Dialogue of the deaf?

Are Fatah and Hamas really going to talk, asks Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah

In a terse speech marking 41 years since the 1967 Arab-
Israeli war, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
called for a broad national dialogue with Hamas that would
bolster national unity and place the Palestinian people in
a better position to end Israel’s occupation of the West
Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

“I call for a comprehensive national dialogue in order to
implement the Yemeni initiative [between Fatah and
Hamas]… We are doing this in order to end the national
division that has caused the worst damage ever to our cause
and increased the level of suffering of our people in
Gaza,” said Abbas.

“For this national dialogue to succeed I will act on the
Arab and international levels to secure the support we need
to augment the move in a way that will restore to our
people their national unity and provide a stronger
guarantee for the restoration of our inalienable rights to
self determination, return and independent statehood.”

Abbas, who has been meeting with Arab leaders to expedite
his initiative, said he would call for new presidential and
legislative elections but did not say if the holding of
such elections would be conditional on a successful outcome
of the dialogue with Hamas or, indeed, the conclusion of a
peace agreement with Israel.

After a brief visit to Egypt on Monday where he met with
President Hosni Mubarak, Nabil Amro, Palestinian ambassador
to Cairo, announced plans for Egypt to host a meeting of
all the Palestinian factions.

On 7 June, a day after Abbas gave his speech, Ismail
Haniyeh, prime minister of the ousted Hamas government in
Gaza, welcomed Abbas’s overture and urged him to take
“swift steps” to facilitate the holding of a fruitful
dialogue.

Haniyeh called for political prisoners to be released,
offices reopened and civil servants sacked because of their
political affiliation to be reinstated. He urged Abbas to
order his security forces to stop arresting Hamas
supporters in the West Bank as an expression of good will.
Haniyeh also called for an immediate end to the year-old
propaganda war between Fatah and Hamas and said he had
instructed Hamas’s media in Gaza to stop attacks on the
Palestinian Authority and Fatah.

In return Nimr Hammad, chief advisor to and spokesman for
Abbas, ordered the suspension of incitement against Hamas
“in the interest of Palestinian national unity”.

Observers in Palestine see Abbas’s speech as a tacit
acknowledgement that American-backed peace talks with
Israel have failed. The speech suggested that Abbas now
despairs of even a semblance of US evenhandedness towards
the Palestinians, especially after George Bush’s speech
before the Knesset in which he displayed his
administration’s complete infatuation with Israel.

But Abbas’s speech could also be interpreted as a defensive
reflex to counter recent decisions by Israel which his
critics argue underscore Israel’s disregard for the entire
peace process, including a new law enacted by the Knesset
adopting Jerusalem, including Arab-East Jerusalem, as the
eternal capital of Israel and the Jewish people, as well as
Olmert’s government’s dogged insistence on settlement
building in the West Bank.

Abbas’s speech coincided with the first anniversary of
Hamas’s counter-coup in Gaza and the failure of Israeli,
American, European and Fatah efforts to destroy the Hamas
government through economic blockade.

One Fatah official told Al-Ahram Weekly that the PA in
Ramallah feels increasingly that the Bush administration is
treating it as if it were a “quisling entity” rather than
the national representative authority of the Palestinian
people.

“I think some of our people here have got the feeling that
the US and Israel were utilising the Fatah-Hamas rift to
place the PA under American-Israeli tutelage and cripple
its ability to recover Palestinian rights. Abbas’s speech
can be seen as a sort of wakening from this illusion.”

While most Palestinians welcomed Abbas’s call for
unconditional national dialogue, some Palestinians question
whether the PA leadership in Ramallah really has the will
to pursue successful reconciliation talks with Hamas given
its near total dependence on American financial and
political backing.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly conveyed
to Abbas her “worries” about any rapprochement with Hamas
without the latter first recognising Israel, renouncing
armed resistance and accepting the peace process.

Meanwhile, Israel this week temporarily paralysed the
Palestinian government in Ramallah by refusing to transfer
Palestinian tax revenues, forcing the American-backed
Fayyad government to postpone the payment of salaries to
more than 160,000 civil servants for a week. One
Palestinian commentator viewed the move as a “stern
warning” to the PA against mending bridges with Hamas.

“If they are willing to sever payment of customs revenues
to the PA, imagine what they would do if Fatah and Hamas
agreed to establish a government of national unity,” said
Hani Al-Masri.

Statements issued on Tuesday by Amro are already predicting
problems ahead. He told reporters: “US, American and I
don’t want to say Arab pressures” have been exercised over
Abbas to retreat from his call for direct talks with Hamas.

Meanwhile, Damascus-based Hamas political bureau chief
Khaled Meshaal on Tuesday called for a meeting between
eight Palestinian factions to be held in the Syrian capital
next week “to boost national unity”.

Last week Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni openly
warned Abbas against “getting closer to Hamas”.

“Abbas knows the Israeli position in this regard,” Livni
told the Israeli state-run radio.

Some pro-Hamas pundits privately accuse Abbas, whose term
in office has six months to run, of electioneering. Abbas
had indicated on several occasions that he was close to
resigning and would not seek a second term as president of
the PA, statements that have been discounted as an attempt
to pressure Israel to be more forthcoming in peace talks.

This week Ahmed Qurei, number-two in the PA’s political
hierarchy, told reporters that Fatah was for general
legislative and presidential elections and that Abbas would
be Fatah’s candidate for the post of PA chair. Abbas’s
extended hand may well be a tactical gesture aimed at
placing the PA leadership in an advantageous position
vis-à-vis the elections.

Many Hamas supporters are unlikely to give Abbas the
benefit of the doubt. They would argue that Abbas’s speech
is a pre-emptive gesture, likely to be followed by a
wide-scale Israeli invasion of Gaza. In this case, goes the
argument here, Abbas will be able to deny any collusion or
connivance with Israel, pointing to his call for
rapprochement with the Islamic movement.

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