It has been famously said that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The recent meeting, hosted by Saudi King Abdullah, held in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, between Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian Prime Minister, and Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s political guru, seems to prove the dismal truth of this quip, with the gathering ending with only small accomplishment. After two-days of deliberation, the participants signed a letter and congratulated one other, all the while missing a momentous opportunity to shift the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Although the three Palestinians agreed to end the bloody feud between their rival factions, a feud that has claimed the lives of nearly 100 Palestinians, and to try to stop the present anarchy by forming a unity government, there was no agreement on the fundamental issues separating them. One would think that having met at such a holy site, the birthplace of Islam, and during the most critical time in Palestinian history, they would finally agree on a formula to really address the conflict with Israel. That simply did not happen. Whereas the agreement they signed will temporarily halt the violence between the two factions, Hamas continued to reject the three international benchmarks: recognizing Israel, renouncing violence against it, and abiding by previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians that are fundamental to moving peace negotiation forward.
While Russia seems to endorse the agreement and the European Community may give the Palestinian leaders the benefit of the doubt and resume some financial aid, for the United States and Israel this agreement is a nonstarter. Top Israeli officials suggest rather than offer a viable new opening for meaningful peace negotiations; it may actually worsen the current situation.
Not too many people expected Hamas to embrace the three international benchmarks, but it was hopped that King Abdullah would insist that Hamas accept his own resolution, adapted unanimously in March, 2002, by the Arab League when it met in Beirut. That resolution called on Israel to relinquish the territories captured in 1967 during the Six Days War in exchange for recognition and a comprehensive peace with all the Arab states. However, the letter from President Abbas to Mr. Haniya, in lieu of a formal accord in Mecca, merely calls on the new (to-be-formed) Palestinian government to “work in order to achieve its national goals as were approved by the Palestine National Council, the clauses of the Basic Law and the National Reconciliation Document and the decisions of the Arab summit.” Who is going to be fooled by this language, and how especially could King Abdullah abandon this most critical resolution, which provides the basis for any turning point in Arab-Israeli relations? The Israelis, who previously dismissed the Beirut declaration, feel vindicated. They blame the Saudi King, who they believe could have validated that historic resolution by insisting Hamas join in the consensus of the entire Arab world, if it wishes to be accepted into its fold and thereby qualify for desperately needed political and financial support from the Arab states. Had that happened, any Israeli government, would have found itself under tremendous international pressure to take a hard look at the restated Beirut resolution and Hamas’ present and future role.
But, eager to achieve some kind of an agreement to break the impasse between Fatah and Hamas, the King sacrificed an immense opportunity to change the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would in fact have been far more beneficial to the Palestinian people had there been no agreement, for the Mecca accord distorts the real picture. It will be short-lived because the two rival factions have little in common, and their political objectives inherently threaten each other. Thus, the feelings inspired by the holy setting will wear off quickly once they face the miserable reality of what they have subjected their own people to.
A Hamas spokesman Nizar Rayyan stated explicitly, following the signing of the accord, that “we will never recognize Israel, there is nothing called Israel, neither in reality nor in the imagination.” What an arrogant self-destructive statement. This position betrays even the ambiguities of the Palestinian leaders, especially those representing Fatah, who will try to sell their “new direction” to the international community. Hamas’ position will hardly encourage the Israelis to run to the negotiating table. In the end, as has been their fate, ordinary Palestinians will pay dearly for the misguided policies of their leaders and the loss of yet another opportunity.
The Mecca agreement has also further weakened Mr. Abbas. Hamas has emerged as the ultimate winner by usurping Fatah’s opportunity, at least for now, to change the political landscape in the territories. If the new government fails to demonstrate that it can end the violence and promote a dialogue based on a two- state solution, as Fatah will surely insist is implicit in the agreement, it will be a personal defeat for Mr. Abbas. Indeed, he will have become a partner in a unity government led by Hamas that in word and deed seeks to undermine Israel’s right to exist and, as such, torpedo even the faint hope that Israel and moderate Palestinians could ever reach an agreement.