Competing visions for Palestinians

While the Israelis and US want to isolate Hamas, some Arab states see need for Palestinian unity.

As the high level meetings continue in the aftermath of the violent split between Hamas and Fatah, it is becoming clear that two competing visions are emerging for the best way forward for the Palestinians.

While the Americans and Israelis want to continue to strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his secular Fatah Party against the Islamist Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian and Jordanian governments are coming to view the need for a new Palestinian government that reunites the two rivals.

On Tuesday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who attended a summit in Sharm el-Sheikh the day before with Mr. Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and Jordanian King Abdullah, told state TV that a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is inevitable.

"I believe that after a period of calm, especially as they have a legislative assembly where [Hamas] has a majority, an understanding between them is bound to come about," he said.

Egypt has been "mediating between the two sides," though President Mubarak added that Abbas is as yet unwilling to make concessions. "It needs a period of calm and a return to sense … then [dialogue] will become possible," he said.

Those comments followed days of harsh statements from Egyptian officials – Mr. Mubarak had called the Hamas takeover of Gaza a coup that had harmed the interests of the Palestinian people. Another Egyptian official says there is no inconsistency between the two positions.

"It's not that we like Hamas or anything they stand for or what they've done in Gaza – we've been very strong in condemning that," says the official. "But if the Americans or the Israelis think you can ignore a player that has the support of a lot of Palestinian people and think you can possibly reach peace, they're wrong."

In Israel, Mr. Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisin did not rule out negotiations with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, but said the movement would have to recognize Israel's right to exist, forswear armed struggle, and promise to abide by existing Palestinian and Israeli agreements. "We've already said that we would deal with a Palestinian government, including if it had Hamas, if they would accept those three international principles," she said.

Israel refused to negotiate with the former unity government because it grouped Fatah, which recognizes Israel's right to exist, with Hamas, which does not.

In February in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Saudi officials brokered the agreement that led to the unity government. That deal forced Fatah – the long-dominant force in Palestinian politics that has lost much support because of rampant corruption – to recognize the parliamentary popularity of Hamas.

The Monday meeting in Egypt was largely focused on trying to shore up Abbas's position. Though some concessions were made – Israel has agreed to release some of the $600 million in frozen Palestinian tax revenue and plans to release about 250 members of Fatah from its prisons – they stopped short of what he asked for and, analysts say, short of steps that would improve living conditions in the Fatah-controlled West Bank.

The Middle East negotiators who make up the Quartet – peace makers from the US, United Nations, the European Union, and Russia – also met Tuesday in Jerusalem.

Officials in Egypt say Abbas is pressing for Israel to remove roadblocks that restrict Palestinian movement in the West Bank, and for the release of popular Fatah figure Marwan Barghouti.

Though Olmert has said he would like the roadblocks eased, the Israeli security heads have been opposed and have carried the day so far. Olmert's statement that no Fatah members with "blood on their hands" will be released appears to rule out a concession on Mr. Barghouti: He's serving a life sentence in Israel for murder, though his supporters claim the charges were fabricated.

Within Israel, both the left and the right appear to agree that the notion of improving life in the West Bank in order to help Fatah, and hurt Hamas, is likely to be unsuccessful, though for different reasons.

"Anyone who thinks they can strike a deal with half of the Palestinian people is deluding themselves. Legitimacy rests at the bottom, with the religious people, the refugees. Hamas can provide that legitimacy. You need them to maintain any agreement with Israel," says Shaul Mishal, a Tel Aviv University professor and author of "The Palestinian Hamas."

"Don't rush toward Fatah, because it's a pillar of sand," he says. "It's too corrupt, too confused, and tired."

He also says he thinks the two movements will patch things up. "This isn't the end of the game, this is the beginning of the game. Israelis shouldn't delude themselves that the harsh words are indicative of the long-term strategy of Fatah. I am sure within days or within weeks they are going to talk to each other."

A more right-wing Israeli view is that building up Abbas is a waste of time, since he hasn't been able to stop rocket attacks on Israel or secure the release of Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who's been held in Gaza by the armed wing of Hamas for the past year. On Monday, Hamas released an audio tape of Corporal Shalit in which he said his health was deteriorating and called on Israeli to meet his captors' demands – a prisoner exchange.

Raphael Israeli, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says Israel should not waste its time on trying to work with Abbas and his Fatah Party but instead should focus on treating Gaza as its own state and, if necessary, use tough sanctions like turning off the water that Israel provides.

"The Sharm el-Sheikh conference was no more than a show. All the pressures are on Israel to make concession to Abu Mazen who is a virtual reality," he argues, using Abbas's nickname. "Abu Mazen showed he would turn against the terrorists only when the terrorists threaten his own government. We should put an end to this problem."

Ms. Eisin said the Shalit issue has stood in the way of more Palestinian prisoner releases and implied that until it's resolved, Israel will have nothing to do with Hamas.

"What Hamas did [Monday] is definitely within the lines of their own cruelty. It's the same Hamas that took Shalit, the same Hamas that took over the Gaza Strip, the same Hamas who was in the government, and the same Hamas we won't deal with," she said.

Nevertheless, with Egypt appearing to call for Fatah to reconcile with Hamas, Israel may not have long to deal with Fatah alone. But the formation of a new unity government may come with a more quiescent Hamas, some analysts argue.

Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East expert and author of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran," says Iran, which has provided funding to Hamas, is pressuring the movement to reenter unity talks, partially because the recent round of fighting makes Iran look like it's fueling civil war among Arabs.

"The recent takeover of Gaza has backfired. … Hamas has become more isolated than before,'' he says. "They've lost popularity because they've been shooting Palestinians in the street."

Mr. Javedanfar also says he believes new unity talks are a matter of time, but doesn't argue against helping Abbas now as any increase in his popularity will give him more leverage at the negotiating table.

"The easier Israel can make the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, the more that's to Fatah's advantage," he says. "The best gift that Israel could give to Abbas is to carry out more withdrawals in the West Bank, that would make Abbas look like a leader who can deliver. But unfortunately I don't think Ehud Olmert is in a position to do that."

• Ilene R. Prusher contributed from Jerusalem.

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