Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Peace Process On Pause

By Seth Ackerman

"Palestinian leaders are once again in talks on forming a national unity government to end the international siege that has crippled life in the occupied territories. But while meetings between President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas representatives are happening in cities like Cairo and Amman, the real decisions will be made in Washington.

Since Hamas’ victory in last January’s parliamentary elections, the policy of the “international community” has actually been set in the Oval Office. Diplomatic contacts have been frozen, peace talks are indefinitely deferred and international aid has been halted. Even as conditions deteriorate in the territories and fighting between Israel and Palestinian groups escalates, Washington insists there will be no change in policy until Hamas signs on to its famous three demands: It must recognize Israel, renounce violence and sign up to the Road Map.

The media have portrayed Bush’s demands as a way of forcing Hamas to moderate its stance so that peace negotiations with Israel can resume. But the truth is almost exactly the opposite. Over the past year or two, Hamas’ political leadership has pushed the movement towards an unprecedented degree of diplomatic flexibility, despite its continuing militant rhetoric. Last winter, the party campaigned on a platform of supporting peace talks led by Abbas and party leaders have repeatedly pushed for a mutual cease-fire with Israel. While refusing to recognize Israel itself, Hamas’ government program calls for a national referendum on any peace deal that grants recognition to the Jewish state.

But that is precisely what worries Jerusalem and Washington. In any negotiations that happen while Hamas is in power, “the Palestinian positions will stiffen enormously,” as Ha’aretz ’s Danny Rubinstein wrote last year. Yet with Bush’s strong support, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came into office with a plan to keep a permanent grip over East Jerusalem and the three large settlement blocs surrounding it, while evacuating the smaller isolated settlements in the West Bank. Whatever else it might support, Hamas would never give its consent to Olmert’s plan.

Hamas’ leadership has been deeply divided over how just far to go in softening the party’s stance in exchange for international legitimacy and aid. The strategy of moderates like Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has been to nudge the group as far as possible towards a tacit acceptance of Israel without provoking dissent from the group’s more militant members. In exchange, he hopes to win recognition, aid and period of calm, to prove to the hardliners in his own party that pragmatism will yield benefits. On a recent trip to London, Haniyeh’s advisor, Ahmad Yousef, pitched the idea of a 10-year cease-fire with Israel. “We need to change people's minds on how they look at the conflict, and it will take time,” he told The Guardian . “The climate will change if we have a period of peace.”

But the Bush administration has deliberately set demands it knows Hamas can’t swallow. As The New York Times reported last February, the U.S. officials who drafted the conditions “do not expect Hamas to meet them.” Instead, they are determined to force out the elected Palestinian government—peacefully if possible, but if necessary, by fomenting a Palestinian civil war. At a recent meeting of the international diplomatic “Quartet,” General Keith Dayton, the American security envoy, pitched the idea of building up a “Special Presidential Guard” around Abbas to crush Hamas militias in house-to-house fighting. European diplomats at the meeting were appalled, but the Americans are reported to have already begun assembling the force.

Bush’s moves to block a return to the peace table accelerated in September after Palestinian negotiators reached a breakthrough in talks on forming a national unity government. At the risk of alienating hardline elements in his own party, Prime Minister Haniyeh decided to accept the 2002 Arab League peace plan—which calls for full peace and normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for a withdrawal to the 1967 borders—as the diplomatic stance for the new joint government.

Hanyieh was encouraged by signs that key European leaders were willing to resume contacts with a Palestinian government that embraced the formula. But within days, Bush held a White House meeting with Abbas’ advisors to warn that the Arab League plan is “not enough” and that Washington would refuse cooperation with a government formed on those terms. Desperate for U.S. support, Abbas backtracked, insisting publicly that Hamas accept Bush’s three conditions in order for a unity government to go forward.

Since then, the political initiative has returned to the more hardline elements in Hamas led by Damascus-based exile leader Khaled Meshaal. Locked in a rivalry with the increasingly popular prime minister, Meshaal has signaled his interest in a government of technocrats chosen jointly by Fatah and Hamas, which would have the effect of sidelining Haniyeh. Talks are now underway for the so-called “non-political” government and Haniyeh has said he is willing to resign if the move will bring eased conditions for the Palestinian people.

But once again, the decision rests with President Bush. No deal will go forward without guarantees that the international siege will be lifted. With Democrats in full support of Bush’s Mideast policy and Europeans unable to influence Washington, the stalemate could degenerate until the conflict explodes yet again."

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