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Disappointment at Sharm al-Sheikh

 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's appearance at the Sharm al-Sheihk conference for the reconstruction of Gaza is shaping up as a disappointment. Her address to the conference did speak eloquently about the need for a Palestinian state and American commitment to achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace.   But her remarks suggest that rather than seize on the possibility of Palestinian reconciliation, Clinton prefers to double-down on the shopworn "West Bank first, Fatah only" policy which has been conspiciously failing for the last two years.  The concrete manifestation:  two-thirds of the U.S. contribution to the reconstruction of Gaza will go not to Gaza but to the West Bank.

 I understand what Clinton is trying to do, and appreciate the challenges facing her team as it navigates this shattered environment. But her approach risks missing an important possible opportunity to reshuffle the deck.  Clinton has been pouring cold water on the hopes that the Fatah-Hamas dialogue might lead to a workable national unity government by insisting that such a government would only be acceptable if it met the pre-existing Quartet conditions. Before she left for the Middle East, for instance, she told Voice of America that she didn't seem much value in Palestinian reconciliation except under those conditions:

"if there is some reconciliation and a move toward a unified authority, that it’s very clear that Hamas knows the conditions that have been set forth by the Quartet, by the Arab summit. And they must renounce violence, recognize Israel, and abide by previous commitments; otherwise, I don’t think it will result in the kind of positive step forward either for the Palestinian people or as a vehicle for a reinvigorated effort to obtain peace that leads to a Palestinian state." 

Her remarks at Sharm al-Sheikh pointedly referred only to "our Palestinian partners" Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, who were repeatedly singled out for praise.  Hamas, of course, was not invited to the conference (Israel wasn't there either, oddly enough, meaning that neither of the two most relevant players in Gaza reconstruction were represented at the Gaza reconstruction conference).  All of the promised U.S. aid will have to go through the PA, according to reports, but Hamas, which criticized its exclusion, is unlikely to allow the promised aid to enter Gaza on those terms (even if Israel does begin to allow it to enter, another major question mark). 

This all seems stuck in a bit of time-warp.  It ignores the two year history of Israeli and Western failure under the identical discourse and policy to deliver meaningful benefits to the Palestinian Authority or the West Bank. It ignores the reality of Hamas power in Gaza, and the reality of Fatah's limited capabilities and legitimacy (which were not enhanced, shall we say, by Abbas's performance during the Gaza war).  And it ignores the promise of the dramatic moves towards Arab reconciliation and the accomplishment of a tentative Hamas-Fatah accord last week (for Arabic readers, I recommend Khaled al-Hroub's smart analysis of the prospects for this accord in today's al-Ittihad).  

 Perhaps this is simply an opening bid, but the signals do matter and Clinton could have done more to suggest constructive ways for the reconciliation talks to proceed.  The leading Arab powers have been working towards unifying their ranks and achieving a Palestinian national accord ahead of the upcoming Doha Summitt. Presumably the goal was to be in a position to offer a renewed Arab peace initiative for George Mitchell to work with.  If the Arab backers of this reconciliation process don't see any prospect of the U.S. agreeing to work with it, will they stop wasting their time?

The effects of Clinton's signals may already be starting to be felt.  Abd al-Bari Atwan, editor of the leading "resistance camp" newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, suggests that yesterday's comments by Mahmoud Abbas suggest that he is being emboldened by Clinton's approach to already move away from the lines of the Cairo accord.  Reports are already trickling in about the Hamas-Fatah committee meetings get bogged down. And Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal reportedly repeated yesterday warnings by other members of the Saudi leadership yesterday that the Arab peace initiative would not be on offer to Israel forever. 

I understand the complexity of the situation, and the difficulties the new administration faces in grappling with the Hamas challenge.  But at the same time, it's hard to see the "West Bank first, Fatah only" policy doing any better now than it has done over the last two empty years -- especially given the new Israeli leadership, the sudden opening on the Arab side, and the temporary window of opportunity for the new administration to change the terms of engagement.  I hope that Clinton's team doesn't lose this opportunity for really meaningful change. 

UPDATE: her handshake with her Syrian counterpart, on the other hand, was a useful signal, as was the promise of active American involvement.  The trick is to get that involvement pointed in productive directions and not get trapped in an out-dated and demonstrably failed track.

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