Analysis: 'Watch out,' U.S.tells Abbas
By Joshua Brilliant
If Saturday's meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the senior U.S. representative in the Palestinian territories, Jacob Walles, is any indication, Abbas is in for a hard time when he sees President George W. Bush Wednesday.
Abbas, who heads the nationalist Fatah Party, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who heads the Islamic Hamas, have been trying to form a national unity government.
Abbas is a moderate while the United States, the European Union and Israel consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization. They have refused to deal with the Hamas-led government until it recognizes Israel, renounces terror, and abides by the agreements the Palestinians have signed with Israel.
Fatah and Hamas negotiators have been trying to sidestep these demands, but the U.S. administration put its foot down.
The moment you become a partner to such a government, you will get the attitude Hamas gets, U.S. Consul General Walles warned Abbas, according to the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
The Consulate General's spokeswoman could not immediately comment on the excerpt.
Hamas has sought a national unity government all along. Immediately after the elections it was flush with victory, failed to come to terms with the other parties and formed a Hamas-only government.
Its six months in power were disastrous. The world stopped most of its economic aid, Israel froze transferring the taxes it collected on the Palestinian Authority's behalf, and most of its 160,000 civil servants have not been paid, or have received only partial payment. The PA economy has been going down the drain. Lawlessness is rampant.
Fatah's Sufian Abu Zaida, the former minister for prisoners' affairs said it was a good strategic development. Finally the Palestinians got to see Hamas for what it is.
At a meeting in Tel Aviv organized by the Geneva Initiative, which is trying to promote a permanent settlement, Abu-Zaida said: "People used to talk about government corruption. They criticized Fatah leaders for having 50 bodyguards and (convoys of) five to six cars. They said we abandoned them, that we wore suits and ties.
"(Hamas) from day one wore suits and ties. What's the difference? There is no difference."
According to a public opinion poll, conducted last week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 54 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with Hamas. "Perception of corruption in the PA is at its highest, 89 percent," the poll found. But if elections were held now, there is no guarantee Fatah would win.
There has been no drop in support for Hamas, nor a rise in Fatah's popularity, PSR Director Khalil Shikaki said. "The public ... does not view Fatah as a viable alternative," he reckoned.
The coalition talks were designed to "create an impression that there is a government that meets the Quartet's ... demands" in order to receive some $4 billion in foreign aid, said Shalom Harari, a fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, near Tel Aviv. The Quartet comprises the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
The negotiators tried to paper over the differences. According to an English version of their program leaked to the Maan news agency, they talked of "establishing an independent Palestinian state over all the 1967 territories." Who is beyond those lines? Israel, but the text does not explicitly recognize it.
It "confirms the people's right to struggle for liberating their lands," but does not renounce terror. It says "the government respects the treaties" that have been signed with Israel. That is not an undertaking to abide by them.
The Palestinian State Information Service quoted Haniyeh as telling reporters: "We will work with these agreements according to what serves the higher Palestinian interests, but that does not mean we recognize them."
Hence Abbas' media adviser, Nabil Amr, complained of "a significant 'disruption' (that) had occurred while the president was making tremendous efforts to persuade the international community to lift the siege on the Palestinian people."
Some Palestinians want Abbas to reject American pressure.
"Bush is the last person who has the right to ask Abu Mazen (Abbas) not to go for a national unity government. It is the American policy's stupidity that led us to this situation," Abu-Zaida said.
Before the elections Fatah and other Arab leaders warned that Hamas would win, but the White House threatened Abu Mazen that if the elections were postponed he would no longer be "relevant," Abu Zaida said.
Now Palestinians should see to their own interests and form a national unity government or else "the entire Palestinian Authority system will collapse in one, two or three months," he warned.
Hamas is changing, Abu Zaida continued. "Their leadership knows from day one that ... ideology (while) being an opposition is one thing, and being in power is something else."
Now Hamas is willing to accept things that six months ago it rejected, but it takes time to change statements. It took Fatah 30 years to change that, he noted.
The fact that Hamas is an Islamic Party does not change matters, Abu-Zaida argued. The Koran contains many verses upholding peace, and whoever wants to find verses justifying an extremist ideology can find that too, he said.
Some Israelis agreed with him. The situation changes when you are responsible for feeding 3.5 million people, said Shlomo Brom of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. Hamas "wants a dialogue with Israelis," he said. Brom alluded to contacts he has been maintaining.
Shikaki noted that 75 percent of the people he polled favored talks with Israel. That includes 64 percent of Hamas' voters, he said.
But Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni saw the developments as an opportunity to weaken Hamas.
"We can see the first signs of demonstrations in the Palestinian streets against the Hamas government. And if the international community shows determination in the next few weeks, maybe this is the moment in which Abu Mazen can be strengthened and Hamas will have to do something about it," she told CNN.