b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    February 12, 2007 Edition 6                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
Also from bitterlemons... If you haven't already subscribed, check out our Middle East Roundtable. For a free subscription, go to bitterlemons-international.org.

  The Mecca agreement
  . Let's watch and wait        by Yossi Alpher
With a little prodding from Washington, Olmert correctly grasped that there is no need to respond immediately to events in Mecca.
. Cautious optimism        by Ghassan Khatib
What the Mecca agreement has achieved is to put President Mahmoud Abbas in a much stronger position.
  . King Abdullah has no intention of compromising        by Smadar Perry
The Mecca agreement paves the way for Riyadh to revitalize Abdullah's 2002 peace initiative.
. Of paramount importance        an interview with Asad Abu Shark
The only country that will reject any agreement among the Palestinian factions is Israel, which is not interested in Palestinian unity.

To subscribe, simply click on the link below: subscribe. The following articles may be republished with proper citation given to the author and bitterlemons.org.

At our website, www.bitterlemons.org, you will also find past editions, an extensive documents file, information about us, and hebrew and arabic editions, along with relevant subscription information.

Let's watch and wait
by Yossi Alpher

Last week's Mecca agreement between Fateh and Hamas seems to "work" in a number of different dimensions, some strategic and some tactical.

At the broadest regional strategic level, the dramatic Saudi success in bringing Hamas and Fateh to commit to a unity government--where Egypt, Syria, Qatar and Jordan had all failed--ostensibly strikes a blow against Iran's hegemonic drive in the region and portrays Saudi King Abdullah as the preeminent Arab leader. This is also an agreement that essentially bypasses Israel's and the Quartet's three conditions for dealing with Hamas. As such, it reinforces the Saudi message to the Bush administration in Washington, first issued a few months ago when Riyadh threatened to provide military support to Iraq's Sunnis if the US withdrew precipitously, that the Sunni Arab world is taking its distance from failed American policies in the region.

Judging by initial reactions, particularly in Europe, the agreement is likely to facilitate a restoration of contacts between the Palestinian government and at least some of the donor states and some of the Quartet members, like France and Russia. A billion dollars in Saudi aid will help alleviate the Palestinian Authority's financial woes. And at the tactical or local level, the agreement at least temporarily ends the Palestinian descent into violent chaos.

But this is a best-case scenario for the agreement. In fact, it is still much too early to celebrate an Arab and Palestinian success. The unity government has not yet been formed. Its guidelines are not known. The key issue of control over security forces has not been conclusively resolved, not to speak of the fundamental political conceptual gap between secular Fateh and Islamist Hamas that could shorten the life of the new cabinet. Any number of relatively minor events in Gaza could reignite the violence and unravel the new agreement. The initial American reaction is cold, and the Quartet overall lukewarm: the unity agreement does not accept their minimal conditions. An Arab-American disagreement over the new Palestinian government does not necessarily bode well for broader cooperation against Iran.

All in all, the Mecca agreement could be a step forward or a step backward, depending on ensuing developments and on the way all sides now evaluate their positions and their options. What should Israel do?

First of all, we should "keep our powder dry" and watch and wait. With a little prodding from Washington, PM Ehud Olmert correctly grasped that there is no need to respond immediately to events in Mecca. The composition and guidelines of the new PA government, assuming it is formed, will be instructive as to its intentions. We should listen to Abu Mazen at next week's projected Israeli-Palestinian-American summit and seek to assess whether the Mecca agreement has strengthened or weakened his position.

We should also sit down with the Americans and reevaluate the famous three conditions. They are not cast in stone. They were formulated hastily by Olmert and the Quartet in response to Hamas' surprising election victory and the formation of its government a year ago. While it made sense to demand a pledge to end violence, the current ceasefire, however sporadic and incomplete, is no worse than previous ones periodically violated by Fateh. It was presumptuous to demand of Hamas recognition of Israel when Jerusalem has never insisted that Arab countries offer this concession prior to signing a peace treaty with it. As for "adhering" to existing agreements, Hamas has now undertaken to "respect" them, a semantic distinction that may or may not be significant insofar as both sides have hitherto violated many of their commitments.

Then there are Israel's unwritten conditions or expectations. Will this agreement provide stability and a greater degree of peace and quiet in Palestine, something Israel also needs? Will it bring about the release of our abducted soldier? Will it increase positive Arab influence over the course of events in Palestine? Does this mean that both the internal and external, Damascus-based leaders of Hamas have, within the space of a year, begun moderating their ideology?

Alternatively, has Hamas successfully hoodwinked Abbas, Fateh and the Saudis, who have now unwittingly endorsed the Palestinian Islamist program? Or is the Mecca agreement yet another flimsy unity structure that will soon collapse under the weight of Palestinian realities? We should know within a few weeks. Since a genuine peace process with Hamas is unlikely, we can in any case afford to wait and see.- Published 12/2/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications.

Cautious optimism
by Ghassan Khatib

Palestinians from all over the world, but especially in Gaza, received the news of the Mecca agreement with a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm. Politicians and analysts are a little more cautiously optimistic.

The optimism stems from the fact that, first, this agreement has already accomplished a ceasefire between the competing groups in Gaza and put an end to the bloodiest ever internal confrontations between Palestinian factions.

Second, it marked another small yet significant evolution in the political position of Hamas in the direction of the PLO's political platform and international legality. This, if looked at as part of a series of developments, creates hope of a possible further narrowing of the political differences between the different groups, particularly Fateh and Hamas.

Third, the agreement prepares the ground for the establishment of a national unity government that the public believes will have a better chance of success in fulfilling its obligations to the population, especially with regards to social services, after the failure of the current government in this aspect.

But there is caution because two other areas of dispute that were specified in the agenda at Mecca are still unresolved and threaten a possible renewal of tensions and violence.

One is the reform of the PLO, where Hamas demands changes in both the political platform and the organization's composition. That is a sensitive and dangerous issue because the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause is embodied by the PLO. If the PLO includes groups like an unchanged Hamas this might negatively affect the international recognition of the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Second is what the parties at Mecca referred to as "political partnership". This is essentially code for the redistribution of significant positions--ambassadors, governors and top civil servants--between Fateh and Hamas after having been mostly filled by Fateh cadres.

This is not an easy demand. It contradicts the basic requirements of good governance, since these positions should be filled on the basis of professional competence rather than factional affiliation. The main lesson we drew during the process of reforms is that appointments on the basis of factional loyalty in the early stage of the establishment of the Palestinian Authority were responsible for the weakness of the performance of the PA and a cause of corruption.

Outside these internal issues, Palestinians are also hoping for a positive response from the international community. So far there have been mixed reactions. Although the official Quartet response reiterated the well-known international conditions for dealing with the Palestinian government, it is also apparent that there are differences within the Quartet. The Europeans seem relatively positive, while the Americans have chosen not to take an official position yet, in itself more constructive than a negative response.

It can be hoped that the international community will focus on the positives. While it is true that the Mecca agreement for a future government spoke of "respect" for past agreements and international legality, rather than adherence, and that this might not go far enough for some parties, it is a step forward and the maximum possible compromise at this stage.

The Saudis are working on obtaining a working definition of "respect" from Hamas. This might be helpful in marketing the agreement.

What the Mecca agreement has achieved is to put President Mahmoud Abbas in a much stronger position not only internally but also as far as the summit on February 19 between him, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is concerned. The international community, and especially the US, needs to build on this achievement in a way that can consolidate and strengthen the political position of Abbas internally.

The international community should also understand that the only fruitful way to interfere in internal Palestinian politics is by initiating a political process of the kind that will determine the final outcome from the start. This will assure Palestinians that such a process is the safest and shortest way to achieve their legitimate objectives of statehood and ending the occupation.

If the international community misses this opportunity it will increase chances of further rounds of confrontations and more frustration and radicalization among Palestinians as well as Israelis.- Published 12/2/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.

King Abdullah has no intention of compromising

by Smadar Perry

The photos that emerged in the middle of last week from the spacious and elegant al-Safa Palace in Mecca told the story of events taking place behind the scenes of the "historic" summit between delegations from Fateh and Hamas.

In the excitement, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal briefly forgot that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) had been plotting, with the blessings of Washington and Jerusalem, to overthrow the Hamas government in Gaza. The two drove in the same car between cities in Saudi Arabia, then proceeded to open the reconciliation talks with an inaugural prayer from the Quran. Waiters produced trays laden with food, the delegations both slept and deliberated in the palace and the hosts made themselves scarce except when needed. A few days later, the Palestinian leaders crowned their agreement with a photo-op visit to the holy site, wrapped in white robes that symbolized the purity of their intentions.

Only rarely does the royal palace, which overlooks the Kaaba, holy to hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide, allow the TV cameras in--although the conference managers did make sure to distance the media from the many scenes of loud arguments and angry dissent. Saudi Arabia went all out with the "Mecca summit", and from the outset allowed that this was the parties' "last chance". King Abdullah wanted to emerge with a series of diplomatic achievements precisely where his predecessors in Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and even to some extent Damascus had failed.

As far as we know, at least five of the most senior officials in Saudi Arabia were recruited to this enterprise: King Abdullah, his brother Crown Prince Sultan, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, the new intelligence chief Prince Mukrin bin Abdul-Aziz, and the rising star of the king's new open diplomacy, Prince Bandar, the national security adviser. The senior advisers recommended using an American model of crisis negotiating and adapting it to Middle East conditions. They knocked heads together among Abu Mazen, Khaled Meshaal and their large entourages until a unity government agreement was reached--albeit one cobbled together hurriedly, under pressure, padded with generous promises of money and replete with formulations that look fragile and unconvincing. The real test, all the experts agree, will be whether the promised end of the bloodletting can be maintained on the ground in Palestine. Israel was barely mentioned at the Mecca summit.

It now emerges that a week before the Mecca deliberations began, Meshaal made sure to send an unequivocal clarification from Damascus: there was no chance of getting Hamas to commit to recognizing Israel. The movement's policy, dictated by Meshaal to PM Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza, was not going to be radically revised. Meshaal signaled to the Saudi monarch that he could manage just fine without the king's millions.

Accordingly, the unity government agreement was preordained to deal with internal Palestinian issues, to generate formulae for cooperation between Abu Mazen and a Hamas-led government and, most importantly, to aggrandize the new role of the hosts as crisis managers and negotiators. If the two Palestinian camps maintain their agreement, the Saudis will channel a billion dollars for economic projects and aid and rebuilding schemes to the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

The money is a marginal issue for the oil kingdom. The Saudi royal house is prepared to spend many more hundreds of millions of dollars in order to achieve its big objective. The administration in Washington divides the Muslim world between "allies" and "bad guys" (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Fateh vs. Iran and Syria). But the Saudis partition the exact same map along strictly sectarian lines: Sunni Muslims are the allies of the Wahabi Sunni royal family, as opposed to the Shi'ites of Iran and Hizballah who seek to bring down the Sunni/majority government in Lebanon and establish the empire of "correct Islam". This confrontation, once suppressed, has become increasingly acute since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of Iraq's Shi'ites.

Saudi Arabia perceives a long-term Iranian nuclear threat and a more acute, pervasive and advanced threat to establish a "Shi'ite crescent" from Tehran via its Shi'ite allies in Iraq all the way to Hizballah in Lebanon. The ultimate Iranian objective is to inflame Egypt, the largest Arab country, and reach the holy of holies, the kingdom where Islam began. Whoever holds the Kaaba controls the Muslim world. This explains why the Saudi security and intelligence establishments are waging total war against fundamentalist cells that were planted with funding and inspiration from Tehran.

For external consumption, Riyadh has considerably enhanced its relations with Tehran: national security advisers Ali Larijani from Iran and the Saudi Prince Bandar exchanged visits in recent weeks. But the Saudi ambassador in Washington, former intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal (the brother of the Saudi foreign minister) was summoned home without ceremony after he called for a dialogue with the ayatollahs. The Saudis are also increasing their quiet involvement in Iraq and reinforcing the Siniora government in Lebanon against Iran's brutal intervention, executed with Syrian President Bashar Assad's indulgence.

Despite its drawbacks, the Mecca agreement is now seen in Washington and among the "good guys" camp in the Arab world as paving the way for the next step in Riyadh's effort to reinforce its inter-Arab position. At the end of next month, the 22 Arab leaders will convene in a summit designed to revitalize King Abdullah's peace initiative. The diplomatic equation is simple: the Arab world, which already approved the plan in Beirut in 2002, offers Israel full peace and normalization (which will be tested "on the ground" exactly like the Mecca agreement) in return for an Israeli commitment to withdraw to the 1967 lines.

Israeli prime ministers have until now evaded responding directly to the initiative. The Saudi royal house does not intend to let up the pressure. It has the backing of the United States, which is interested in a peace process. And the competition is on against the Iranian bid for the leadership of the Muslim world.- Published 12/2/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Smadar Perry is Middle East editor of the daily Yediot Aharonot.

Of paramount importance

an interview with Asad Abu Shark

bitterlemons: How important is the Mecca agreement for Palestinians?

Abu Shark: The Mecca agreement is of paramount importance. It puts Fateh and Hamas on track toward the formation of a government of national unity, and as a result lessens tensions between the two. This, in turn, has stopped the infighting. It should pave the way for a new chapter in the relations between Fateh and Hamas.

There was unanimous agreement among the leadership, something that has been received very well by Palestinians, both inside and outside. Most people were extremely angry and disappointed at the fighting between Fateh and Hamas. So the agreement, which comes to conclude and end that fighting, is a positive development and should ensure that Palestinians can now dedicate their efforts to end the occupation and remove the siege against the Palestinian people.

bitterlemons: A lot of blood was spilt. Are you confident this agreement can contain any violence or desire for revenge?

Abu Shark: I think it will, yes. There is a lot of popular pressure and I think, should anyone start fighting again, they will find themselves isolated by public opinion. Both Fateh and Hamas have learned a valuable lesson from this: the public will not accept that they engage in violence with each other over authority. Palestinians expect these parties to dedicate their efforts against the occupation. People were disgusted by this fighting and by the factions. So for these factions it was important to reach this agreement and to face the challenges of Israel's actions: its continuing settlement expansions, the tightening of the siege against the Palestinian people and especially now that Israel is seeking to destroy the Aqsa Mosque.

I believe the factions have learned their lesson and that this agreement will hold. A government of national unity will follow, especially since it is a development that has been welcomed by European, Arab and Muslim countries, and even the Americans, albeit cautiously. The only country that will reject any agreement among the Palestinian factions is Israel, which is not interested in Palestinian unity.

bitterlemons: One of the causes of the recent tensions has been the international freeze on funding to the PA. Are you confident the Quartet will end this freeze, and why, since the unity agreement does not seem to fulfill international conditions?

Abu Shark: This agreement was signed in Mecca and was brokered by Saudi Arabia. It has been blessed by the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. I think Saudi Arabia and the Arab world will exercise a lot of pressure on the international community to accept it.

In the letter of designation from President Mahmoud Abbas to Ismail Haniyeh it was made clear that Palestinians would respect their international commitments. This is a new language that Khalid Meshaal said they would continue to use. It must be seized on by the international community to lift the blockade. Otherwise the international community, under American control, will find no security or peace in this part of the world and it will lose.

bitterlemons: Do you not think it is possible that Washington might see this as the beginning of the breaking of Hamas in terms of the international conditions and want to continue the freeze on funding until Hamas concedes completely?

Abu Shark: Of course it is possible, especially with this administration. It will do its best. But I think there will be significant pressure from other countries and I don't think Palestinians will give any more concessions. Ultimately, I hope, the US will realize that it is in its interest to give a unity government a chance.

bitterlemons: What are you afraid of in case the Quartet does not lift the sanctions?

Abu Shark: I don't think the internecine fighting will start again. That was a black chapter for Palestinian factions that they will not be in a hurry to repeat. United, Palestinians stand a better chance to face down these sanctions and put pressure on Arab and Islamic countries to help the Palestinians, even if America is opposed. And if Israel does not accept this new reality, then we should put pressure on Arab countries to end all their relations with Israel. Israel will be exposed as the obstacle to peace in the Middle East, indeed the world, that it really is.- Published 12/2/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Asad Abu Shark is a Gaza-based political commentator.

To be unsubscribed from the mailing list, simply click on the link below: Unsubscribe.

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.