Israel, Quartet Lukewarm on Hamas-fatah Agreement

Rarely in the annals of Middle East diplomacy has a major rapprochement been greeted with such puzzlement abroad.

While Palestinians danced in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank at the news of the unity agreement between the governing Hamas and rival Fatah movements, in Israel there was heavy skepticism over the prospects of renewed peace talks while most mediator nations evinced cautious optimism at best.

Signed Feb. 8 in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, which is off-limits to non-Muslims, the Hamas-Fatah deal was opaque from the outset. When it was finally made public, it appeared to be little more than a document redistributing Palestinian Authority ministries among the new Cabinet members and a call by President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, urging Hamas to “respect” past diplomatic deals with Israel.

That fell short of the demand by the Quartet of foreign mediators that the Palestinian Authority under Hamas embrace peacemaking, renounce terrorism and recognize Israel if it is to receive Western donor aid that was suspended after the Islamist group rose to power last year. But then, with Hamas looking robust despite the embargo, fending off factional attacks by Fatah and increasingly aligning itself with Iran, Western powers may be out of options.

So it was that the Quartet — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — issued a statement “welcoming” the Saudi mediation in the Palestinian Authority deal but deferring a decision on how to respond until after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice convenes Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to discuss the way forward.

Israeli officials, after first writing off the Mecca deal as a non-starter, quickly became more circumspect.

“Israel neither rejects nor accepts the agreements,” Olmert said Sunday at his weekly Cabinet meeting. “At this stage we, like the international community, are learning what exactly was achieved and what was said.”

Abbas had long promoted the idea of a coalition government as a means of softening the Palestinian Authority’s profile internationally, or making Hamas “moderate by association” with Fatah. But the Mecca accords seemed only to harden Hamas’ line against the Jewish state.

Officials from the Islamic group, which the United States and European Union consider terrorist, lined up to reaffirm their opposition to ever recognizing Israel. Mushir Masri, a Hamas lawmaker, said that the Mecca deal would force the West as well as the “Zionist enemy” to deal with the Palestinian Authority as it stands.

Such sentiments received reluctant endorsement from some veteran Israel observers.

David Kimche, a retired Israeli spymaster and diplomat, predicted that Israel, outflanked by Arab and Western states wanting to see an end to the Palestinian stalemate, may have no choice but to deal with Hamas.

“The ideal would be if we could find a magic wand that would make Hamas disappear, for Hamas stands for everything bad — fundamentalism, terrorism, to mention just a few,” Kimche wrote in The Jerusalem Post. “Alas, such magic wands are hard to find.

“So we are left with two alternatives: refuse to deal with the unity government despite its willingness to open negotiations with us for peace and despite its acceptance by the Quartet, or to act pragmatically and do what is best for Israel, which is to end the stalemate that in effect only leads to a continued deterioration of the situation and, in its place, enter into negotiations with the unity government.”

Cracks already are appearing in the Quartet. Russia, which broke with its partners last year by hosting a Hamas delegation in Moscow, was the only Quartet power to embrace the Mecca deal as a breakthrough.

“The future Palestinian national government will be an important factor in the process of reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “The implementation of Mecca agreements should be combined with lifting a blockade of the Palestinian territories, which has inflicted suffering and hardship on the people.”

For many Palestinians, though, the idea of new diplomacy with Israel was a chimera. Instead they focused on the fact that the Mecca deal brought respite from spiraling Fatah-Hamas violence in Gaza, which has claimed dozens of Palestinian lives in recent weeks.

“The Mecca deal is basically a truce between Fatah and Hamas,” a senior Fatah official told Reuters. “It could last one year, two years or less.”

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