have to form a strong unity government to face it," said Al- Arian. "Success in the current round of reconciliation talks is the only option."

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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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