- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2007

The ink on the Feb. 8 Mecca accord reached between Fatah and Hamas calling for a government of national unity in Palestine and a cessation of hostilities between the two groups had barely time to dry that already it appears the deal is set to sail into troubled waters.

The Mecca meeting was convened at the initiative of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who hoped he could use his influence — and his financial leverage over the opposing Palestinians — to sway them into accepting a peaceful resolution to their differences, rather than risk falling into a full-fledged civil war.

But no sooner had Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh returned to their respective enclaves — Mr. Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah and Mr. Haniyeh to the Gaza Strip — than fissures in the Mecca deal began to appear.

The first snag came when Hamas declared it would never recognize Israel. To survive economically, the Palestinians have relied on financial assistance from the United States and the European Union, and on Israel to release millions of dollars it collects in import tax on behalf of the Palestinians. Israel has withheld several tens of millions of dollars the Palestinian Authority (PA) needs to pay its civil servants.

Yet so long as Hamas, which holds the prime ministership, continues to deny the existence of the state of Israel and of its right to exist, those badly needed funds will not be delivered, with the result that greater hardships lie in store for the already cash-strapped Palestinians.

Speaking to reporters after the weekly Sunday Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said President Bush had promised Israel the United States would boycott any new Palestinian unity government that failed to recognize Israel, renounce violence and respect existing agreements already signed between the Palestinians and Israel.

Mr. Olmert told Cabinet members he had spoken to President Bush by phone, who had given the Israeli prime minister assurances of U.S. support. “The American and Israeli positions are totally identical on this issue,” said Mr. Olmert.

This new complication in Israeli-Palestinian relations, or lack thereof, raises the bar on talks Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to hold in Jerusalem on Monday with Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas, the PA’s Fatah president.

Miss Rice acknowledged Saturday night that her mission to the Middle East comes at a “complicated time.” But she added: “I have said that if one waited for the perfect time to come to the Middle East, perhaps you wouldn’t get on an airplane.”

While the Mecca agreement does not refer to Israel by name, it cleverly states that the parties are “obliged” to “respect existing agreements.”

On this point, the nonrecognition of Israel by Hamas, hinges the future of the Palestinian-Palestinian deal and the chances of a slow march toward a peaceful settlement of a crisis that could well re-ignite in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is dominant, and to a lesser degree in the West Bank, where Fatah is in the majority.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Miss Rice in Jerusalem Sunday, Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called the current situation “a very sensitive point in time after the agreements between Fatah and Hamas and before the formation of the future Palestinian government, as the understandings do not meet the requirements of the international community.”

Later in Ramallah where she traveled Sunday for talks with Mr. Abbas, Miss Rice said she hoped Sunday’s meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials would open the door to “commit and recommit to existing peace agreements.”

That may be wishful thinking on her part.

The two Palestinian factions, the secularist Fatah and the Islamist Hamas, are still miles apart in their political thinking. Complicating the matter some more are the diverging stances taken by each of the four parties of the so-called Quartet — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

Although all four groups have said any new Palestinian government must accept the Quartet’s three principles: full recognition of Israel’s right to exist, rejecting terrorism and accepting and respecting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, some European officials have hinted they might settle for less than an explicit recognition of Israel by Hamas.

In any case, it seems Hamas has bought itself some breathing space. The question is for how long?

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.


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