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Hamas leaders have every reason to laugh all the way back from Mecca to Damascus and the Gaza Strip. The unity government agreement they signed with Fatah on Thursday, which has become known as the Mecca Accord, does not require Hamas to make any far-reaching concessions.
As one Hamas leader in Gaza City put it, "Fatah made 90 percent of the concessions, while Hamas made only 10%."
Moreover, the same deal reached in Mecca could have been struck several months ago, when Hamas and Fatah launched the unity talks.
Some senior Fatah officials who participated in the Mecca summit admitted over the weekend that it was their party, and not Hamas, that was forced to compromise on most of the sticking points.
The officials even went so far as to criticize the Saudis for exerting heavy pressure on Palestinian Authority Chairman and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas to abandon some of his previous conditions for forming a unity government.
"On Thursday evening, the Saudis told us that we [had] only two hours to sign an agreement and that they [wouldn't] accept any excuses," a top Fatah official told The Jerusalem Post. "It was a real threat that made President Abbas very nervous and forced him to accept almost all of Hamas's conditions."
A careful reading of the understandings between the two parties shows that Fatah has moved closer to Hamas, and not vice-versa. The Palestinians' general impression is that Abbas was forced to sign after all his US-backed attempts to weaken or topple the Hamas-led government failed.
Abbas is now likely to face trouble from within his Fatah party. Some "young guard" Fatah leaders are said to be disappointed with the "humiliating" deal which, in their view, turns Fatah into a "junior partner" in a Hamas-led government.
Why the agreement is perceived as a victory for Hamas:
1. Hamas will still head the new unity government. A better deal could have been achieved several weeks ago when Hamas expressed its readiness to cede control over the premiership in favor of an independent figure.
2. The disputed Interior Ministry, which is formally in charge of the Palestinian security forces, will also remain in the hands of Hamas. True, incumbent Interior Minister Said Siam will be removed from his job, but his successor - according to the deal - will be chosen by Hamas. In previous rounds of Fatah-Hamas negotiations, Hamas seemed willing to also cede control over this ministry.
3. Fatah will not have control over two key cabinet portfolios - Foreign Affairs and Finance. These posts will be given to "independent" legislators Ziad Abu Amr and Salaam Fayad, who will work under Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
4. Hamas's 4,000-strong paramilitary Executive Force will be incorporated into the Palestinian security forces, which means that their salaries will be paid by the US and the European Union. This is the same force that was recently outlawed by Abbas and condemned by his aides as a "bunch of murderers and gangsters."
Prior to the Mecca Accord, Abbas's uncompromising position was that the Executive Force should be dismantled.
5. Abbas has been forced to accept Hamas's stance that the new unity government would be required to "respect," rather than "abide" by previous agreements between the PLO and Israel. This has been Hamas's position all along and is the main reason for the failure of the Damascus summit between Abbas and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal several weeks ago.
Hamas's major concern is that by committing itself to previous agreements with Israel, first and foremost the Oslo Accords, it would be seen as having recognized both Israel's right to exist and the two-state solution. The ambiguous wording of the Mecca Accord allows Hamas enough room to argue that it is only required to acknowledge the fact that the agreements with Israel are part of the reality on the ground.
6. To avoid alienating Hamas, the word "Israel" was not mentioned in the Mecca Accord or in public statements by Hamas, Fatah, and Saudi government officials. As Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan explained over the weekend, "Hamas's position remains firm and unchanged: we will never recognize the legitimacy of the Zionist entity."
7. The agreement makes no reference to the future of the Middle East peace process or the need to halt attacks on Israel. Surprisingly, neither Abbas nor Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz referred to these issues in their public speeches.
While the accord explicitly emphasizes the need to end internecine fighting among the Palestinians, there is no call on Hamas and other radical groups to renounce violence, including suicide bombings and rocket attacks, as demanded by the Quartet.
8. The Mecca summit has enhanced Hamas's role as a major political force in the Middle East. The fact that Hamas leaders are put on equal footing with the heads of the Saudi royal family and the Palestinian Authority carries symbolic importance.
9. The agreement has effectively buried any chance of dismantling the Hamas-led government, at least in the next three years.
Abbas's threat to call early parliamentary and presidential elections has gone down the drain.
10. By signing the unity government deal, Hamas has also strengthened its standing among the Palestinians. From now on, no one can accuse Hamas of "monopolizing" power and refusing to share powers with other political factions.
Hamas had been held responsible for instigating civil war in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Now, many Palestinians are praising the group for making painful "sacrifices" for the sake of national unity.
11. Hamas's status among the Palestinians is likely to be further strengthened once the Quartet and Israel officially reject the Mecca deal. Such a rejection will seriously embarrass Abbas and his Saudi hosts in the eyes of the Palestinian and Arab masses.
Hamas will then be able to argue that the world does not want to see unity and harmony among the Palestinians, because the true goal of the international community is to overthrow the democratically elected government and extract political concessions from the Palestinians.
12. According to Hamas officials, the new Hamas-led coalition will receive up to a billion dollars from Saudi Arabia. The officials hope that other oil-rich Arab and Islamic countries, as well as some European governments, will follow suit and pour millions of dollars on the new government, effectively ending the international sanctions.
13. Hamas returned from Mecca with a pledge from Abbas that the Fatah-dominated PLO would open its doors for the Islamic movement to join the organization. This will turn Hamas into the second largest faction in the PLO after Fatah, and Mashaal will become Abbas's deputy once a deal is finalized.
14. The agreement does not call for any changes in the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council.
This means that the unity government will constantly be under the threat of losing in a no-confidence vote in parliament if Hamas does not approve its policies.
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