'Israeli Gestures attempt to pry Fatah from Hamas'

Officials in Jerusalem: If Fatah gets too close to Hamas, Palestinians could lose everything.

A list of goodwill measures Defense Minister Ehud Barak is considering for the Palestinians may be intended as a message to the Palestinian Authority that if it gets too close to Hamas, it risks "losing everything," government officials said Sunday. The officials, who were skeptical that a declaration agreed upon in Yemen by Fatah and Hamas would actually bear any fruit, said that by agreeing to re-start a dialogue with Hamas, PA President Mahmoud Abbas might be signaling to Israel that if it didn't start acting to shore up his position, he had "other options." Barak is considering a series of gestures ahead of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Israel next week aimed at easing restrictions in the West Bank and including lifting a number of temporary roadblocks, opening a VIP lane at checkpoints, and exempting Palestinian businessmen who are approved by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) from inspections. The civil administration has been working on the proposals for several months and they are expected to be raised in discussions at the Defense Ministry in the coming days. Barak is scheduled to meet with PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad on Wednesday and the possible gestures are expected to be discussed then. Defense officials said that while the proposals were already raised several weeks ago, they received additional significance after the talks in Yemen between Fatah and Hamas. "The idea behind the gestures is to make it clear that those who sit and talk with us will gain and benefit from a lifting of restrictions," a defense official said. "This is today the main difference between the situation in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank." Hamas and Fatah officials agreed in San'a to open talks aimed at ending their long-standing dispute. Officials from both sides, however, warned against "excessive optimism." The negotiations will be the first between the parties since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June. Dubbed the San'a Declaration, the accord was signed in the Yemeni capital by Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed and Hamas's Musa Abu Marzouk, a senior official of the movement who lives in Syria. The initiative, a proposal from Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, calls for opening reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah, restoring the status quo that existed in the Gaza Strip before Hamas seized control, establishing another Hamas-Fatah unity government, and holding early elections in the PA territories. Similar agreements reached in the past under the auspices of other Arab countries were never implemented. A government official in Jerusalem responded to the declaration by saying that ultimately Abbas "has to decide if he wants to move forward with a peace process through negotiations, or whether he wants a coalition with Hamas. He can't have both." Israeli spokespeople have said in the past that a reestablishment of the Palestinian unity government that existed prior to June, when Hamas took control of Gaza, would bring an end to the current diplomatic negotiations and the Annapolis process. One government official said it was extremely unlikely any Fatah-Hamas deal would be worked out, since Hamas would not be willing to give up control of the Gaza Strip, and Fatah would not again be willing to give Hamas a foothold in the West Bank with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh as PA prime minister. What further made a successful Palestinian reconciliation unlikely, the official said, was that such a move would likely alienate the US and the EU, and cost the PA much of the $7.2 billion pledged to it at the Paris Conference in December. Hours after the agreement was signed in Yemen, Hamas called for the dismissal of the Fayad government to pave the way for dialogue. The request was immediately turned down by the PA leadership. "Hamas and Fatah have agreed to accept the Yemeni initiative as a framework for dialogue between the two movements and a return of the Palestinian situation to what it was before the events in the Gaza Strip [in June 2007]," the San'a Declaration reads. The purpose of the dialogue is to "reconfirm the unity of the Palestinian homeland in terms of its land, people and the Palestinian Authority," according to the document. "This agreement only means that the two sides have accepted the Yemeni initiative as a framework for resuming reconciliation talks," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "The agreement should not be regarded as a precondition for launching dialogue." Abu Zuhri said the talks between his movement and Fatah, which are expected to begin early next month, would deal with the "general situation in the Palestinian territories, and not only in the Gaza Strip." Abu Marzouk said the two parties would begin the negotiations as soon as Saleh invited them back to Yemen. Asked which party had emerged triumphant with the agreement, Abu Marzouk said, "The winner is the Palestinian people. "Ending the conflict and restoring [Hamas-Fatah] unity has long been a popular demand. Now we must all work toward achieving this goal." A senior Fatah official here told The Jerusalem Post that, despite the agreement, the gap between the parties remained as wide as ever. "The only good thing about the Yemeni initiative is that Fatah and Hamas officials sat together and talked for the first time in a long time," he said. "As far as we understand, the two sides were unable to resist the heavy pressure put on them by the Yemeni president." One Israeli government official explained the Yemeni involvement as having to do with intra-Arab politics on the eve of the Arab League summit scheduled for Damascus later this month. Since Egyptian efforts at bringing about a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation failed, a successful Yemeni effort would raise that country's stature at the summit. A veteran political analyst in Jerusalem said that "only a naive person" would believe Hamas would cede control over the Gaza Strip so easily. "This agreement is good only on paper," he said. "But on the ground it won't work because the gap between the two sides is still too wide. It will take a long time to heal the wound." He added that he also did not expect the agreement to succeed, "because the US won't allow Abbas to join ranks with Hamas." Despite the signing of the San'a Declaration, the two parties continued their media campaigns against each other. One of Hamas's Web sites referred to Abbas's forces in the West Bank as "gangs," while another ran a story about the involvement of top PA officials in financial corruption. Fatah's media continued to refer to Hamas as an "outlawed" movement whose members were perpetrating assorted crimes against the Palestinians.