Uncertainty hampers Mideast progress


JERUSALEM (JTA) – Two weeks after the Palestinian political map was redrawn following Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza, the uncertain future of the Palestinian polity is complicating Israel’s plans to forge new ties with the Palestinian Authority.

Though Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday he was optimistic about the prospect for bilateral ties following his summit last week with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, progress has been slow.

“The conduct of the new Palestinian government creates avenues for cooperation that were previously impossible, given the fact that Hamas was an inseparable part of this government,” Olmert told his Cabinet.

“Slowly and carefully,” Olmert said, there would be progress in Israeli-Palestinian ties “that will also no doubt enable us to make progress on the diplomatic track.”

At last week’s summit with Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah, Olmert pledged a series of goodwill gestures to the Palestinians and Abbas’ beleaguered Fatah party.

At the Egyptian resort city Sharm el-Sheik, Olmert promised to release 250 Fatah members from Israeli jails who do not “have blood on their hands” and transfer hundreds of millions of dollars of Palestinian Authority tax revenues collected by Israel but withheld since Hamas won P.A. legislative elections in January 2006. He also said he would continue to allow humanitarian aid to reach the Gaza Strip.

Action, however, has not matched the rhetoric. At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, ministers discussed establishing a committee to vet the Fatah inmates who would be freed.

As for the more than $700 million in customs and other tax revenues that Israel owes the Palestinian Authority, only half is currently scheduled for release, and in increments, once a mechanism is set up to ensure that none of the money reaches Hamas.

Israel’s approach toward the Palestinian Authority reflects the uncertainty over what the future holds for the Palestinian polity – whether the Gaza Strip and the West Bank will devolve into Hamas and Fatah fiefdoms or whether Abbas will manage to reassert control over both territories.

After Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip last month, Abbas fired the Islamist group from the P.A. government and outlawed its political activities and the carrying of unlicensed weapons in the West Bank.

But Hamas, which defeated Fatah in legislative elections last year, remains popular in Gaza and parts of the West Bank, and it is not clear whether Abbas’ steps to strip Hamas of power will hold up in the long run.

There have been some suggestions of holding early elections to allow Fatah to try to wrest power back from Hamas. It is unclear, however, whether Fatah would beat Hamas in new elections or how a fair election could be engineered in Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians and now controlled by Hamas.

Abbas has made clear he wants no rapprochement with Hamas, denouncing the Islamist group as “assassins” and “terrorists,” and accusing its members of plotting to kill him.

Visiting Paris over the weekend, Abbas told reporters he had proposed to French President Nicolas Sarkozy that foreign peacekeepers be posted in Gaza for the sake of an election that has yet to be set.

“Elections necessitate a certain stability in security,” Abbas said.

Hamas was quick to reject the idea of foreign peacekeepers in Gaza.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister who was deposed last month by Abbas in a unilateral move Hamas maintains was illegal, said any foreign peacekeepers stationed in Gaza would be viewed as “an occupying force” and be subject to armed Palestinian attacks.

More sparks flew after Salam Fayyad, the Western-educated reformist Abbas named as the new P.A. prime minister, criticized Palestinian “armed resistance” in an interview last week with CNN.

Fayyad, who also pledged that the new Palestinian Authority would not allow militiamen to continue running the streets unchecked, immediately was denounced on Hamas’ Al-Aksa Television as a “marked man.”

Over the last few days, security forces loyal to Fatah have been rounding up scores of Hamas members in the West Bank.

King Abdullah, in an apparent break with Israel and Abbas, urged the rival Palestinian factions to come together.

“We are worried about how events have turned and slid to dangerous paths, and call for the return of Palestinian legitimacy and the return of the links between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as one entity,” Abdullah told Jordan’s Al-Ghad newspaper.

“We call on our brothers to rectify the situation and not impose a policy of establishing facts on the ground that do not serve a national cause under occupation.”

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