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Amid New Crises in Mideast, World Seeks Palestinian Unity Government

September 26, 2006
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The call for a Palestinian national unity government has unified just about everyone except the Palestinians. After navigating sessions clouded over with vituperation and nuclear threat, leaders attending last week’s U.N. General Assembly seized upon the faint prospect of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, co-opting the Hamas-led Cabinet and moderating its radical Islamist government.

“The world is waiting to see whether the Hamas government will follow through on its promises” of government reform “or pursue an extremist agenda,” President Bush said in his address to the General Assembly on Sept. 19.

“And the world has sent a clear message to the leaders of Hamas: Serve the interests of the Palestinian people. Abandon terror, recognize Israel’s right to exist, honor agreements and work for peace.”

The message was startling only because just months ago there was little doubt that the world had waited long enough since Hamas’ election in January for a reform platform. A sharp uptick in rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip on Israel’s southern region and the June 25 cross-border raid in which Hamas-affiliated gunmen killed two Israeli soldiers and captured another seemed to close the book on Hamas.

Then, there was little question that the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority would remain isolated and there was open talk in Washington of helping Abbas overthrow the separately elected P.A. Cabinet.

Three months later, the sudden war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran’s steadfast refusal to cede the prospects of a nuclear weapon transformed the prospect of a Gaza Strip collapsed into chaos into an intolerable threat.

The fear was apparent in the statement released last week from the Quartet — the grouping of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union that guides the Middle East process.

“Taking stock of recent developments in the region, the Quartet stressed the urgent need to make progress towards a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” the statement said. “The Quartet expressed its concern at the grave crisis in Gaza and the continued stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians. The Quartet welcomed the efforts of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to form a Government of National Unity, in the hope that the platform of such a Government would reflect Quartet principles and allow for early engagement.”

The three Quartet principles are recognition of Israel, renouncing terrorism and commitment to abide by previous accords.

Abbas capped the General Assembly’s opening week with a Sept. 21 speech that recommitted to those principles.

“Any future government will commit to imposing security and order, to ending the phenomena of multiple militias, indiscipline and chaos, and to the rule of law,” he said.

Hours after Abbas’ optimistic speech, Hamas was already saying it would not recognize Israel.

“I personally will not head any government that recognizes Israel,” Ismail Haniyeh, the P.A. prime minister, said at a mosque in the Gaza Strip during last Friday’s prayers.

As of Monday, Abbas suspended talks over unity, canceling a trip from his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah to the Gaza Strip, where Hamas predominates.

Hamas continued to press Abbas to return to talks, desperate for the cash that a unity government could bring even if it was not ready to meet the international community’s conditions for the cash.

“We have not reached a dead end,” Ghazi Hamad, the Hamas government spokesman, said in an interview in Hebrew on Israel Army Radio.

Western leaders indicated they were more than ready to deal if Abbas returns to talks and is able to pull Hamas into a compromise that the West could recognize as meeting the Quartet’s principles.

Elliott Abrams, the U.S. deputy national security adviser, made it clear that the Bush administration was ready to ignore pending congressional legislation that would place strict controls on money headed for the Palestinian Authority or for nongovernmental organizations that assist Palestinians.

It is possible, Abrams told reporters last week, “to give humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people through NGOs, and to work with parts of the P.A. that do not report and are not under the control of Hamas, of the prime minister, of the cabinet, but rather are under the control of President Abbas, or are independent agencies that are like the judiciary,” Abrams said. “For parts of the P.A. that are not, or for direct aid to the Palestinian people through NGOs, that’s fine. That’s neither illegal, nor a policy problem.”

Proposed legislation passed this year by both houses of the U.S. Congress and now stuck in conference — and unlikely to emerge until well into 2007 — does not recognize agencies “independent” of Abbas or Hamas, and places strict limits on money to NGOs.

The fact that Abrams, probably Israel’s fiercest defender in the Bush administration, was ready to blur the lines over how money gets to the Palestinians — even before Hamas made any concession on the Quartet’s three principles — underscored how much had changed since the low point of June 25, when Hamas was declared off limits and Abbas was dismissed as ineffectual.

At that time, the Quartet did not object to Israel’s decision to cut off tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority, as it conformed to an international consensus that Hamas needed to be isolated.

In its statement last week, the Quartet called on Israel to resume the transfer of $500 million in taxes and customs. “The resumption of transfers of tax and customs revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority would have a significant impact on the Palestinian economy,” it said.

It was a new reality recognized by Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, in her speech to the General Assembly last week.

“There are no shortcuts on the road to peace, but stagnation is not in our interest and it is not our policy,” she said. “It is in this spirit that I met with Chairman Abbas two days ago and we agreed to re-energize the dialogue between us, and create a permanent channel to pursue ways to advance together.”

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