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The truth about the reconciliation talks

The Palestinian national reconciliation talks have turned into a reconciliation process. Like the Middle East Peace Process, they are without progress and an apparent end. To boot, they can hardly be described as national since they are primarily about the chronic differences between Fatah and Hamas, both of which exert unrivalled influence over Palestinian national politics. Last week, both organisations tried to gloss over what was evidently a failure to agree on procedural as well as substantive issues. The only agreement of note was to continue talking.

Although the electoral procedures were supposed to have been settled in a previous "Cairo Agreement", President Mahmoud Abbas threw a spanner into the works by calling for new changes. He wants to fix the date of the elections before the formation of the unity government, by a presidential decree, of course, without recourse to the Palestinian version of a parliament, the Legislative Council. Hamas rejected the proposal.

More substantively, Abbas apparently told the organisations that Palestine is now the West Bank and Gaza only and what remains is Israel. Neither Hamas nor Islamic jihad accepted this, pointing out that no one has the right to surrender the land of historic Palestine.

Not surprisingly, therefore, last week's meeting in Cairo failed to produce any significant results. Indeed, Mr Abbas left Cairo before any decision was taken on the crucial issues of the PLO, the national unity government and elections.

One explanation for the botched talks was offered by the director of the Cairo-based Centre for Palestinian Studies, Ibrahim Al-Dirawi. He reported that during a secret meeting held in Ramallah between the US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, and Mahmoud Abbas and other PLO leaders, Shapiro requested that they "freeze the reconciliation talks until after President Obama's visit to the region". Abbas duly, and dutifully, complied. In Cairo, he told his counterparts that he was unable to form a government with Hamas supporters while the US president was in the region.

In the same manner that this was outlined behind closed doors, the time has surely come for both Hamas and Fatah to tell the Palestinian people that there is no love lost between them and even a temporary marriage is out of the question. The truth is, each party wants to preserve its influence in their respective enclaves; Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank. Palestinians are now convinced that the best they can hope for is some form of loose arrangement between the two factions.

While common sense necessitates a united Palestinian leadership, Abbas is evidently pulled in opposing directions. While national responsibilities demand reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, previous agreements with Israel – and US paymasters   pull him in the other direction. The Israeli Minister of Finance, Yuval Steinitz, underscored this when he threatened to withhold the tax revenues – the equivalent of $100 million per month – due to the Palestinian Authority if it forms a unity government with Hamas.

To many observers, President Abbas's objective is to hold elections more than anything else. Talk of reconciliation is only a means to cajole Hamas into an agreement to hold parliamentary polls. Let's assume for the sake of argument that the next election is not rigged; neither the PA nor Israel nor its Western supporters would sanction another Hamas victory. There are no guarantees that the advocates of democracy for the Arab world would accept the democratic choice of the Palestinians if that means a Hamas government. Indeed, experience suggests the exact opposite.

Clearly Mr Abbas desperately needs to have the elections as a means to regain control of Gaza and extend his writ in the West Bank. In effect, the polls must expedite the exit of Hamas from the very door through which it entered. This would give the PA and Israel the "democratic" authority to outlaw the movement and harass and arrest its members and supporters just as they did in the immediate aftermath of Oslo when hundreds were thrown into PA jails.

For now, Hamas appears to be in a position of relative strength. It has the legitimacy of being a resistance movement that has paid a price with the blood of its leaders and members. Moreover, it also has legitimacy from the 2006 elections, although things have changed. The entire Hamas political leadership in the West Bank, as well as its cadres, are in either Israeli or PA prisons. The movement would not have a snowball's chance in hell if a poll was called tomorrow. Hamas is acutely aware of this.

Its deputy leader, Musa Abu Marzouk, has said that the absence of political freedoms and the on-going detention campaign will turn any elections into a total farce. Abbas knows this, but is prepared to push on regardless.
Hamas has thus raised the bar by calling for the next election, whenever it takes place, to include the Palestinians of the diaspora; the PA is unlikely to countenance this. Ironically, to exclude the diaspora from the vote would perpetuate the fragmentation of the Palestinian people.

A combination of political, economic and security factors have rendered reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas highly unlikely. As long as Abbas continues to grovel to the Americans and Israelis, it will remain an illusion. For now, the only consoling fact from this sad state of affairs is that the Palestinian people can hardly be described as divided as much as their political representatives very clearly are. They are united because of the injustice done to them all, and this is something that will be reversed one day, no matter how long it takes.

Commentary & AnalysisIsraelMiddle EastPalestine
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