The consensus on the Egyptian working paper for Palestinian reconciliation is an important step towards unity. The Fatah-Hamas agreement is certainly a great accomplishment by Egypt’s military leadership because it has been desired for years. The question now is whether or not the agreement will also be a prelude to the resumption of US and EU efforts to move forward with Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. I have my doubts; the Israeli government did not stop settlement construction while the Palestinians were divided, so why would it respond more positively after it has warned Fatah that it can have peace with Israel or Hamas but not both?
So where do we go from here? I think that this agreement opens up the possibility of a new international conference along the lines of the Madrid Conference 20 years ago. This would allow the formation of an independent Palestinian government, made up of technocrats, which could, along with representatives from Syria, Lebanon and other countries in the region, discuss a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The conditions are right for such a conference to be held this year with a view to ending the deadlock that “the Palestinian file” is in following the Netanyahu government’s refusal to stop settlement activity. A Madrid-style conference will also open the doors to the “normalisation” of Arab relations with Israel; given the current “Arab spring” and its as yet largely unknown consequences, Washington wants to achieve this as much as anyone else.
President Barack Obama spoke to the General Assembly of the United Nations last September and pointed to the importance of having representatives of a State of Palestinian present at the next meeting of the General Assembly in September 2011; that is now less than 6 months away, but the Obama administration knew that this would not be possible with more of the same kind of negotiations which have now ground to a halt. As such, an international conference could be a viable alternative mechanism to achieve successful bilateral negotiations dealing with all aspects of the conflict. Obama began his presidency with confirmation of his interest in the Middle East conflict and a positive view of the Arab initiative; his appointment of Senator George Mitchell as a special envoy suggested that he was taking this seriously, given Mitchell’s success in Northern Ireland.
Conditions are right for a conference on the basis of the Arab initiative; the priority must be to end divisions in Palestine and form an independent unity government which will supervise the reconstruction of Gaza with carefully supervised border crossings. Such a government will have the mandate to maintain the security truce with Israel and organise Palestinian elections next year.
The war on Gaza has put the spotlight on all parties. There is no possibility of ending resistance to Israel’s occupation, or overcoming or ignoring it. Similarly, it is not possible to bypass the leadership role of the Palestinian Authority or to ignore its international and Arab support. Thus there are some red lines which cannot be crossed by those favouring resistance, just as there are limits to what those who have turned their back on resistance can actually do.
It looks as if Obama will revert to the Clinton administration’s approach which encouraged political settlements like Oslo for Israel and the Palestinians, and Wadi Araba, which brought Jordan and Israel together. Support for negotiations between Syria and Israel also figured prominently, but there was also pressure from Washington for the Arabs to take steps to normalise relations with Israel without waiting for the results of negotiations.
What we know now, of course, is that the Oslo Accords did not produce peace, the end of the Israeli occupation or a Palestinian state; conversely, it was the path of resistance which forced Israel to withdraw from Lebanon, first in 2000, and abandon its settlements in Gaza in 2005. Also, America was not embroiled in wars in the region during the Clinton presidency and Iran was not the influence that it is now; there was no Arab initiative and the Palestinian leadership was not divided. It is these variables which are pushing Obama to tackle Middle East issues, albeit within an American vision of the region which remains unchanged since the time of President George Bush Senior. According to the joint US-EU-Israel perception the biggest obstacle to peace is the split in the Palestinian leadership and the refusal of one side to abandon armed resistance and recognise Israel.
However, some Arabs remain suspicious of the US position as long as Washington continues to ignore Israeli aggression as the occupying power. An end to the occupation would facilitate the establishment of a State of Palestine on all Palestinian land occupied by Israel in 1967, including East Jerusalem, coinciding with a just solution to the issue of the refugees.
Washington has talked a lot about a Palestinian state without defining its borders, its citizens or its capital, and without determining the level of autonomy therein. It is not enough to talk in general terms about “Palestine”, as Israel’s government has, while its security forces continue to kill Palestinians on Palestinian land and destroy their property.
The absence of real peace with justice encourages war and violence, and pushes those under occupation to exercise their right of resistance. The absence of an active pan-Arab role creates a vacuum filled by the international community and encourages others to intervene in the affairs of the Arabs. The net result will be to perpetuate conflict across the region.
*Dr. Sobhi Ghandour is Director of Al Hewar Centre in Washington
Source: Al Bayan Al Emirati, 5/5/2011
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.