Focus on the Mecca Accord
Editorial note: As of Feb. 18, news reports indicate a likely continuation of stalemate on the eve of US Secretary of State Rice’s meeting(s) with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Abbas, with Olmert stating that the US and Israel are in agreement on shunning any Palestinian government that doesn’t meet international demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing peace accords and Abbas insisting that his unity government agreement is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
It was last summer, when prisoners from all the major Palestinian factions signed onto the “Prisoners Document,” that people really began talking about a possible Palestinian unity government. Yet, as the year progressed, as Palestinian infighting became more intense, and as various talks fell apart, the prospects for one seemed increasingly unlikely. That is, until about two weeks ago, when talks hosted by Saudi Arabia at last resulted in an agreement. And, though disagreements early this week threatened to inhibit implementation of the Mecca Accord, yesterday, the Hamas government resigned, making way for a new unity government.
Now everyone’s asking “what happens next?” The leaders of Fatah and Hamas had two main reasons for forming such a government: they wanted to put an end to Palestinian infighting, and they wanted to end the economic boycott of the government. Of course, these two factors are not unrelated – the tensions between Fatah and Hamas were amplified by the increasing poverty and malcontent since the West cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority. The unity government will only hold together if Western and Israeli monetary assistance is restored and, likely, if Israel agrees to engage it in peace negotiations. In other words, its success will depend on Western and Israeli interpretations of “who gave in” – Fatah to Hamas or Hamas to Fatah.
On the one hand, some analysts see the unity agreement as a sign of Hamas moderation. Danny Rubinstein wrote this week that, although the Accord did not represent a complete political turnaround for Hamas, the movement is changing. In fact, he argues, it has been slowly doing so since entering into a tahdiya (lull – in fighting) in March 2005. Similarly, Zvi Bar’el noted that Hamas has been toning down its religious rhetoric in political situations and that there are no religious clauses whatsoever in the Mecca Accord.
Other analysts view the unity agreement as a step backward for Fatah. The Mecca Accord calls for Hamas to respect or honor past peace agreements with Israel, but when, and if, the unity government is formed, it will not necessarily recognize the Jewish state or renounce the use of terrorism against it. Indeed, Hamas will continue to hold a plurality of seats [ministries] in the government.
As a result, the US and the UK will be disinclined to end their economic boycott. British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett said last week that London will continue to withhold aid until Hamas recognizes Israel and gives up violence. And there appears to be little change in the US position as well. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stated that the US will only deal with those Palestinian officials who agree to the three “benchmarks” (recognizing Israel, recognizing past agreements, renouncing violence) for normalization, and many Jewish groups are continuing to advocate for pressure on Hamas. For its part, Israel is said to be reviewing ties to Fatah President Mahmoud Abbas and its position on the Palestinian government. On the other hand, various Israeli and Arab experts question the wisdom of continuing the boycott.
In general, however, both Israel and the US are taking a “wait and see” approach, with Olmert stating that his government has neither rejected nor accepted the Mecca Accord. Abbas has given Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh five weeks to set up a new government, and Israel and the West will probably not draw any conclusions until then.
For this reason, the summit between Rice, Olmert, and Abbas, planned for this coming Monday, is unlikely to yield much in the way of results. Aluf Benn, for one, writes that Yitzhak Rabin would have called the summit bablat (“hot air”) because nothing will come of it.
In the meantime, while everyone waits for the government to form, there are several things to keep in mind. Certainly, the success of the unity government does not depend solely on the international community – the Palestinians will also have themselves to blame if it fails – but Israel and the West can do a great deal to turn its creation into a positive. The Palestinians already believe that the Olmert government is seeking anarchy in Palestine. A refusal to deal with the new government may only help fuel this claim and intensify Palestinian frustration.
In addition, an editorial in this week’s Forward makes a significant observation. Although Hamas has not met the international community’s conditions, the unity government will, de facto, recognize Israel – after all, past peace agreements include this recognition. This understanding may help remove one obstacle to aid and negotiations.
Perhaps if the unity government is given a chance, we’ll find that both Fatah and Hamas “gave in” and created something the Israelis can work with. As Afif Safieh, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization Mission to the US, observed in this week’s Forward, that, because of the agreement, the Palestinian government will be more representative of the Palestinian people and both Fatah and Hamas are willing to negotiate for the sake of those people. Maybe the unity government will fail, or maybe Israel will be unable to agree to its terms in negotiations, but, at the very least, hopefully it will bring a period of calm and relative stability to the Palestinian people.
To read Meretz USA’s statement on the Mecca Accord, please click here.
ALSO OF NOTE:
# The past couple weeks have seen unrest in the Jerusalem area. Last Friday, hundreds of Muslims gathered in the Old City of Jerusalem to protest the construction of a new bridge to the Temple Mount. The Jewish Quarter Development Company subsequently withdrew its request for construction, then declared it would proceed as planned. To see a summary of this issue, click here.