Text size

"Are democratic processes doomed to failure in the Middle East?" an Arab newspaper headline asked last week. The author noted that Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine each held free elections and has an elected government. Yet each is far from stability, because the opposition refuses to accept the results.

Tomorrow, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will try to find the magic solution that, at least in Palestine, will reconcile democracy with stability. Any such solution will rest on agreements already reached between Fatah and Hamas regarding ministerial appointments in a unity government and ideological compromises. Abdullah's proposal will thus require Hamas to "respect" signed Israeli-Palestinian agreements, but will not "compel" it to abide by them. How does one bridge that gap? Just as Israel does when stating that it "respects" these agreements, but under the circumstances, "cannot" implement them.

The significance of this formulation is not practical, but declarative: Anyone who "respects" Israeli-Palestinian agreements must de facto recognize Israel. From there, the distance is short to adopting the 2002 Arab League peace plan. In this way, Abdullah hopes to achieve two strategic goals: ending Iranian influence on Palestine, and ending the aid embargo that the West has forced the Arab world to impose on Palestine.

Iran has become a threat to Arab hegemony in the region, through its involvement in Iraq, its patronage of Hezbollah and consequent influence on Lebanese politics, its nuclear program, and now, its influence on Palestine, via Hamas. Yet the moderate Arab states' commitment to Washington's policies frustrates their ability to neutralize Iran, because without a flow of Arab money, Iran will continue to be the Palestinians' patron.

This is the root of Saudi Arabia's new tactic: no more blind support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' superiority over Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, but rather, treating them as equals. This signals to Washington that the boycott of Hamas is crumbling. This is also why Saudi Arabia, rather than Egypt or Jordan, has, unusually, launched this public diplomacy: Unlike the others, Saudi Arabia has the ability to flex its muscles even beyond the Arab world.

Any agreements reached in Saudi Arabia may not immediately end the bloodshed in Gaza. The hunger for revenge and lust for power will not disappear overnight. But at least at the level of the national leadership, the necessary cooperation might emerge.

Hamas went as far as to stress that the government's policy will be independent of the policies of the movement.The government will in practice recognize the previous agreements with Israel − which was one of the three preconditions set by the Quartet in return for recognition of the Palestinian government − even though it will not include the statement "will abide by the accords" in its mandate.

It was also reported that over the weekend, Hamas sent a message through Ziad Abu Amar and Mohammed Rashid ?(former economic adviser of Yasser Arafat?) requesting that the government's mandate include a statement describing "agreements that will serve the interest of the Palestinian people."

This latter request angered Abbas, who asked Meshal not to demand it during the talks that will be held in Mecca.Meshal spoke on the telephone with one of the mediators during the weekend and promised: "I will not allow this sentence to cause a situation where there is no agreement. Rest assured that this will not be the reason for not agreeing on a unity government. We shall not leave Saudi Arabia without an agreement."

Meshal also sent a message to Abbas, through sources close to jailed Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, saying that as far as he was concerned, "an agreement exists. I am committed to forming a unity government."

The Hamas leader also said that there are a number of ways of transforming the sentence that upset Abbas, in a way that will be acceptable to all. One of the proposals is that in the document stipulating the appointment of the new government, it will be stated: "The government will respect all agreements that will serve the interests of the Palestinian people as they were defined in the decisions of the PLO?s Palestinian National Council."

Correspondence between Meshal and Abbas continued yesterday.

Also yesterday, Salem Fayyad and Qadura Fares visited Marwan Barghouti in the Israeli prison where he is being held.

Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip yesterday there was relative calm following three days of fighting in which 28 persons were killed and some 240 others injured. Nonetheless, during the morning hours there were sporadic exchanges of gunfire.

Mortars were fired yesterday at Abbas' offices in Gaza. There were no injuries and Hamas denied that its fighters were involved in targetting the PA chairman?s offices.

In spite the cease-fire, few of the roadblocks set up by gunmen affiliated with Hamas or Fatah in recent days were lifted.

A joint Fatah-Hamas operations room was set up to deal with outbreaks of violence between members of the rival groups.Yesterday, two members of the Presidential Guard died of wounds they suffered in fighting during the weekend. Also yesterday, it became clear that Hamas gunmen had abducted Ashraf Dahlan, 20, nephew of the Fatah strongman in the Gaza Strip, Mohammed Dahlan. He was arrested at a roadblock manned by the Hamas Executive Force on the road between Khan Yunis and Gaza.

The two groups began exchanging the hostages each had taken during the fighting, and it was agreed that the gunmen from both sides would leave the streets by midnight.