Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Fatah-Hamas Reconciliation Looking Distant

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

CAIRO, May 11 2009 (IPS) - Doubts have arisen about a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation ahead of a new round of talks. The last talks between the two Palestinian factions failed to bridge outstanding differences.

“The talks yielded agreement on some points,” an official Egyptian source was quoted as saying in the state press. “But other major issues remain under discussion by the two factions’ respective leaders.”

On Apr. 27 and 28, delegations from the two groups held a series of closed- door discussions in Cairo – in the presence of Egyptian mediators – aimed at laying the groundwork for a Palestinian national unity government. The meetings represented the fourth round of Egypt-sponsored reconciliation talks between Fatah, led by U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, and resistance faction Hamas.

Despite claims by Egyptian officialdom that discussions had been “positive”, the talks wrapped up without reports of significant breakthrough. According to officials quoted in the state press, a fifth round of talks has been scheduled for May 16 and 17.

At an earlier round of talks in mid-March, Palestinian factions agreed to hold presidential and legislative elections next January. But the two sides remain deadlocked on core issues.

“There are still outstanding differences over the shape of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation), which is currently dominated by Fatah, oversight of the security and intelligence services, and the details regarding upcoming elections,” Tarek Fahmi, political science professor at Cairo University and head of the Israel desk at the Cairo-based National Centre for Middle East Studies told IPS.

Ever since Hamas won an outright majority in 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, the two factions have pursued bitter rivalry featuring intermittent fighting and tit-for-tat arrests. Mutual hostility boiled over in the summer of 2007, when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Fatah-led PA in a pre-emptive coup.

Since then, Hamas has governed the Gaza Strip, while Fatah has continued to control the West Bank from Ramallah. Further complicating the situation, Israel and Egypt – with the PA’s blessings – have both sealed their borders with the Gaza Strip, effectively cutting off the coastal enclave from the rest of the world.

During the latest round of talks, Egyptian officials reportedly proposed the formation of a joint committee – comprised of representatives of Fatah, Hamas and other major Palestinian factions – that would be mandated to coordinate between the rival governments until elections are held. Under the terms of the proposal, the committee’s authority would supersede that of both the PA and Hamas.

But the idea met with cold reception from Fatah. “We’ve put the (Egyptian) proposal on the backburner for the time being,” Fatah delegation member Azzam Al-Ahmed was quoted as saying Apr. 28. “If no progress is made in the fifth round of talks, though, we’ll consider it.”

According to Hamas, Fatah’s response to the proposal reflects a desire by Abbas – whose presidential term officially ended in January – to maintain his longstanding monopoly on Palestinian leadership.

“Fatah rejected the Egyptian proposal, and demands that any joint committee be under the total authority of Abbas and his government,” Hamas delegation member Ezzet Rashk was quoted as saying the same day.

Ultimately, though, the overriding difference between the two factions hinges on their respective approaches to Israel and the longstanding Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

Fatah insists that any new governing body adhere to conditions set by the “quartet” (the U.S., EU, Russia and the UN), which include recognition of Israel, compliance with past PLO agreements and the renunciation of armed resistance. What’s more, Fatah is committed to negotiating with Israel in hope of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement – even though Abbas’s previous “peace talks” with Israeli counterparts entirely failed to yield results.

Hamas, by contrast, adamantly refuses to recognise Israel, which it views as an illegitimate occupying power. On the eve of the talks, Damascus-based Hamas leader Mohamed Nasr said that conditioning Palestinian unity on the quartet’s plans “effectively places a veto on reconciliation.”

Tellingly, however, this critical issue – some would call it the central issue – was not broached at the most recent round of talks.

Along with its efforts at Palestinian reconciliation, Egypt is also struggling to come to terms with Israel’s newly elected right-wing government. Having assumed power in late March, the new Israeli administration is led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and includes firebrand Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister.

For Egypt, Lieberman in particular – already notorious in the Arab world for making radical statements – represents a major diplomatic headache. In 2001, he called for Israel to bomb Egypt’s High Dam; late last year, he said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could “go to hell” for declining to visit Israel.

On Apr. 22, Egypt’s intelligence chief Omar Suleiman – who is also managing Egypt’s Fatah-Hamas mediation efforts – visited Israel, where he met with Netanyahu, Lieberman, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli President Shimon Peres.

The next day, Mubarak denied rumours that Suleiman had invited Lieberman to Cairo for talks. “Israeli prime ministers always come (to Cairo) by themselves…not accompanied by other ministers,” Mubarak said in a televised address.

An official source quoted in independent daily Al-Masri Al-Youm Apr. 24 drove the point home. “Suleiman only extended his invitation to Netanyahu and Barak – not to Lieberman,” he said.

On May 2, Netanyahu’s office confirmed that the Israeli PM would be visiting Cairo – accompanied only by his staff – just before a scheduled trip to the U.S. on May 18.

“Egyptian officialdom refuses to deal with Lieberman for several reasons, including his many extreme statements,” said Fahmi. “(Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed) Aboul-Gheit said recently that Egypt ‘would deal with the Israeli government, but not with Lieberman’.

“Netanyahu’s planned visits to Cairo and Washington will most likely be of an exploratory nature to determine their respective positions on the peace process,” added Fahmi. “But given Netanyahu’s personal opposition to peace talks, I doubt his trips will yield anything particularly constructive.”

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