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    March 2, 2009 Edition 9                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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The Palestinian reconciliation dialogue and the conflict
. The Obama effect may positively influence Palestinian dialogue        by Ghassan Khatib
Hamas is a pragmatic political movement that reads political developments intelligently.
  . Not now        by Yossi Alpher
A Hamas-Fateh unity government is almost certain to mean serious backsliding in West Bank security.
. Serious talks to seize the moment        an interview with Ghazi Hamad
Both factions seem to have understood that if Palestinian blood does not unite them, nothing will.
  . Let there be reconciliation        by Zvi Bar'el
Hamas needs the Palestinian Authority as much as Salam Fayad's government needs Hamas.

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The Obama effect may positively influence Palestinian dialogue
by Ghassan Khatib

The Palestinian reconciliation dialogue is one of three important negotiations processes currently mediated by Egypt. The other two are the indirect ceasefire and prisoner exchange negotiations between Israel and Hamas. But the three processes are strongly interrelated and interdependent.

The national reconciliation dialogue convened at the headquarters of Egyptian intelligence in Cairo on February 26. It was opened with strong words from Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian intelligence, and included at least five representatives from each of the 13 Palestinian factions in addition to many independent personalities.

To maximize chances of success, Egypt did two things. It first hosted a two-day meeting between the representatives of Fateh and Hamas during which the two sides agreed to end public attacks on each other through the media, release prisoners from jails in Gaza and the West Bank and agree on the agenda for a national reconciliation process.

Second, Egypt set obtainable objectives. It wanted and got a joint press statement that set a conciliatory and optimistic tone. It also confined the initial efforts to setting up working groups on a range of outstanding issues--the nature of a national unity government, elections, security reform, PLO reform and reconciliation and redress for families of the victims of intra-Palestinian fighting.

These committees are supposed to start work on March 10 and conclude and present their recommendations to a sixth committee, the Higher Guidance Committee, on March 30. This sixth committee will be composed of Egyptian officials, representatives of the Arab League, independent Palestinian personalities as well as the leaders of Palestinian factions.

The start of the reconciliation process has been received with cautious optimism by Palestinians in the occupied territories. The caution is a result of the experience of failed, past attempts at reconciliation. The Palestinian public will only be convinced of progress when there are tangible changes in the situation on the ground.

So far, the only real changes gleaned by the public are a reduction in the level of hostile public statements by the two sides and the release of a few prisoners. Many Palestinians remain skeptical that there are enough reasons to believe that real progress can be expected in domestic Palestinian relations in addition to the other processes, the ceasefire and prisoner exchange negotiations with Israel.

The immediate reason for believing in the success of the reconciliation dialogue is the change in the relations and atmosphere between relevant Arab states. The last few weeks have witnessed a realization in many Arab countries, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that the growing rift between Arab countries was not only a factor in domestic Palestinian divisions but also enabled Iran to further enhance its drive for hegemony in the Arab world.

The Arab summit conference that Qatar convened against the will of half the Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, really set the alarm bells ringing. That conference excluded major Arab states but included major non-Arab states like Iran and Turkey and was the sign of deterioration and weakness in Arab regimes that provoked many Arab leaders to try to go for Arab-Arab reconciliation.

Indeed, there seems to be a new atmosphere in the region, something that can perhaps best be attributed to what might be defined as the Obama effect. A prominent factor in the regional awakening is the positive signals from President Barack Obama to regional states with which the US has tense relations. These signals have caused those states, including Syria, to reciprocate with positive signals of their own.

Hamas is a pragmatic political movement that reads political developments intelligently. It has been receiving signals from its allies that reconciliation at this juncture is advisable. In addition, Hamas has been reading public opinion in Gaza in the right way. Even while the Palestinian and Arab publics are still admiring the Hamas "victory", the people of Gaza have been critical of the way Hamas handled the situation during the war and the fact that none of the political objectives, especially ending the siege on Gaza, were achieved.

On the other side, developments in Israel, particularly the right-wing election victory and the failure of the Annapolis process, have been contributing factors to convincing the Palestinian Authority that there is little hope to be expected from any future relations with Israel.

The future of the national reconciliation dialogue will depend heavily on continued positive signals from Washington and Europe and a continuation of the relatively positive atmosphere among the relevant Arab states that are in turn influenced by the new signals transmitted by the international community.- Published 2/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.

Not now
by Yossi Alpher

Everything in the Israeli-Palestinian and Palestinian-Palestinian spheres is connected these days: Gaza ceasefire talks, Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange talks, the new international aid effort for Gaza, the Gaza crossings issue and renewed Palestinian unity talks. The complexities of the situation are not easy to unravel. Yet for Israel, for moderate Palestinians and Arabs and for the international community, one truth must stand out: the emergence, out of this confluence of events and dynamics, of a Palestinian unity government in the near future could be a disaster.

A new unity government almost certainly means a formula for holding elections for the Palestinian Authority presidency and parliament no later than next January. As matters now stand, Hamas is liable to win those elections. According to Palestinian public opinion experts, Hamas emerged from the recent Gaza war stronger than ever, especially in the West Bank, where the Fateh party has been neither reformed nor rebuilt.

This means that a unity government could quickly confront Israel with the challenge of Hamas rule rather than "unity" rule in the West Bank as well as Gaza. At that point, it would not matter whether Israel, for its part, was governed by a narrow right-wing coalition or a broad center-right coalition: it would react with great alarm. So would Jordan, which does not want a Palestinian entity administered by the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas) on its western border and just reorganized its governing institutions so as better to counter Hamas influence.

Yet even prior to new Palestinian elections, a Hamas-Fateh unity government is almost certain to mean serious backsliding in West Bank security. The entire successful restructuring of PA security forces under General Keith Dayton has been directed not only at restoring law and order but at sharply restricting Hamas activity on the West Bank. Is it conceivable that Hamas would agree that these tough anti-Hamas security measures continue when it constitutes half the PA government?

And yet, counter the proponents of a unity government, Hamas would also have to make compromises in order for Fateh to agree to share rule with it again. Some argue that Hamas would have to accept the Quartet's three preconditions of renouncing terrorism, accepting past agreements and recognizing Israel. It would have to agree that Fateh, meaning the PA as currently configured, administer the Gaza crossings and the extensive reconstruction aid being discussed by the international community at Sharm al-Sheikh and elsewhere.

There are three problems with these calculations: big, bigger and biggest. The big problem is that Fateh is relatively weak and Hamas strong politically. It's clear who will be negotiating from a position of strength and how this will influence the outcome.

The bigger problem is that advocates of the two-state solution look at the map and argue that a unity government is the only way to save it. Otherwise, the West Bank and Fateh will remain under separate governments and evolve into separate political entities. To this contention the reply is simple: under current circumstances, better to maintain the components of a three-state solution, with Israel and the PLO negotiating over the West Bank and Hamas contained inside Gaza, than to install effective Hamas rule in the West Bank as well as Gaza--which would preclude any solution at all.

Finally, the biggest problem is that none of the principals--Israel, the Quartet, the PLO and Egypt--has a workable strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza. Military force has failed to weaken Hamas; so has economic warfare (closing the Israel-Gaza crossings). Indirect contacts via Egypt and others, where issues like linking a ceasefire to a prisoner exchange are discussed, have failed. Indeed, tying the future of Israel's relationship with the Gaza Strip to the fate of a single IDF soldier reflects a bankruptcy of new strategic ideas in Jerusalem. And the notion of linking direct contacts with concessions on the part of Hamas has also failed. Under these circumstances, wherein no one really understands what has to be done regarding Hamas, encouraging the formation of a unity government appears near suicidal, if only because the outcome is so fraught with danger and uncertainty.

Israel and the Quartet would be better off abandoning their preconditions, opening the passages--thereby virtually assuring a ceasefire--and offering to talk to Hamas about long-term coexistence, even as Israel and the PLO talk in parallel about a political solution. Hamas would still be considered a terrorist organization as long as it directs violence at civilians. But because it successfully controls finite Palestinian territory, it-unlike other terrorist organizations--cannot be ignored politically.

If in this way progress can be made toward new political understandings with Hamas, while Israeli-PLO talks generate greater West Bank stability and begin rolling back the settlements and outposts--then and only then would the scene be set for encouraging a unity government. Alternatively, assuming that Hamas does not moderate its positions and continues to expand its influence as the dominant political power among Palestinians--a very possible outcome in view of emerging sociopolitical trends in the Arab Middle East--at least Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the West will know where they stand vis-a-vis the Islamists and can calculate what has to be done to secure the strategically-located West Bank.

In the absence of a functioning and moderate Israeli government with which to discuss these issues, this is where the Obama administration could best devote its near-term efforts.- Published 2/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Serious talks to seize the moment

an interview with Ghazi Hamad

bitterlemons: Reconciliation talks started in Cairo last week. They seem serious. Do you agree?

Hamad: Yes. I've heard from both Hamas and Fateh leaders that this time everyone is prepared for real change. Their message is, enough to the division, enough to hatred and time to turn the page. No one is out of the domestic crisis and no one is free of the dilemma it poses. The factions need each other and they know they have to work together.

So, I've seen positive signals from both sides and I think the decision to set up committees is a good start that can take the dialogue further.

bitterlemons: Is it too early to say if there is good momentum?

Hamad: So far, they have only agreed on the outline of discussions. But I think this outline is important and I believe them when they say they are ready to start a new era in relations. The committees have timetables for their work and they will come back again and discuss all issues. I hope this will receive proper follow-up.

bitterlemons: Why now? A few months ago Hamas refused to go to similar talks. What changed?

Hamad: There are a few factors. One is the war on Gaza. After that war, I think people feel that the time had come to change the domestic situation. Also, the victory of the rightwing in Israel has changed the dynamics.

But everything is still open. Sometimes the atmosphere is good, sometimes bad. I can only tell you that throughout all this time there have been contacts between Hamas and Fateh.

bitterlemons: We've seen several prominent western politicians come to Gaza in recent weeks. Has this had an effect?

Hamad: I think both factions have started to think harder about domestic relations and how they affect foreign relations. Arab countries have been sending messages that it is shameful for Palestinians to maintain their divisions, and I think both Hamas and Fateh genuinely want this dialogue. This may be a moment when there is a good chance of success and Egypt has been working very hard to make this a reality.

bitterlemons: Is there a lot of Arab pressure?

Hamad: I wouldn't call it pressure, though certainly the advice from all quarters is that unity is to the benefit of the Palestinian people. But many factors contributed to these talks. This is a process that has been ongoing for over a year. But especially after the war on Gaza, both factions seem to have understood that if Palestinian blood does not unite them, nothing will.

bitterlemons: What about the reconstruction of Gaza. How important is unity for that?

Hamad: Until now there is no clear plan. But any money for reconstruction must not be politicized or be used to create more problems for Palestinians. I think the Hamas position is clear. Money for reconstruction will not go to Hamas or the government [in Gaza]. It has to go to the Palestinian people. So we have called for an independent professional committee to be in charge of reconstruction. The government will not interfere other than to make sure that the mechanism benefits the people who need it.

bitterlemons: There cannot be any reconstruction unless the Gaza crossings are open. Any progress on that front?

Hamad: No, not yet. There are no promises and nothing concrete to give us hope that the crossings will be opened properly.- Published 2/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Ghazi Hamad is a Hamas official from the Gaza Strip.

Let there be reconciliation

by Zvi Bar'el

It is almost impossible to count the number of failed attempts made by Egypt, the Arab League, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the Palestinians themselves to resolve the strife between Fateh and Hamas. However, the current round of negotiations held in Egypt appears to be different: more appeasing, less strained.

Three major new factors may contribute this time to a more successful outcome. First, the Gaza war sharpened the understanding that there are no "two Palestines", one in the West Bank and the other in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas realized that they cannot stand aloof from what happened in Gaza, and that a war in any part of Palestine affects all the Palestinians in all parts of Palestine and abroad.

Further, from an ideological standpoint, Abbas realizes that complaints about Hamas' "misbehavior" lead him nowhere and that political "cohabitation" is the only way for him to extend his authority back into Gaza without contradicting the premise of the Oslo agreement. If he avoids cohabitation now, Abbas will be perceived as playing into the hands of Israel, which prefers to demonstrate the difference between the "happy good guys" in the West Bank and the "miserable bad guys" in Gaza. Politically, the Palestinian Authority and Fateh cannot allow themselves to be perceived to be prolonging Israel's war and siege on Gaza by adopting Israel's conditions for opening the Gaza-Israel passages.

If, prior to the war on Gaza, Abbas could maintain negotiations with Israel while describing Hamas as a renegade organization that revolted against a legitimate regime, this argument is lost after the war. Hamas has established itself as the defender of the Palestinians in Gaza, an organization that is not afraid to fight Israel and, most importantly, an organization that can mobilize huge masses in the Arab states, dictate Arab policies and intimidate the "Arab monopoly" over the Palestinian issue by playing proxy to Iran.

Second, US President Barack Obama's policies toward the Middle East are beginning to take shape and can already be characterized as pro-active dialogue. Obama intends to initiate a substantial dialogue with Iran--and not just about the situation in Iraq; he does not hesitate to reach out to Syria; and his secretary of state is all in favor of a Palestinian national unity government that includes Hamas.

True, the new American policy comes with strings and conditions attached. Iran has to cease its uranium enrichment, Syria must stop supporting Hizballah, and Hamas has to recognize Israel if it wants to be legitimized by the US. Yet, unlike Bush's approach, there are no preconditions to demonstrating good will: American senators visited Syria, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry visited Gaza and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is attending the donor states conference in Sharm al-Sheikh and will contribute some $900 million to reconstruction in Gaza.

No distribution apparatus has been set up for that purpose. But all parties involved, including the Palestinian Authority, the Arab donors and the western states understand that without Hamas there will be no reconstruction. Likewise, it is well understood by Hamas that without reconciliation with Fateh it will be very difficult to reap the fruits of war and demonstrate to the Palestinian public that its losses were not in vain. Hence Hamas needs the Palestinian Authority as much as Salam Fayad's government needs Hamas.

The third factor is the outcome of the Israeli elections and the rise of the right and extreme right to power. Judging from Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu's declarations thus far, his rejection of the "two states" formula for solving the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and his lack of enthusiasm for restarting negotiations with Syria imply again that at least the Palestinian side will be better off united rather than divided. Palestinian unity will deny Netanyahu the ability to play one Palestinian party against the other without being obliged to get involved in meaningful negotiations.

Yet even from an Israeli point of view, and especially according to Netanyahu's policy, a united Palestinian government is the preferred choice. Without a viable peace process, with no Israeli intention to withdraw from the West Bank and given Netanyahu's pretension to be able to work closely with the new American administration, he needs a Palestinian partner with which to manage the conflict. The Palestinian Authority as currently constituted will not suffice for that purpose, nor will it be a willing partner on its own.

Managing the conflict rather than solving it is probably the most the new Israeli government can deliver and the American administration can hope for. It is also the maximum the Arab states expect from the Cairo talks and the most achievable common denominator for Fateh and Hamas. Such an understanding does not demand mutual recognition between Hamas and Israel. It can provide a workable framework for developing an economic and political infrastructure for the Palestinian state to come.

The logic of the situation points to reconciliation. Let's see if logic can prevail this time.- Published 2/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Dr. Zvi Bar'el is the Middle East analyst of Haaretz daily.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.