Report on Palestine

Will the Quartet Recognize the Changed Palestinian Reality?
by Nadia Hijab
February 17, 2007
Institute for Palestine Studies, Policy Note No. 12

So far the Quartet response to the Palestinian Mecca agreement on 8 February 2007 has treated it much as the US treated a short-lived unity agreement last September. But both Fatah and Hamas are ready for peace if Israel is ready to end its occupation and have said so officially and unofficially, including in a leaked Hamas document late last year. And there is growing Arab and European insistence on resolving the conflict. The Institute’s Senior Fellow Nadia Hijab argues that these are the signals the Quartet should consider when it reconvenes in Berlin on February 21 after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

On 11 September 2006, there was brief Palestinian agreement on a unity government. Fatah and Hamas had discussed cabinet seats; Hamas had said it would accept past agreements that were “in the national interest of the Palestinian people;” a ceasefire with Israel would have been reaffirmed. That achievement was scuttled because the US insisted on the letter of the three demands made by the Quartet (US, Russia, the EU, and the United Nations) in order to lift sanctions against dealing with the Palestinian Authority after the January 2006 election of Hamas to government: recognize Israel, recognize past agreements with Israel, and renounce violence. Rice so informed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN General Assembly that September. [1]

Palestinians Want Sanctions Lifted But Put Premium on Unity

The 8 February Mecca agreement still does not meet the letter of the Quartet demands although Hamas has inched closer to them. For example, instead of the earlier formulation, Hamas agreed to “respect” past peace agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which do recognize Israel. In addition, Hamas has abided by several ceasefires in the past, and, since November 2006, a ceasefire has largely held between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, although Israel continues to assassinate and arrest Palestinians in the West Bank. Yet Hamas would not be able to recognize Israel outright in the absence of Israel’s ending the occupation and agreement on issues such as the Palestinian right of return and the status of Jerusalem. There is evidence that Hamas would do so if there were such an agreement, including credible reports in December 2006 that a key advisor had fleshed out the broad lines of a five-year hudna (truce) with Israel that would lead to recognition (see below).

The Palestinians, whose need for unity is more pressing even than lifting the Quartet’s sanctions, have pressed on with implementation of the Mecca agreement. Abbas on February 15 designated outgoing Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, to form a new government that divides posts between Hamas, Fateh, and independents. Haniyeh has up to five weeks to do so.

The US is Unhappy But Nuanced

Although the US Administration was unhappy about the deal and the Quartet’s demands were reaffirmed, Rice did not cancel her Middle East trip. Indeed, the US had reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert not to dismiss the Mecca agreement out of hand so that the trilateral meeting between Rice, Abbas, and Olmert could go ahead. [2] Rice also said the US would continue to view Abbas as a partner even if Fatah sat in a unity government with Hamas.

These mixed US signals came because the Administration, mired in Iraq and threatening action against Iran, is keen to at least give the appearance of movement towards peace to respond to Arab and European unhappiness with the status quo. The initiative by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to mediate between the Palestinian groups builds on earlier efforts by Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, which all share a desire to avoid spiraling chaos. However differently it views these Arab countries, the US cannot afford to ignore the Saudi initiative.

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