An agreement between Fatah and Hamas that unites Palestinian factions that have fought each other for years has turned the Arab-Israeli peace process on its ear.
In a decisive move Monday in Doha, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal accepted a proposal of the Emir of Qatar that would make Mr. Abbas prime minister of an interim unity government. The agreement overcomes a fundamental difference over who would run the interim authority that had split the two factions and also paves the way for elections in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But, by moving to unite with the militant Hamas movement, Mr. Abbas appears to have concluded he is willing to abandon any attempt at peace talks with the current hardline Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mr. Abbas is “well aware,” said Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher in his Bitter Lemons blog Monday, “that the gaps in final status positions between the PLO and Israel were unbridgeable and that Washington had no realistic vision for altering the situation.”
In short, he had little to lose.
Indeed, Mr. Netanyahu was quick to denounce the Doha Declaration.
“Hamas is a terrorist organization that strives to destroy Israel, and which is supported by Iran,” he said. “I have said many times in the past that the Palestinian Authority must choose between an alliance with Hamas and peace with Israel. Hamas and peace do not go together. “
Mr. Alpher argues that such a point of view ignores the “metamorphosis of Hamas.”
The militant organization has “moderated its tone toward Israel” and even its process of reconciliation with the PLO’s ruling Fatah faction implies an acceptance of the PLO’s agreements with Israel, including recognition of Israel, said Mr. Alpher, a former senior official in the Mossad and a director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Hamas under Mr. Meshaal may have moderated, but the group still is wincing from the rejection it endured after coming out on top in a free and fair election in 2006. It looks forward to new elections and hopes that in the spirit of the “Arab Spring,” its victory, should it happen, will be accepted this time.
The European Union, a major financial backer of the Palestinian Authority, appeared to signal its willingness to do so.
The European Union “looks forward to continuing its support,” provided the new Palestinian government is committed to nonviolence, recognizes Israel and supports a negotiated solution to the Mideast conflict, said Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Monday’s breakthrough came after two days of meetings between Mr. Abbas and Mr. Meshaal, hosted by the Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
The biggest single hurdle to overcome was Hamas’s rejection of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as the one to head the interim unity government. Until Monday, Mr. Abbas, with one eye on Washington and other Western capitals, had insisted on Mr. Fayyad filling the role.
But while many in the West look favourably on the U.S.-trained economist and his impressive success in building the infrastructure of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Hamas regards Mr. Fayyad as the enemy. It’s been under his watch that Palestinian security forces have frequently rounded up Hamas activists, and held them in Palestinian prison without charge.
In agreeing to the Qatar proposal that he, himself, run the unity government, Mr. Abbas hopes that he will be an acceptable second choice in the eyes of the West.
The Qatari accord is just the latest influential initiative by the tiny Gulf emirate.
It was Qatar that helped finance the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, now that country’s largest elected political party, and that is aiding the Islamist government now in Tunisia. And it was Qatar that led the Arab League to denounce the Libyan regime of Moammar Gadhafi, and trigger NATO’s forceful entry into the Libyan civil war.
It also is Qatar that is driving the Arab League initiative against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, threatening to put Arab troops into the fight and supporting the opposition’s largest single group: the Muslim Brotherhood.
Now, in orchestrating the formation of a government of unity in the Palestinian territories, the royal family of Qatar has closed the gap in its crescent of influence that stretches from Tunisia to Syria.,
At the same time, they have effectively replaced Iran as the outside country with the greatest influence over Hamas.