The Damascus Meeting / Waiting for the Quartet

The two grooms had already enjoyed a piece of Palestinian wedding cake, even before the wedding actually took place. The two are Syrian President Bashar Assad, who extended the invitation to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to visit Damascus, and Ali Larijani, chairman of the Iranian National Security Council, who visited the Syrian capital yesterday. Thus did Syria manage to send out the message, even if for a short while, that the center of gravity in the handling of the Palestinian problem had moved to her turf, and that her role was much greater than her "modesty" in merely playing host to the leadership of the Palestinian factions. For its part, Iran had also made it clear that it too is an essential player in the regional conflicts, not only in Iraq.

Palestinian sources said yesterday that had it not been for active Syrian involvement, it is unlikely that the meeting between Abbas and Khaled Meshal, the Hamas political bureau chief, would have taken place. In the end, the two did meet, as a gesture of good will toward their hosts.

Also active were Saudi Arabian officials, who held intensive meetings with the Syrian president and with Abbas and Meshal, in an effort to reach an agreeable formula that can serve as a platform for a Palestinian national unity government. An unusual common denominator was reached, linking the Saudis, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Hamas, all of which agreed that there is no need for early elections in the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas wants to avoid a possible defeat at the polls, whereas the others are afraid of yet another electoral victory for the radical Islamic organization. This was the motive for pushing Abbas toward a compromise solution on the formation of a national unity government. But herein also lies the main problem, which is the political platform of a unity government and its willingness to accept the Arab League resolution that was agreed upon during the Beirut summit of 2002 - or at least a version of that resolution that would appear to be a recognition of Israel and an agreement to honor previous Palestinian accords with it.

Saturday's agreement was on the formation of a Palestinian National Security Council, in which all factions would participate and whose role would be that of a comptroller to decisions the Palestinian government would wish to make. Abbas is ready to accept this idea, so long as the council would be answerable to the president. There was also an in-principle agreement on the setting up of a government of technocrats, but by the time Meshal and Abbas were scheduled to meet, there was no final agreement on a political platform vis-a-vis Israel.

Nonetheless, Hamas representatives stressed yesterday that Meshal had "admitted" that Israel's existence is a fact, and that Hamas accepts all Arab decisions, suggesting that this also included the 2002 Beirut resolution, even though it was not specifically mentioned. Furthermore, they emphasized that Hamas is still abiding by the cease-fire, and that it is willing to take further steps with regard to a national unity government, despite the fact that it was the victor in the Palestinian general elections last year.

The statements are interpreted as a hint of the limits of Hamas concessions at this stage.

Assuming there is no major change and a compromise is reached, yesterday's meeting only established the fundamental positions of the two sides and a timetable for additional negotiations in Gaza and Ramallah, something that will drag the talks out until early February, at which time the Quartet - the U.S., EU, Russia and the UN - are to meet for talks. That meeting is meant to be an ambitious one, for the purpose of restarting the peace process, and for which Hamas is likely to offer further concessions in return for international recognition, rather than making such gestures for Abbas, now.