Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

"The Mecca Agreement and Palestinian unity, Part 2 of 2," March 26, 2007

Last week we were following the trail of a US attempt to bring down the Hamas government in Palestine by providing arms, ammunition and training to Fatah party militias.

Palestinian President of Arafat's Fatah party Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) had threatened to call early elections in an attempt to have a second shot at defeating Hamas at the polls. On December 24, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin told the Israeli cabinet that if elections were called, “Fatah's chances of winning would be close to zero.” (Ha'aretz)

As an aside, two Palestinan polls shortly after that meeting suggest that Diskin's assessment was inaccurate.

The first, taken by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion between the 2nd and 9th of this January found that 59.5 per cent of respondents were in favour of a presidential election at that time. The second, conducted between January 12 and 15 by Ramallah's Near East Consulting, showed that 40.2 per cent of respondents would have voted for Fatah in legislative elections. Hamas was a weak second with 23 per cent. According to that same survey, Abu Mazen was the top presidential contender with 38.4 per cent. Ismael Haniyeh, the current Prime Minister was a distant third with 18.4 per cent.

Around the same time Hamas had intercepted truckloads of M-14 rifles being shipped to Fatah militias. Caught in the act, Fatah tried to bluff saying the trucks contained only medical supplies and tents. Hamas called the bluff, offering to return the pills and tents but keep the rifles.

That led to Fatah's torching of the Islamic University in Gaza and Hamas's retaliation, which was to capture three Fatah-run police stations.

Saudi King Abdullah, fearing unrest in his own Sunni street, decided to step in with a plan devised by his national security advisor, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. By the morning of February 6, large contingents from both Fatah and Hamas began meeting in Mecca to negotiate the end of what was beginning to look like a Palestinian civil war.

Mark Perry, editor of The Palestine Report and Alastair Crooke with nearly thirty years experience in MI6, describe the meeting as a break with the US. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of such a break if indeed that is what it was. Abdullah and Bandar have long been supporters of US foreign policy in the Middle East, especially since September 11, 2001. This is the same Prince Bandar who, during Reagan's presidency, was exposed as an intermediary in the Iran-Contra affair. He arranged for thirty-two million dollars in Saudi financing for the Nicaraguan Contras.

Still, the Mecca meeting had the potential to become a defining moment. Abdullah had made it clear that he believed Arab problems should be solved by Arabs, without the Americans or the West. He also knew that in coming to Mecca, Abu Mazen was rejecting Abrams' program of civil war against Hamas.

For his part, the Saudi Abdullah pledged an immediate transfusion of $500 to $650 million through the Palestinian Authority's Finance Ministry, to pay for salaries. Up to 1 billion would be on the way. The PA no longer needed US or European money.

The positive response among international diplomats was nearly unanimous, except in Israel and the US.

Crooke and Perry, believe the Mecca Agreement "confused" the Americans. A recent article in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh takes this observation a step further, describing a shift in American policy that one of his sources, a Pentagon consultant, calls a “Rube Goldberg policy contraption for fixing the Middle East.”

In what may be acts of near-desperation, the US has undertaken clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria which have had the effect of moving the US closer to an open confrontation with Iran and strengthening Sunni groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam, that are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

The Israelis were "taken aback." On February 19, Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni said, quote "The agreements between Hamas and (Mahmoud Abbas) disappoint all who supported separating the extremists from the moderates and creating an alternative government in the Palestinian Authority."

Martin Indyk, a former US Ambassador to Israel, notes that quote “The President sees the region as divided between moderates and extremists, but our regional friends see it as divided between Sunnis and Shia. The Sunnis that we view as extremists are regarded by our Sunni allies simply as Sunnis.” Smadar Perry, editor of the right-wing Yediot Aharonot, points out that “Israel was barely mentioned at the Mecca summit.”

All of which underscores that this is not a story about what kind of government Israel or the US--or the EU or Canada--want to see. It's a story about the Palestinians and how an Arab monarchy came to the rescue of a new Sunni democracy.

To be sure, Palestinian solidarity will make occupation a lot more difficult for Israel.

It remains to be seen whether Hamas's offer of a long-term ceasefire—possibly of indefinite duration—may be another opportunity lost.

If the opportunity for the traditional “two state solution” with Palestinians and Israelis living side-by-side in peace isn't already gone, it is certainly widely believed that to be slipping away—though it was recently affirmec by the the UN.

Israel may have to choose between one secular state between Jordan River and the Mediterranean with equal opportunity for all or two equal states both fully armed, sometimes at peace, sometimes at war, like their other neighbours. But those options still lurk in the future.

As Smadar Perry observes, it's also a story about competition for leadership of the Muslim world between the Saudis and Iran.

According to Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke, Elliott Abrams was "enraged" by the Saudi intervention, probably because he was, in their view, the main loser in the Mecca Agreement.

However, the urgency of the situation was indicated in another of Crooke's articles on Hamas, where he predicts if Hamas is forced to abandon institutional politics, it will not be supplanted by Fatah, but by al-Qaeda. Of course, some vocal members of the public view all these groups as pretty much the same, which is how opportunities for containment--and ultimately even peace--are lost almost as soon as they arise.

In the view of Yossi Alpher, the Israeli editor of Bitter Lemons, the Mecca Agreement "reinforces the Saudi message to the Bush administration in Washington, first issued a few months ago when Riyadh threatened to provide military support to Iraq's Sunnis if the US withdrew precipitously” (Feb 12 07).

According to Smadar Perry, Hamas was not as desperate for the money as we had been led to believe. (Bitter Lemons Feb 12 07). Still thousands of teachers and civil servants have not been paid, tens of thousands fall outside the scope of TIM (the Temporary International Mechanism) which Canada and others use to keep aid money out of Hamas's hands. And A humanitarian crisis is building.

In a report for the New York Review of Books on the medical crisis in the Occupied Territories, Richard Horton says, the so-called Temporary International Mechanism "is already judged to have failed to ensure the supply of essential medicines." The UK's House of Commons International Development Committee has called for an exemption of the health sector from a financial boycott of the Palestinian Authority. (January 31, 2007).

Despite all this, the Saudis were in no position to insist that the Palestinian unity government recognize Israel. Neither was Fatah. So the unity government doesn't recognize Israel. It reaffirms the Palestinian right to resist the occupation, and instead of quote “accepting” previous agreements with Israel, it agrees to quote “respect” them, a word that seems to be causing a lot of uncertainty in Western governments.

Nevertheless, France has asked the EU to reconsider the issue of aid for the Palestinians. Russia has expressed the hope that the new Palestinian government will “"pave the way for establishing constructive cooperation between the PNA and the international community" (RIA Novosti Mar 22 07).

On Monday, Norway restored full relations with the Palestinian Authority. (Al Jazeera Mar 19 07)

Uri Avnery believes the newly formed Palestinian government “has a good chance of being strong and stable” while Perry and Crooke argue that "the Mecca agreement symbolizes a setback for US policies" in the Middle East.

Alpher also sees an indication “that the Sunni Arab world is taking its distance from failed American policies in the region;" Horton sees an “element of hope.”

The Mecca Agreement and the announcement of a Palestinian unity government have led to increased discussion of the 2002 Saudi peace initiative. Listeners will recall that this proposal would entail the simultaneous implementation of a complete end to the occupation and establishment of an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders in exchange for a comprehensive peace and normalized relations, with all Arab countries without exception. This plan has already been approved by the Arab League.

Horton concludes that "Palestinians have an undimmed engagement with their future. Discouraged and immobilized they may be, but their commitment to the creation of a Palestinian homeland—a nation-state —remains very much intact. Every conversation I had about health turned to politics sooner or later, [Horton says] and usually with heightened passion. Palestinian health workers are not passive observers in a political process. Through civil society organizations such as the Palestinian Medical Relief Society and the Union of Health Work Committees, they are daily inventing the systems and institutions to protect the health of their people now and in the future. In short, Palestinians are laying the foundation for sustainable self-reliance in a territory where people have reluctantly come to understand that they can rely on no one but themselves. The struggle over Palestine was once a battle against an occupier over territorial self-determination. It is now an urgent fight for self-preservation" (NYRB Mar 15 07).

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