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
But changes in the regional and international landscape, particularly if US
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
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 (EU)
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 Jan. 20.
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
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 Mideast 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-à-vis
Iran and its regional allies, particularly if Damascus agreed to cut its ties
to Lebanon's Hezbollah 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 Center
for Middle East Policy, and CFR president and Scowcroft protégé
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 cease-fire 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 cease-fire 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
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 Jan. 9 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 Program, 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.
(Inter Press Service)