The Fatah-Hamas unity agreement reached in Mecca last week has powerful implications for all regional players. The most serious challenge it poses is to U.S. diplomacy. [..]
Israel: Back to February 2006?
In Israel, the political echelon seems to be unsure of its response to the Mecca accord. At his weekly cabinet meeting yesterday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his government “neither accepts nor rejects” the accord, which seemed not to keep pace with the fact that some key governments, such as France and Russia, had already reacted positively to the idea of including Hamas in regional diplomacy. For Israel, critical decisions need to be made, such as the continuation of financial and security support to Abbas. In essence, Israel finds itself today in exactly the same situation it was in exactly a year ago, when Abbas first appointed Haniyeh to serve as prime minister. At the time, Olmert, Tzipi Livni and other leaders of the Kadima party said the right approach for Israel was to see no distinction between Abbas and Haniyeh, a position that evolved considerably over time. Returning to that position today will require an abrupt shift in Israeli diplomacy, which can only be achieved in full coordination with the United States.
Dilemmas for Washington
The Mecca accord presents the United States with more serious dilemmas than any other party. At the two ends of the spectrum, Washington’s options are as follows:
â€¢to declare that Mecca has erased any distinction between moderate and radical in the Palestinian camp, suspend all efforts at direct assistance to Abbas, withdraw Gen. Keith Dayton’s security assistance team, and curtail efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian “political horizon.”
â€¢to consider Mecca a purely internal, and quite insignificant, intra-Palestinian affair that has no bearing either on existing international conditions for a renewal of aid to the PA, which still stand, or on diplomatic efforts to pursue Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, which would go forward. In other words, the United States could behave as if the Mecca accord were irrelevant.
The Bush administration is unlikely to want to pursue either route to its logical conclusion. It would prefer not to take a public position against Palestinian unity, even if such unity comes at the price of progress toward peace. Yet it surely realizes that, with Mecca, the sun has set on the pursuit of a “political horizon.”
To complicate matters even further, this setback to one key initiative advanced by the administration comes at a time when another key U.S.-backed initiative — UN Security Council Resolution 1701, the Lebanon ceasefire accord — is under pressure as well. Here, the problem is repeated reports of substantial efforts by Syria to transfer weapons to Hizballah in direct contravention of the resolution. Last week, for example, German media reported the transfer of one hundred containers of Russian-made antitank weapons from Syria to Hizballah, under the watchful gaze of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers. Israeli defense minister Amir Peretz has publicly warned that, given the ineffectiveness of international guarantees preventing Hizballah’s resupply, Israel may have to take its own action. [Peretz never acts, he just warns.]
Collectively, these setbacks suggest that the Bush administration needs to revisit some of its key presumptions about the potential for stability and progress on various Arab-Israeli fronts and what is necessary to achieve them. Before taking further incremental steps on either the Palestinian or the Lebanese front, it is essential for Washington to reach strategic understandings with two players — the Israelis and the Saudis — on the direction of policy. With both Jerusalem and Riyadh, there are obvious tensions that need to be addressed. The Hamas issue is central: Strategically, both Israel and Saudi Arabia support the idea of Sunni cooperation to counter the rise of Iranian influence but tactically, they differ as to whether Hamas is part of the problem or part of the solution. In this context, did the Saudis purposefully “disrespect” the United States in mediating the Mecca Accord or could they possibly have believed that Washington was neutral or even supportive of an agreement that may have failed on the scorecard of the Quartet’s conditions but that may ostensibly have succeeded in separating Hamas from its Iranian backers?
In this context, Washington might explore whether the potential exists for Israel and Saudi Arabia to engage more publicly in their own diplomacy. Given the limits on what can be achieved between Israelis and Palestinians after Mecca, expanding the orbit of regional diplomacy may make sense, especially if the Saudis are interested in arguing that Mecca not only ends Palestinian infighting but actually contributes to regional security. Since both Israelis and Saudis say they are keen to prevent the spread of Iranian influence in the Levant, the two sides would seem to have much to talk about, not least of which is a practical implementation plan for the eventual all-Arab recognition of Israel, the cornerstone of the Saudi peace initiative. This would, in essence, be the negotiation of an Arab Roadmap that would complement the existing Quartet Roadmap and would provide Israel with a countervailing set of incentives to those that the pursuit of a “political horizon” provides for Palestinians. There are many potential formats for this sort of engagement — and there is a precedent: Saudi participation at the mother of all peace conferences in Madrid in 1991.
Dealing with regional diplomacy is no substitute for addressing the Mecca accord itself. Here, there is no avoiding the fact that while the United States welcomes Sunni Arab cooperation to counter rising Iranian influence, it cannot countenance the legitimization of an unreformed extremist organization like Hamas. It might have been a close call if Hamas had grudgingly uttered a formula close to the Quartet’s conditions, but Hamas won the brass ring without having to compromise.
In this regard, and in the absence of some other attractive regional option to occupy diplomacy, U.S. policy should reconsider the original intent of President Bush’s landmark 2002 Rose Garden address, delivered with then-National Security Advisor Rice at his side:
“I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts. . . . And when the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions, and new security arrangements with their neighbors, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state whose borders and certain aspects of its sovereignty will be provisional until resolved as part of a final settlement in the Middle East.”
Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute.