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Mideast Diplomacy Gets another Shot

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: March 27, 2007

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After a strife-filled year of divided leadership, the Palestinian Authority has finally agreed to a unity government (al-Jazeera) in which rival political parties Hamas and Fatah will share power. On March 18, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh outlined the new government’s platform, which says “ending the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories” is the key to security and stability in the region. Of course, negotiating with Israel is another matter. Israel released its own statement explaining that because the Palestinian government has not officially recognized Israel’s right to exist, renounced violence, or affirmed previous agreements, “Israel will not be able to work with the government or any of its ministers.” Israel will, however, continue to negotiate with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Enter U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose weekend trip to the region included talks with both the Palestinian and Israeli camps. The result of this "shuttle diplomacy" (FT) is an agreement by Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to hold biweekly meetings. Rice's efforts reveal fissures between Washington and Jerusalem, with some Israelis objecting that her plan is "not in keeping with Israel's policies" (Haaretz). The Washington Institute’s David Makovsky examines the implications for U.S.-Israeli cooperation.

Rice finds herself among the growing ranks of Western officials interested in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority—though not with members of the Hamas party—bringing to an end a yearlong diplomatic boycott (FT). (U.S. and Israeli officials did meet with President Abbas, but refused to meet representatives of the Hamas-led government.) An International Crisis Group report examines how to engage Hamas after its agreement with Fatah. Such diplomatic efforts leave Israel looking isolated (Guardian). An ISN Security Watch commentary describes Olmert’s government as “rudderless.”  

Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders are pushing for the removal of a financial blockade, which over the last year caused government workers to go unpaid and helped stoke tensions between Hamas and Fatah. Despite sanctions, international donations to Palestinians—the vast majority from the United States and the European Union—reached $1.2 billion (AP) last year, up 20 percent from 2005. To bypass the Hamas government, much of that money was funneled in through independent organizations and thus was distributed less effectively, UN officials say.

Hamas’ leader, Khaled Meshaal, expressed optimism that this week’s summit of twenty-three Arab League member states will help advance efforts (Reuters) to alleviate the Palestinian government’s financial woes. Two Mideast experts, Daniel Kurtzer and Rosemary Hollis, say the summit also presents an opportunity for regional accord. “The gaps between Israel and the Arabs have never been narrower,” they write in International Herald Tribune. “The international Quartet—the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations—must seize the moment and act swiftly to make a breakthrough.”

Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl has little hope for such a rosy outcome, pointing out that “conditions are anything but ripe.” Lingering, deep faults within the Palestinian camp—evidenced by a March 22 shootout (al-Jazeera) between Hamas and Fatah loyalists—help bolster such pessimism.

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