Can Qatar do it again?

On the back of its success in mediating Lebanon’s political
standoff, Doha may soon be placing a toe in Palestinian
waters, writes Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah

Having succeeded in getting erstwhile warring Lebanese
factions to get their act together, Qatar is now exploring
the prospects of mediating between Fatah and Hamas in the
hope of restoring Palestinian national unity.

However, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamed Bin Khalifa Al-Thani and
his influential premier and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad
Bin Jasem, seem to be treading cautiously (some say too
cautiously) in the more complicated “Palestinian
minefield”.

According to reliable Palestinian sources, Qatar has voiced
its “initial willingness” to help “the Palestinian
brothers” overcome their differences and re-establish
national unity. The same sources were careful, however, to
add that Qatari officials — especially Bin Jasem
–wouldn’t be in a position to help the Palestinians if
they were not willing to help themselves.

The warning, sources said, amounted to an essential
precondition that unless Fatah and Hamas were willing to
compromise and move away from entrenched positions, Qatar
wouldn’t be able to do much. Meanwhile, some Islamist
circles have been urging the Qatari emir to use his good
offices to end the Hamas-Fatah crisis.

Among those who publicly called for active Qatari mediation
is Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, the prominent Egyptian
religious scholar who is believed to exert a certain moral
influence on Hamas. Qaradawi, a long-time resident of the
small but influential Gulf emirate, has also been calling
on “Arabs and Muslims” to break the year-long blockade on
Gaza that has effectively destroyed Gaza’s economy and
pushed its estimated 1.5 million inhabitants to the brink
of starvation.

Earlier this week, Hamas’s number-two leader in Gaza,
Mahmoud Al-Zahar, held talks with the Qatari emir, briefing
him on the “nightmarish” situation in the Gaza Strip and
asking him to personally intervene to help lift or at least
relax the suffocating blockade of the small and
heavily-populated coastal territory. Al-Zahar also told the
emir that Hamas was willing and ready to restore national
unity with Fatah based on the Saudi-mediated Mecca
Agreement, signed in February 2007, as well as the National
Reconciliation Programme originally prepared by leaders of
the estimated 11,000 Palestinians prisoners in Israeli
jails.

Qatar, a close friend of the United States that also
maintains diplomatic relations with Israel, last week
called for lifting the “oppressive siege” on Gaza. The
Qatari call appears, however, to have fallen on deaf ears
both in Washington and Israel. Israeli leaders and their US
allies have long believed that maintaining the blockade
will eventually weaken Hamas and enable Palestinian
Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to give “the
necessary concessions” to Israel, which then would
facilitate the creation of a Palestinian entity, albeit
with the right of return consigned into oblivion.

Al-Ahram Weekly asked Ahmed Youssef, a key political
advisor to Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the
Hamas-dominated government in Gaza, if he thought Qatari
mediation was promising. Youssef replied the Qatari
mediation was still at an early stage, adding that contacts
are being made with all parties concerned. “I believe there
is a good chance that Qatar could carry out a successful
mediation between Fatah and Hamas. However, that depends on
the extent to which the PA is willing and able to say ‘No’
to Israel and the Bush administration,” Youssef said.

Youssef argued that the main obstacle impeding
inter-Palestinian reconciliation laid in the “veto power”
the US and Israel have over decision- making in the PA.
Israel has repeatedly warned that any rapprochement between
Fatah and Hamas would spell an end to the peace process and
the termination of all contacts with the PA.

Meanwhile, PA officials vehemently deny that the US and
Israel prevent the PA leadership from reaching out to
Hamas. “This is a baseless lie,” said Fatah spokesman Ahmed
Abdul-Rahman. “The ball is in Hamas’s court, and if Hamas
ends its coup, the whole world will see that Fatah will
rebuild Palestinian national unity.”

For his part, Abbas has not rejected fledgling Qatari
efforts towards reconciliation. On 2 June, Abbas said he
would welcome any “Arab or international effort” to build
bridges between Fatah and Hamas. However, his statement
ought not to be viewed as a departure from his
long-standing position that reconciliation with Hamas is
conditional upon Hamas ending “its coup against Palestinian
legitimacy”. This position is a non-starter for Hamas.

Two weeks ago, two Hamas members of the Palestinian
Legislative Council — Sheikh Hamed Al-Beitawi, who was
released from Israeli captivity recently, and Nasseruddin
Al-Shaer, former deputy prime minister of the Hamas-led
government — met with Abbas for one hour in Ramallah. The
meeting didn’t succeed in thawing the ice between Fatah and
Hamas. Some Palestinian pundits believe that the peace
process, or whatever semblance of it exists, can’t survive
true rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas. This is the
view of some high- ranking Fatah officials, such as Nabil
Amr, the new PA ambassador to Cairo.

Abbas and other high-ranking PA leaders have pointed out on
several occasions recently that peace talks with Israel are
making no substantive progress, especially on such key
issues such as Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, and the right
of return for Palestinian refugees. This, some Palestinian
observers thought, was key to restoring Palestinian unity.

The PA leadership, however, is still clinging to the peace
process for two main reasons: first, that international
–especially US — financial and political backing of the
PA is conditional on isolating “extremists”; second, the PA
is worried that in the event of it withdrawing from peace
talks with Israel, the Bush administration would hold the
Palestinian leadership, not Israel, responsible for the
collapse of the peace process.

Hence, according to one PA official who spoke to the Weekly
on condition of anonymity, “it may not be politically wise
for Abbas to re-embrace Hamas now.” He added: “I think
Palestinian unity can wait until the end of this year
because by then things will be clearer with regard to the
peace process with Israel. Also there will be a new
president in the White House, and Olmert, and perhaps
Abbas, may be out as well.”

Fatah, despite an outer façade of unity, is a divided
movement. This explains its failure — some say inability
— to convene the movement’s 19th General Congress that has
not been held for two decades. According to some Fatah
insiders, Abbas and colleagues are worried that if the
ballot box were to be the ultimate arbiter, the vast
majority of present Fatah leaders, including Abbas himself,
would be voted out.

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