Palestinian Pessimism in Cairo

For all the anticipation over the first official meeting, coming up on Monday, between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, there’s another very important event for the MidEast peace process starting today, in Cairo, that seems to be under the radar of most of the press. But not that of the German business newspaper Handelsblatt; it has put out a commentary (Why the Palestinians cannot unite), by one Abdel Mottaleb El Husseini, a free-lance journalist, on the conclave scheduled in Egypt between representatives of the two main organizations claiming to represent Palestinian interests, namely Fatah (of the West Bank, headquartered in Ramallah) and Hamas (of Gaza).

This will actually be the fifth round of such inter-Palestinian negotiations; unfortunately, as his article’s title reveals, El Husseini cannot hold out much hope for any progress in uniting the two factions this time, either. That’s too bad, since that would be a nice gift that Fatah leader (and current “Palestinian president”) Mahmoud Abbas could bring along when he himself visits Obama on May 28. More to the point, though, that coming-together is necessary in order to produce a single Palestinian negotiating team with the required political legitimacy to be able to sit down with Israel’s representatives to hammer out an agreement on some two-state solution to finally push the decades-long Israeli-Arab confrontation substantially closer to peace.

Oops, there’s a problem: that two-state solution, as El Husseini reminds us, is not accepted as something to be aimed for in at all by a couple of important parties here, namely the new Netanyahu government in Israel and by Hamas. Sure, it’s the solution prescribed by players outside the area – most importantly the Americans, but also the Europeans – and has been endorsed by Abbas. But Abbas is in a weak position these days; as El Husseini puts it, “President Abbas must . . . wage war against Hamas and against the dissolution-process in his own organization.” For one thing, he does not have a proper government in place there in the West Bank; the last one, headed by Salam Fayyad, resigned last March, and on 7 May Abbas told Fayyad to form a new one. But this move has run into resistance even from other Fatah politicians. (El Husseini’s article does not say why; it might have to do with the fact that the Palestinian Basic Law – their constitution – requires any new prime minister receive the approval of the Legislative Council, which itself is currently in limbo because, from the last election, Hamas holds the majority of seats in it.)

This seeming weakness on the part of Mahmoud Abbas merely reflects the deeper reality, according to El Husseini, of his relative unpopularity among his electorate. His real “constituency” has become the Americans and the Europeans, who provide him the funds that enables him to keep on governing – not that he has shown himself do be able to do anything about either the ever-increasing Israeli West Bank settlements or the barricades and checkpoints throughout that territory that make the lives of most Palestinians living there pure hell.

Abbas and his Fatah organization get no assistance from Israel, either. As El Husseini points out, if Abbas could show some sort of progress in negotiations with the Israelis, that would strengthen Fatah’s position significantly against Hamas. But it has none to show, and seems particularly unlikely to achieve any such progress with this new hard-line Israeli government. What we have instead in effect is a de facto Israel-Hamas alliance against any two-state solution, i.e. against any further progress towards Middle East peace. That is the riddle President Obama must contemplate during the series of important visits he has on his agenda in the near future.

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