For Palestinians, Negotiations On Two Fronts
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For Palestinians, Negotiations On Two Fronts

TThe agreement in Mecca reached between Hamas and Fatah last week halted internecine warfare between the two groups but it failed to finalize the platform or makeup of their new coalition government, thereby casting doubt on the success of Monday’s Israeli-Palestinian summit in JerusalemSome Israeli officials reportedly sought to postpone the meeting, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who convened the summit, was said to have insisted that it proceed. Few expect anything positive.

“Unless something dramatic happens at this meeting, we will have forgotten it in two weeks,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

Meir Shetreet, Israel’s housing minister, told a meeting of the Israel Policy Forum here last week: “I have no expectations from that meeting.”

But Fred Lazin, chairman of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said the very fact that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas actually meet “will be a good thing.”

"I don’t think anything substantive will come out of their talk, but their talk is what is important,” he said.

There have been reports that the Palestinians would use the meeting to release Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, who was abducted last June 25 in a cross-border raid near the Gaza Strip by a group of terrorists, including Hamas. Two other Israeli soldiers were killed during the surprise attack. “It may happen,” said Steinberg, “but there is a long history of rumors and until he is released he is not.”

In return for his release, Israel is expected to release as many as 1,500 Palestinian prisoners. Steinberg said such a release is certain to trigger protests from the families of terror victims who would complain that Israel was “paying too high a price” for Shalit’s release.

Others insist that the meeting could be productive if Israel uses it to allow Abbas to explain his role in the proposed coalition government and where it stands on the peace process.

“Does he feel empowered by the agreement or weakened?” Yossi Alpher, editor of bitterlemons.org, said he wanted to know.

“The summit is poorly timed,” he said. “It would make more sense to hold another meeting after the Mecca agreement has been implemented.”

Although the Mecca agreement lays out principles for cooperation, implementation still needs to be worked out and the longstanding mistrust between Fatah and Hamas is liable to sow tension between Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

“When the CEOs of two major companies agree to merge, they leave the details to their staff, and that is what happened in Mecca,” said Elias Zananiri, a former interior ministry spokesman under the government of Abbas. “The devil is always in the details.”

The most sensitive pitfall may lie with the planned overhaul of Palestinian security forces and the appointment of an Interior Minister to oversee the job. But Professor Eitan Alimi, who teaches conflict resolution at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he was not even sure the coalition government would ever get off the ground.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it leads to nothing,” he said. “It’s the first time that Abu Mazen showed a sign that he is willing to collaborate with Hamas, which is troubling for Israel because we have a lot of troubles coming to terms with having Hamas as a partner on the other side.” Khalid Rashidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, said he too was not certain a coalition government would be formed.

“They were trying to do two things [at the Mecca conference]: solve an internal Palestinian conflict and resolve an issue of external influence on Palestinian politics from Iran and Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Rashidi added that until Palestinians resolved to stop killing each other — about 90 were killed in recent weeks — international issues could not be addressed.

Stephen P. Cohen, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, said he believes that what was accomplished at Mecca was a cease-fire.

“I’m not sure I’d call it a coalition” government, he said. “There has been a temporary cooling down that may lead to some form of a coalition government.”

Cohen said both Hamas and Fatah jumped at the Saudi offer to hold talks in Mecca because they were “two forces that were exhausted and resource-less.”

“And the Arab world didn’t feel that this was something it could continue to tolerate — the Palestinian movement in this kind of state,” he observed.

Zalman Shoval, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S., implied that the proposed new government is nothing more than a Hamas attempt to use Abbas as a fig leaf to convince the international community to resume aid to the Palestinian people.

“There will be a Hamas-led government under the guise of a national unity government,” he said. As a result, Olmert should tell Abbas at the beginning of the meeting that unless the new government agrees to the three international conditions — renounce violence, accept prior Israeli-Palestinian agreements and recognize Israel — “then there is no use for these talks.”

The Quartet — the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — is slated to meet in Washington next Wednesday and an Israeli Foreign Ministry official expressed confidence that the international boycott of the Palestinian Authority would continue until the proposed new government meets the three conditions. Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, said the Israeli government hopes Rice’s visit would provide the opportunity to “look for ways to make progress and see if under the current circumstances we can create a situation in which there is no violence.”

There have been reports that the Olmert government is on the verge of ignoring the demand that Hamas recognize Israel and prior agreements to focus instead on its actions. Alimi said that would be a “very promising development,” because there is evidence local Hamas members are more willing than those in exile to make compromises. But Steinberg, the Bar-Ilan professor, said that “if Olmert moves that way he is taking a huge risk.”“There is an understanding that Israel is expected to show flexibility,” he said. “There have been discussions in the government about relaxing specific language requirements. We don’t need Hamas’ recognition, but there has to be an acceptance to fight terrorism — visible security movements. And there is no reason to expect it.”

Israel correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report.

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