'Abbas's top concern is avoiding civil war, not compliance'

His goal was to stave off a civil war, even if it meant antagonizing Israel, the US and the EU, according to Western diplomatic assessments.

February 9, 2007 00:30
4 minute read.
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Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas wanted a national unity government agreement in Mecca to stave off a Palestinian civil war, even if it meant antagonizing Israel, the US and the EU, according to Western diplomatic assessments. Israel has articulated its concern in recent days to international leaders that if Abbas were to accept a government that did not denounce terrorism, accept existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, and recognize Israel, then it could fundamentally alter Israel's relationship with him. The US and Israel have clarified to various international interlocutors that they could not accept a formula whereby only one of the international community's three principles - recognition of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements - would be included in the unity government's framework. According to these assessments, however, the international community is in a bind: On the one hand it does not want to water down the three principles, yet on the other it is concerned that if Abbas does not compromise with Hamas there would be no unity government, something that would prolong intra-Palestinian violence and undercut the prospects of renewed Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic efforts. The widespread feeling in Jerusalem is that the US, along with Britain and Germany, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, would remain adamant about the need for the three Quartet principles to be upheld, while some other states - led by Russia - would push to recognize the unity government even if it did not fully meet the requirements. The issue is expected to be discussed among world leaders at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy that will convene Friday and run until Sunday. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will be there pressing the international community not to be flexible on these principles. Among the other world leaders at the event will be Russian President Vladimir Putin, new US Defense Minister Robert Gates, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani has said he intended to attend the conference, while The Daily Star in Lebanon reported that Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora would not attend because Livni would be there. The negotiations in Mecca, according to Western diplomatic sources, were based on an "informal paper" presented as a basis for a unity government. This paper called for the establishment of the unity government to "lift the [international] siege" of the PA. Under this informal paper, the new government would commit itself to the resolutions and agreements signed by the PLO, various Arab summits, and UN resolutions. As such, recognition of Israel would be implicitly included in acceptance of the 1993 exchange of letters of recognition between Israel and the PLO. There would also be an understanding that the new unity government would not object to negotiations or agreements with Israel. The informal paper, however, stipulated that the factions in the unity government would not be bound by its commitments. What this means is that while Hamas would be free to continue to deny recognition of Israel, the government - when asked about the issue - would refer questions on this matter to Abbas. The only "Quartet principle" that was directly addressed in the "informal paper" was the acceptance of previous agreements, and this was the focus of a great deal of the debate between Abbas and Hamas. This argument centered around whether the Arabic iltasama (commit to) or ihtarama (respect) would be used when discussing previous agreements. Abbas wanted Hamas to commit to the previous agreements, but according to initial reports from Mecca Thursday night, Hamas prevailed on this issue. Hamas, meanwhile, wanted to insert into the document a caveat stating that the previous agreement would be honored "as long as they respect" or "as long as they do not oppose" the higher Palestinian interest, something to which Abbas was opposed. Regarding the international demand that the new government renounce terrorism, what was discussed instead was the need to maintain the tahdia or cease-fire with Israel in Gaza, and to extend it to the West Bank. According to Western diplomatic assessments, the Palestinians themselves have no illusions this document would satisfy the Quartet principles. However, according to these assessments, there was a feeling among the Palestinians that this was the most that could be gotten from Hamas at the present time, and that it was the closest thing available to a Palestinian consensus. Nobody expected that Hamas would change its fundamental positions. The Western diplomats said that the importance of the agreement was that by accepting the PLO and UN agreements and resolutions, Hamas gave Abbas something they always refused to give Yasser Arafat - a mandate to negotiate with Israel over the establishment of a Palestinian state and a solution to the refugee issue. Were Hamas to stay outside the government, the assessments continued, any agreement reached between Abbas and Israel would be attacked by Hamas and be the possible foundation for a Palestinian civil war.

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