Will the Quartet Recognize the Changed Palestinian Reality?
|Tuesday, February 20,2007 00:00|
|By Nadia Hijab, Institute for Palestine Studies|
So far the Quartet response to the Palestinian Mecca agreement on 8 February 2007 has treated it much as the US treated a short-lived unity agreement last September. But both Fatah and Hamas are ready for peace if Israel is ready to end its occupation and have said so officially and unofficially, including in a leaked Hamas document late last year. And there is growing Arab and European insistence on resolving the conflict. The Institute’s Senior Fellow Nadia Hijab argues that these are the signals the Quartet should consider when it reconvenes in Berlin on February 21 after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Palestinians Want Sanctions Lifted But Put Premium on Unity
The 8 February Mecca agreement still does not meet the letter of the Quartet demands although Hamas has inched closer to them. For example, instead of the earlier formulation, Hamas agreed to "respect" past peace agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which do recognize Israel. In addition, Hamas has abided by several ceasefires in the past, and, since November 2006, a ceasefire has largely held between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, although Israel continues to assassinate and arrest Palestinians in the West Bank. Yet Hamas would not be able to recognize Israel outright in the absence of Israel’s ending the occupation and agreement on issues such as the Palestinian right of return and the status of Jerusalem. There is evidence that Hamas would do so if there were such an agreement, including credible reports in December 2006 that a key advisor had fleshed out the broad lines of a five-year hudna (truce) with Israel that would lead to recognition (see below).
The Palestinians, whose need for unity is more pressing even than lifting the Quartet’s sanctions, have pressed on with implementation of the Mecca agreement. Abbas on February 15 designated outgoing Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, to form a new government that divides posts between Hamas, Fateh, and independents. Haniyeh has up to five weeks to do so.
The US is Unhappy But Nuanced
Although the US Administration was unhappy about the deal and the Quartet’s demands were reaffirmed, Rice did not cancel her Middle East trip. Indeed, the US had reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert not to dismiss the Mecca agreement out of hand so that the trilateral meeting between Rice, Abbas, and Olmert could go ahead.  Rice also said the US would continue to view Abbas as a partner even if Fatah sat in a unity government with Hamas.
These mixed US signals came because the Administration, mired in Iraq and threatening action against Iran, is keen to at least give the appearance of movement towards peace to respond to Arab and European unhappiness with the status quo. The initiative by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to mediate between the Palestinian groups builds on earlier efforts by Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, which all share a desire to avoid spiraling chaos. However differently it views these Arab countries, the US cannot afford to ignore the Saudi initiative.
The EU too is increasingly worried, not just about the fallout from a festering conflict close to its borders, but also about the heavy bill it foots. The collapse of the Palestinian economy due to the sanctions forced the EU to increase humanitarian relief: its aid has now risen by more than one-third in 2006, from $598mn to $865mn.  This could help explain why German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to the US immediately after her country assumed the six-month presidency of the EU in January and urged President George Bush to re-engage.
The European governments may not have the political will or muscle to do more than urge the US to engage, but some of their parliamentarians are urging that sanctions be lifted against Palestinians and imposed on Israel. The United Kingdom House of Commons bipartisan International Development Committee recently restated its call to suspend the EU-Israel trade association agreement until Israel improved conditions for the Palestinians.  The Commons committee warned that "donors are effectively subsidising Israel’s occupation." It also noted: "While severe pressure has been placed on the Hamas-led PA to change its policies and accept Quartet principles, no comparable initiative has been taken with the Government of Israel to encourage it to put into practice agreements it has signed." By allowing Israel to continue settling the West Bank the international community was "preventing the creation of a viable Palestinian state." Although the committee’s recommendations are non-binding, they contribute to a climate in which others can make such calls without being on the fringe.
A Secret Document Offered Recognition
The Quartet should accept the hard evidence that the Palestinians are ready and willing for peace with Israel based on a two-state solution. Fatah and the PLO have committed to this since 1993. As for Hamas, its top leader Khalid Mishal recently declared that Israel is a reality, and in Mecca committed to respect past PLO agreements. Late last year, senior Hamas officials drafted a document for a truce that would lead to peace with Israel though this was denied after the document was leaked. The document was attributed to Ahmad Yousef of Hamas, political advisor to Haniyeh, and was reproduced in Al Hayat on 24 December 2006. Well-informed sources confirm that the document was authentic.  Although little noticed at the time, the document stated that a truce would be a first "serious step towards reaching a permanent peace agreement with Israel," after a period in which Israel and the Palestinians would end all attacks on each other, Israel would withdraw to an agreed upon temporary line and stop all construction in the occupied territories, and the Palestinians would have full freedom of movement.
In short, Palestinians want peace with Israel if it ends occupation. The Quartet should recall that Israel has never asked other Arab countries for advance recognition.  Indeed, even Israeli security officials are calling the Quartet conditions "ridiculous, or an excuse not to negotiate."  Russia has said that it will abide by the three conditions, but will continue to deal with Hamas. The EU will move if the US gives up what more analysts are calling its "ideologically rigid approach."  The EU should listen to the UK Commons committee and lift the sanctions against the PA. If not, it will be a party to fomenting conflict.
 Sources close to Abbas affirmed this account.
Hamas: Before and after Makkah