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In Gaza: New Leader, Old Problems

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
November 13, 2006

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After months of political infighting, international sanctions, and incessant Israeli military strikes, a reprieve of sorts for the divided Palestinian Authority (PA) appears imminent. The rival Fatah and Hamas factions of the PA seem to have finally agreed on a unity government. Tapped to lead the new government is Mohammed Shabir, a U.S.-educated biologist with no official ties to either major party (al-Jazeera). In an interview with Haaretz, Shabir said that while he is independent, he maintains “sound relations with all.” David Makovsky, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman that while little is certain, a new Palestinian government marks “a potential turning point” that bodes well for the region, though he cautions that a potential U.S. change of tack on Iran has prompted “nervousness in Jerusalem.”  

Along with Shabir, the new Palestinian cabinet will likely include a number of other moderates in an effort to placate Western donors who cut off aid when Hamas won the January elections (Haaretz). Though finalizing the new government may take several weeks, Palestinian leaders hope fresh leadership can entice the United States and European Union to lift their crippling sanctions against the PA. But an influx of funding will hardly resolve the plethora of problems facing the Palestinians. Unity government or not, Palestinians remain divided over such hot-button issues as the recognition of the Israeli state, particularly after errant Israeli artillery fire killed eighteen Palestinians in Gaza last week (BBC). Furthermore, Palestinian militants still hold captive the Israeli soldier who was abducted in June. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he’s ready to swap prisoners (JPost), but such a deal has yet to materialize.

At least some help is on the way for Palestinians. On Sunday, a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo ended with a call for an international peace conference (Daily Star) to focus on the Arab-Israeli dispute and a pledge of financial support for the Palestinian Authority. But regional security will require more progress: In a September speech, “Building Security in the Broader Middle East,” State Department Counselor Philip D. Zelikow explained that dealing with Iran will require a large coalition, the formation of which hinges on the United States’ ability to make advances on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As it stands, writes Washington Post op-ed columnist Jackson Diehl, “Iran is winning—not just in preserving its nuclear program but in a broader contest over the direction of the Middle East.”

When Olmert met President Bush on Monday, much of their conversation focused on Iran. Shifting political winds in the United States make direct talks with Iran—something advocated by Defense Secretary nominee Robert M. Gates in a 2004 CFR Task Force Report—increasingly likely. This, Makovsky tells Gwertzman, is likely to be a sore spot in U.S.-Israeli relations. Olmert told NBC’s Today Show that he is open to U.S.-Iranian dialogue: “Every compromise that will stop Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities which will be acceptable to President Bush will be acceptable to me.” But such a stance exposes an already flailing Olmert to even more domestic criticism; a Jerusalem Post editorial calls hopes of a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat “fantasy.”

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