In a fashion typical of its strategic and tactical ineptitude, the Bush Administration has responded to Hamas’s ouster of Fatah security forces from Gaza by madly rushing to cobble together an anti-Hamas alliance through a series of high profile gestures — the high-point of which was Monday’s Sharm el-Sheikh summit between the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Palestinian Authoirity president Mahmoud Abbas. The purpose is for these parties to demonstrate their common resolve to strengthen President Abbas in the face of the challenge from Hamas. The U.S. made sure that Israel showed up with some concrete offers of “help” for Abbas, while the Arab states signaling their support for the Fatah leader — and the idea that gathering this crowd around a table would give some impetus to restarting talks towards a final-status peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians — would leave Hamas isolated and weakened.
But to anyone paying even cursory attention, the fault line that runs through the middle of this plan is patently obvious: Bluntly put, Israel and the U.S. on the one hand, and the Arab regimes and Fatah on the other, want very different outcomes in the Palestinian territories, and bringing them together in this way only highlights those differences.
The Arab regimes are not so naive as to buy into the notion that Hamas can be excluded from Palestinian political life — it is the elected government, and speaks for close to half of the Palestinian population. In the last Palestinian election, it thrashed Fatah not only in Gaza, but also in most of the major West Bank towns and cities. While rallying against its armed takeover in Gaza, what the Arabs are demanding is that Hamas recognize the authority of President Abbas (which, by the way, Hamas has done, even since taking power in Gaza — it is Abbas’s side that has the greater problem recognizing the legitimacy and authority of Hamas as an elected government). The Arabs are making very clear that their goal is to revive the Mecca Agreement that brought Hamas and Fatah together in a unity government. That remains a plausible goal, not least because Hamas has indicated a similar goal — although the politicking will be tough and it is unlikely that the same Fatah warlords who, with the backing of the U.S., refused to submit to the unity agreement last time would do so this time. Still, the basic message of the Arabs is that Hamas must be brought back within the umbrella of Palestinian unity; they know it can’t be defeated through isolation and repression.
The U.S. and Israel, of course, insist that Hamas must be isolated and that there can be no revival of the Mecca agreement. At U.S. prodding, Israel has agreed to release some of the Palestinian Authority finances it has withheld, and Prime Minister Olmert says he’ll release some 250 Fatah prisoners although none with “blood on their hands” — i.e. no Marwan Barghouti, the only Fatah leader capable of reversing the movement’s precipitous decline. Olmert may also be under pressure to lift a few checkpoints, even to symbolically dismantle one or two of the settlemetn outposts deemed “illegal” even by Israel (as opposed to by the international community, which regards all Israeli settlements in the West Bank as in violation of the Geneva Convention). But he’s already made clear that he will take such steps only if Abbas demonstrates, to Israel’s satisfaction, his willingness to “fight terror.”
And even as the Arab states demand that Israel begin moving towards final-status negotiations with Abbas based on a return to 1967 borders, Olmert has signaled he has no interest in even opening such talks any time soon.
Essentially, you can expect Israel to allow a fraction of the money it owes the Palestinian Authority into the coffers of Abbas’s government, and make a few symbolic gestures — but nothing close to anything that would genuinely “help” Abbas by showing the Palestinian people that following his path offers the prospect of ending the occupation. And even the little that’s on offer comes only if he stays out of a unity government with Hamas.
So, the latest U.S. plan is on a familiar hiding to nothing, precisely because it fails to address the basic problem: Hamas defeated Fatah because Fatah had proved itself unable to end the occupation; the Arab regimes and the Fatah leaders know that the only way they can be revived and strengthened is for Fatah’s path of engagement with the West and Israel to show results, i.e. concrete steps to end the occupation; but Israel has no intention of taking steps now to end its occupation of the West Bank — together with the U.S., it is essentially expecting Abbas and Fatah to police the status quo. Which is what got them into trouble in the first place.