Palestinian deal faces global critique

The threat of a Palestinian civil war is slowly subsiding, following a power-sharing deal reached in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, late last week that should pave the way for the leading Hamas party to work in sync with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who belongs to rival Fatah.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that the chances of a Palestinian peace with Israel are quickly ascending, nor that the international community's marginalization of the Hamas-led government will come to an end.

The Quartet, which includes the US, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia, has not indicated thus far that it would relax the sanctions it put in place a year ago for dealing with a Palestinian Authority (PA) under the leadership of Hamas, the Islamist militant group that calls for Israel's destruction. To be an accepted player, the international body said, Hamas should first renounce terrorism, accept previously signed peace agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist.

Whether or not the Palestinians are opening a new chapter or simply turning the page in the same playbook is a matter open to widely differing interpretations and viewed with uncertainty.

From the Palestinian point of view, this is a moment that international policymakers should welcome, in large part by showing a keenness to recognize the new Palestinian government-to-be and to engage it by resuming donor aid and full-fledged diplomatic relations.

Senior Hamas legislator Mushir al-Masri told Reuters that a unity government would receive "full Palestinian, Arab, and Islamic legitimacy." As a result, he said, "the entire international community, the Zionist enemy, and the US administration" would have no choice but to deal with this new reality, the news agency reported.

But from the Israeli point of view, this is a time to carefully examine what has changed, and to weigh the decisions of whether Israel, or even parties in the Quartet, is willing to sit at a negotiating table that includes Hamas.

The positive impact of the Mecca pact is already being felt in the West Bank and Gaza, where more than 90 Palestinians have been killed since December as gunmen and kidnapping gangs loyal to either Hamas or Fatah, the mainstream faction of the PLO, set out to establish supremacy in the territories.

But what is far less certain is how the agreement will be received in the weeks to come, regionally and internationally. Moreover, the deal sealed in Saudi Arabia comes at a time when both Mr. Abbas and the Israeli leader, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, are in relatively weak positions vis-á-vis domestic support. The next battle, therefore, may be one of public relations: How Abbas and Mr. Olmert will sell the Mecca agreement to their respective audiences.

"Israel neither rejects nor accepts the agreements," Olmert said in remarks he made at his weekly cabinet meeting. "At this stage, we, like the international community, are learning what was exactly accomplished and what was said."

Most Israeli comments so far seemed equally diplomatic to the point of vague, perhaps because there isn't a clear consensus in Israel as to whether to deal directly with Hamas. Many Israelis deem Hamas a terrorist group – one that it should never consider dealing with.

Others argue that if Hamas can reach and respect a long-term truce, talking is a much better option than living with endless conflict. Hamas remains on the US State Department's list of organizations that sponsor terrorism.

"The [Israeli] government is saying 'yes' and 'no' and 'maybe' all at once," says Peter Medding, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"That's the nature of the issue," Professor Medding says. "I think they don't know what's really happening on the Palestinian side, so it seems that they're closing the door and opening the window. The Quartet is not quite clear where they are and the US hasn't said yes or no, so Israel isn't going to run off and say they think it's a good deal, either."

With both Israelis and Palestinians absorbed in domestic troubles of one sort or another, the big-picture issues of war and peace between the two peoples have hardly been on the agenda.

Palestinians have been absorbed by fighting that skyrocketed after Abbas said he would call for new elections. Israelis have been consumed with corruption scandals and accusations of sexual misconduct by several senior officials, including the president, Moshe Katsav.

A tripartite meeting set for next week between Olmert, Abbas, and US Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice could put an auspicious spin on the unity deal reached in Mecca by indicating new avenues for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

However, Olmert and Abbas will have a difficult time justifying this step forward in a way that will satisfy critics in many corners.

In short, Abbas needs to show Israel and the international community that he's going to be calling the shots, but he also needs to make Hamas and its supporters feel that they continue to sit in their rightfully elected place at the head of the government. Reports indicate that Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh will remain prime minister.

"If [Abbas] fails to convince [the world] to lift the siege from this unity government or at least to give it a chance before refusing to deal with it, then he and his party will lose face for Fatah in the Palestinian street," Palestinian columnist Riyad el-Malki wrote in the Al-Ayyam Newspaper.

"However, if he rejects the American pressure and goes ahead with the agreement he signed in Mecca," Mr. Malki continued, "then he will lose his role as an accepted partner by the Israeli government and the American administration.

"This is a difficult mission for [Abbas], who has to market his Mecca proposal and defend it. Unlike his Hamas partners, who at this point are in a most comfortable situation," he wrote.

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