Mideast Peace Talks on Hold Amid Dual Power Struggles

RAMALLAH – Negotiations for the political endgame of the recent Gaza war have proven much more difficult than – presumably – the Israeli cabinet imagined last December, when it took the final decision to start the war.

Now, the negotiations to stabilize the fragile twin cease-fires that went into effect Jan. 18 have become deeply entangled with the succession struggle inside Israel and with internal problems in the Palestinian leadership that also have many aspects of a succession struggle.

Meanwhile, thousands of Gazan families whose homes were destroyed in the war still huddle for shelter where they can, as Israel continues to bar the entry of even basic construction materials into the Strip. (Cold rain has been buffeting Gaza this week.)

But one possible ray of hope for the chronically beleaguered Palestinians came when the U.S. special envoy on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Sen. George Mitchell, indicated that he favored ending the previous U.S. policy of fomenting intra-Palestinian division.

The biggest diplomatic development of the week was that Israel’s outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert of the Kadima Party, brought the nearly completed Gaza cease-fire negotiations with Hamas to a screeching halt when he announced Tuesday that no cease-fire could go ahead before Hamas freed its long-held Israeli POW Gilad Shalit.

Inside Israel, that undermined the credibility of chief Israeli negotiator Amos Gilad and the man directing his efforts: outgoing defense minister Ehud Barak, the leader of the Labor Party. Kadima and Labor are both now competing in the political fan-dance over who might be inside the new Israeli government that Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu is trying to form, and who will be out.

Olmert’s move on Shalit also upset Egypt, which has been mediating the Hamas-Israel cease-fire talks and for its own political reasons needs to see them speedily succeed. On Tuesday, an Egyptian government spokesman slammed Olmert’s insertion of the Shalit issue into the negotiations and announced the withdrawal of a trade mission it had sent to Israel.

On the Palestinian side, meanwhile, Olmert’s foregrounding of Shalit raised renewed hopes that the Shalit-related prisoner exchange, when it happens, would free many hundreds of long-held Palestinian political prisoners – among them, fabled next-generation Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouthi.

Barghouthi was a very popular mass leader in both the first and second Palestinian intifadas. In 2002, an Israeli court sentenced him to multiple life terms in prison for having killed soldiers running Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank.

In 2005, from his prison cell, he started to run against Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas in the election for president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), but withdrew his candidacy before the vote. While in prison, Barghouthi has also worked hard with other prisoners to bring about an entente between Fatah and Hamas.

Over recent weeks Egypt got itself into the vital, but also high-risk, position of being the main mediator in all three of these diplomatically crucial negotiations: the ones between Israel and Hamas over the cease-fire and the prisoner exchange, and the one between Fatah and Hamas over returning to some form of sustainable working relationship after 19 months of bitter – and considerably U.S.-stoked – enmity.

Egyptian officials had hoped to work systematically through each of these issues in turn. But Olmert’s move has now forced all the issues back into a single ball of intertwined challenges. On Wednesday, Egypt announced that a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation meet scheduled in Cairo for Feb. 22 would be postponed.

The prospects for an intra-Palestinian reconciliation are meanwhile considerably complicated by a deep and worsening crisis inside Fatah. Fatah lost a significant amount of its already shaky public support inside the West Bank, and in the politically important Palestinian diaspora, after Pres. Abbas voiced harsh open criticisms of Hamas in the opening days of the Gaza war.

Veteran Ramallah-based Fatah activist and former parliamentarian Qaddura Fares described the situation inside the movement as “Not just a problem, but a real crisis. It’s a crisis at many levels… There’s a complete leadership vacuum. They don’t lead anything. They have no connection with the people.”

Fares also laid into the diplomatic record of the Fatah leadership. “We have negotiated for 18 years since the Madrid conference, and what have we got? Since 2000 we have gotten only bombs, checkpoints, and more and more settlements from Israel. We need to be ready to stop this charade of negotiations until the Israelis are serious… We are waiting to hear Barack Obama say ‘Yes we can – get to an endpoint in these negotiations’.”

Fares said he was very eager for the Fatah leaders to reach a new working relationship with Hamas. “If they can recognize and work with Israel, why can’t they do the same with Hamas?” he asked.

He expressed confidence that Marwan Barghouthi, if freed, could make a big difference in re-energizing the Fatah base, fixing the movement’s internal problems, and helping the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation to succeed. He was careful to note, though, that he judged that Abbas’s term as president – which many people judge expired on Jan. 9 – in fact continues for a further year. So he was not advocating any immediate and total takeover of the movement’s leadership, by Barghouthi or anyone else.

The hopes that Fares expressed in Barghouthi’s capacities are widely though not universally shared by activists, leaders, and analysts here in Ramallah. Some of these Palestinians said the problems in Fatah are too deep for any one man to solve.

Others said that many myths have grown up around Barghouthi because of his imprisonment and the strong stands he took against both the Israeli occupation and the corruption of Fatah’s leaders – but they are still not sure that he has either the vision or the self-discipline of a Nelson Mandela. (One analyst familiar with South African history noted that anyway, Mandela only succeeded because he was all along part of a very disciplined movement, the African National Congress.)

The intra-Palestinian reconciliation moves are very relevant to the effort to stabilize the Gaza cease-fire. Hamas leaders have insisted that, to be sustainable at all, the cease-fire needs to be accompanied by an end to the tight siege that Israel has maintained around Gaza since 2006. But Israel says it will not open the crossings unless the people on the other side of them are officials of the Abbas-led PA.

At this point, Fatah and Hamas need each other – and the people of Gaza desperately need them to end their feud.

Prospects that this might happen increased after George Mitchell told U.S. Jewish leaders Thursday that divisions in the Palestinian community “make dialogue much more difficult.” This was a signal that the Obama administration might well plan to move away from the policy of aggressively backing Fatah against Hamas (including with arms, funds, and military training), that was followed by the Bush administration since 2006.

Palestinian analysts are divided over whether nearly all, or only some, of the intra-Palestinian dispute of recent years could be attributed to that U.S. policy. But they all agree that if the policy ends, the prospects for a workable reconciliation will certainly improve.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at JustWorldNews.org.