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Malley: Palestinian Unity Government Opens Way to Possible Agreement With Israel

Interviewee: Robert Malley, International Crisis Group
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 14, 2007

Robert Malley, an expert on Middle East policy, and a former senior aide to President Clinton on Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, says the recent agreement between Fatah and Hamas for a unity government should be encouraged as the best way to bring about an agreement with Israel.

The rival Palestinian groups, Fatah and Hamas, have signed an agreement in Mecca that was mediated by Saudi King Abdullah. First of all, do you think there’s a good chance such a unity government will emerge, and will it be attractive enough that the Europeans and the Americans and the Israelis might want to deal with it?

The odds now—for the first time in a long time—are good that there will be a national unity government thanks to Saudi mediation and pressure. Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean the formation of the national unity government will survive the preexisting tensions on the ground, and whatever future tensions may arise over unresolved issues that have nothing to do with the government, but have to do with representation within the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] and overall structure of the security services. We know the outline of the government. We know who’ll be heading it [Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh]. We have a pretty good idea of who the members will be. As I said, that was a prerequisite, a necessary condition, but it’s not necessarily a sufficient condition for stability to be restored.

Who would be handling foreign policy?

They’ve already agreed the foreign minister will be Ziad Abu Amr, an independent who has the distinction of being close to President [Mahmoud] Abbas who, in fact, selected him to be the negotiator with Hamas. But he was elected in Gaza to the parliament with Hamas support. He’s certainly acceptable to both sides. And from everything I know, he’s acceptable to the international community, and particularly to the United States. He’s a good face for the Palestinian government and its relations with the outside world.

The two issues which are not really being discussed as much in the press, but which are really the ones that in my view are at the core of the struggle between Fatah and Hamas are, number one, the question of representation of the Palestinian national movement, which, ever since Yasir Arafat emerged on the scene, has been clearly in the hands of Fatah. Now for the first time, there is this question of what role Hamas will play in the Palestine Liberation Organization. There’s an agreement that it will join, but will they agree on how much power they’ll have and what level of representation they’ll have? The second question is, who is going to police the Palestinian territories, and to what extent will Hamas’ force, the Executive Security Force—which Hamas created as an independent force—going to be integrated into preexisting Palestinian security forces? To what extent are those Palestinian security forces going to become depoliticized, affiliated neither with Hamas or Fatah? That’s the other big elephant that wasn’t resolved by the Mecca agreement. So the Mecca agreement basically was a way for both parties, under Saudi pressure, to say, “We’re going to agree on what we can agree on.”

Now put yourself in the State Department or in the National Security Council staff, and you’re seeing all this, and you’re getting different advice. Presumably the Europeans would like to lean over a bit and do something helpful for the Palestinians by maybe recognizing them or extending aid. What should the United States be doing?

You’re right to make a distinction between the United States and the other quartet members [the United Nations, Russia and the European Union] for two reasons. First, for political reasons, the United States is going to take a tougher position toward this new government. The Russians, we know, are already saying this government should be dealt with, recognized, and legitimized. The United Nations is taking a cautious position. The Europeans are taking a cautious position. Certainly some within the European Union would like a more forthcoming position. The United States is not prepared to be so forthcoming, and there are also legal reasons that make it much more difficult to extend any kind of government-to-government relations or certainly any kind of assistance given that the government is headed by a Hamas prime minister.

But the American reaction has been interesting. Mecca was not an outcome the United States wanted, expected, or encouraged. It’s an outcome they believe is complicating what was a newly initiated peace effort, of trying to get Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert and President Abbas to begin talking about the political issues that divide them. But the reaction has not been entirely negative. It seems to be a slightly more nuanced position. I think this is so for several reasons.

One, this was an agreement that was mediated by Saudi Arabia, making it much harder to dismiss than one that would have been mediated by, say, Syria. Number two, at a time when the United States needs Saudi Arabia for other regional efforts and its desire to, as Secretary Condoleezza Rice has said, “realign the region” it’s harder for the United States to alienate Saudi Arabia. Number three is that it comes at a time when Secretary Rice in particular is personally invested in this effort to try to reach some kind of agreement between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert. For her to give up on the Palestinians at this point, because of the shape of its government, means she has no initiative left at all.

Finally, it is a government that’s going to be more welcome, certainly, by other quartet members, and the United States, I assume, does not want to have a public split with those other parties—the European Union, the United Nations, or Russia. What I suspect the administration is going to do is certainly not resume aid to this government, because it doesn’t abide by the three quartet conditions: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and adherence to past agreements with Israel. It’s not going to meet with or have any relationship with Hamas members of this government.

But it’s going, I believe, to continue its process between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert. It may have dealings with ministers who are not Hamas members but who are independents, the foreign minister, the finance minister—who is somebody they respect a lot—and perhaps others. Whether they will be as aggressive as they’ve been so far in terms of other countries trying to provide assistance to the Palestinian Authority, that remains to be seen.

I noticed the Israeli government seems to have been caught a bit by surprise on this. They have not, obviously, endorsed this government, but they haven’t really refused to deal with it outright, or am I wrong on that?

It’s unlikely they will deal with the government or at least, again, the Hamas members of the government. I don’t know what they’ll do. For example, would they meet with the foreign minister, would they meet with the finance minister, Salam Fayed, who was finance minister under a previous government and a person who has very close relations with the United States? It’s going to be difficult for them to do that. But they may. They’re certainly not going to deal with the government, per se, because it’s headed by Ismail Haniyeh, who is a Hamas member. I don’t know whether they’ll be prepared to release the tax funds they’ve withheld that belong to the Palestinians.

Overall, the Israeli view so far has been, “We don’t accept the deal, we don’t reject the deal, we’re going to wait to see how the government acts. We’re going to see whether the Israeli soldier [Gil Shalit] who’s been captured is going to be released. We’re going to see if the cease-fire holds.” My own view is the more pragmatic attitude the better. There’s some sign of pragmatism from the United States and Israel, certainly not as much as I would hope, but there’s some sign that ultimately, a Palestinian civil war is not what the Palestinians themselves want, and that to try to deal with only side when you have now a significant part of the Palestinian people that recognizes itself in Hamas, is an illusion.

Does this Mecca agreement contribute to the peace process?

There are those in the United States who lament the fact that Abbas chose national unity with Hamas, believing this will torpedo any chance of a diplomatic breakthrough with Israel via U.S. mediation.  But that reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Palestinian politics: Abbas could not have concluded a historic deal with Israel, entailing difficult compromises, without a prior intra-Palestinian agreement. He would have lacked the authority, legitimacy, and credibility to reach an agreement with Israel if he were simultaneously at war with a sizeable portion of the Palestinian people. The only way Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can proceed and conclude is in the context of a Fatah/Hamas national unity agreement which brings stability to the Palestinian arena. All the rest is wishful—and dangerous—thinking.

Now the Baker-Hamilton Commission made a big point about the Israeli Palestinian talks as being central to the whole Middle East. Some people have been critical of that assertion, saying it’s really not that important. What’s your impression?

For me, it’s not so much whether it’s important to the situation in Iraq. It’s not because of a peace deal between Israel and Palestinians that Shiites and Sunnis will get along better. But it has very much to do with U.S. effectiveness in the region, U.S. credibility in the region, reaction to U.S. initiatives in the region. Therefore, it does have an impact on whether an American initiative vis-à-vis Iraq will be viewed positively or not by the rest of the region.

U.S. credibility is so low, its reputation has been so tarnished by Iraq, by its disengagement from the Arab-Israeli peace process, and by so many other steps it’s taken in the region, that if you want to have other countries listening to the United States, working with the United States in order to stabilize Iraq, there’s going to have to be a real change in U.S. policy toward the region. It begins with a more engaged stance toward Israelis and Arabs, but it continues as well toward a modification of the “regime change” prism through which U.S. policy has been conducted. It requires renewed engagement with Syria and with Iran, a whole host of things the United States needs to do to improve its image in the region and be more effective in the region. The Arab-Israeli process is one of them. Nobody seriously is claiming that because Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace deal, Sunnis and Shiites will.

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