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Sustaining Palestinian Division, Reviving a Partner

By       Message Nicola Nasser     Permalink
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Saving a Palestinian partner, whom they have rejected until Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in mid-June, has become the most important mission preoccupying the U.S. Administration and the Israeli government, a mission which nonetheless Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is taking seriously, against all the odds, pursuing a “hope” that their preoccupation could yet be a window of opportunity to revive serious Palestinian – Israeli peace negotiations and break through the siege imposed on him and his people by the both deadlocked inter-Palestinian and the peace process crises. 

While all media attention is focused on Hamas in the tightly sealed off Gaza Strip, the real battle of the inter-Palestinian political strife is being fought in the West Bank, where Israeli and American efforts are trying to secure the survival of the Fatah – led Palestinian Authority (PA) and preempt the repetition of the scenario that left Hamas in control of the besieged Mediterranean coastal strip. 

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Betting the survival of the PA as well as his own presidency on a faint hope that the U.S. Administration might deliver on their promises to revive the peace process with Israel, Abbas is risking a Palestinian infighting in his power base in the Israeli occupied West Bank in the hope that the continued outbreak with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and outlawing their military wings could help international friends to convince Israel to translate the “diplomatic process” he is conducting with the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert into an honest and serious negotiations over the final status issues, the only diversion to the prevailing status quo that could spare the West Bank a flare up of violence. 

In spite of all his reservations on U.S. President George W. Bush’s vague proposal for an international conference in the fall to revive the peace talks, to which neither he nor other potential participants have yet received any invitation, Abbas seems desperately determined to pursue his faint hope that the world community might yet intervene to make something out of the November event. His Fatah-led PA is similarly optimistic on betting all on the outcome of the coming gathering, which nothing concrete has leaked so far to support its success prospects to vindicate their optimism or to dispel the pessimistic expectations of the overwhelming majority of Palestinian, Israeli and Western observers. 

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Reviving a Partner 

On July 16, Bush set off a flurry of diplomatic motion when he proposed to hold a conference this fall to help resume the Palestinian - Israeli peace talks, deadlocked since the collapse of the trilateral Camp David summit meeting late in 2000, but so far this diplomatic flurry has been much ado about nothing. The aim of this diplomatic flurry is to lay the ground for a successful conclusion of the proposed international gathering. However the Bush administration’s refusal over several years to bring serious attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict has ranked high; Bush’s proposed conference is promising to change nothing. 

The U.S. and Israeli officials have been repeatedly on record to pre-condition the convening of the proposed conference and their support to Abbas on sustaining his outbreak with Hamas. A hint by the Italian Premier Romano Prodi about having a dialogue with Hamas and an outright call for such a dialogue by the British House of Common's Foreign Affairs Committee in August drew sharp criticism from Livni as a “huge mistake” that “will only cripple the process of reconciliation and will halt the current positive momentum,” according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. 

Israel has ruled out Abbas as a peace partner since his election in January 2005; the U.S. has done nothing essential to make the Israelis reconsider. It was left to Hamas to convince both sides to come to their political senses. The Islamic movement’s landslide electoral victory in January 2006 and control of the Gaza Strip in mid June this year have only prodded them to reconsider tactically how to keep Abbas in place lest a similar scenario carries Hamas close to Israeli door steps in the West Bank. 

The PA is overreacting in their anti-Hamas measures to assure that the new diplomatic momentum continues; the majority leader in the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives Steny Hoyer emerged from a meeting with Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad in Ramallah on August 14 to tell reporters: “Mr. Fayyad made very clear that Hamas could not and would not be a partner in moving forward.” Abbas and Fayyad are resisting huge Palestinian, Arab and Muslim pressure to sustain their rejection of dialogue with Hamas, which is also demanded by Russia, Norway, India and the Non-Aligned Movement; they have so far aborted at least eight mediation efforts to restore Palestinian unity, which was also recommended by the International Crisis Group (ICG) early in August. 

The U.S. sponsors of the upcoming conference are not leaving prospects to good faith and hopeful wishes; the success for the U.S. Administration is judged by convening the conference and not by any results it may yield because the White House and the State department planned it as a public relations event on the one hand and as a “banana” to bring in Arab heavy weights like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to meet face to face with Israel, in a public show of Arab normalization with Israeli officials, allegedly to boost Olmert’s fragile political standing at home to encourage him to take the next step towards peace. 

Bush is urging Olmert to make “concessions” to Abbas to avert a Hamas takeover in the West Bank. Reportedly, Olmert is now forthcoming to cooperate with Abbas in writing something like a “framework agreement” that will lay down the principles of an agreement that may be achieved later on, but without details or a time-table or guarantees, which is a non-starter for a breakthrough. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's expectation of a possible early election next year and his recent assertion that Israel would not be ready to make a large-scale pullback from the West Bank for at least 2 1/2 years raise more doubts than assurances. 

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After meeting with Olmert in the West Bank town of Jericho in August, the two men met again in Jerusalem later in the month, met for a third time also in Jerusalem on Tuesday and said they will be meeting again this September before another encounter during a Palestinian – Israeli business conference in Tel Aviv in October, where they will meet also with the special envoy of the Quartet of the U.S., U.N., EU and Russia, Tony Blair. Between September 16–19 both men will receive the visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; her Assistant for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, paid both men a visit ahead of Rice's planned visit. Later in September Abbas will head for New York. 

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*Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist in Kuwait, Jordan, UAE and Palestine. He is based in Ramallah, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

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