Hamas and Fatah representatives showing deep concern over failed talks (AFP/File/Khaled Desouki)
Hamas and Fatah have announced that their talks in Cairo on a government of national unity have ended without agreement, to be resumed (perhaps) in three weeks. While some Egyptian sources are trying to spin this as a simple pause, with no deeper implications, few Arab commentators are buying it. Combined with the failure of the Doha summit and the formation of an extreme right-wing Israeli government, the suspension of Palestinian unity talks signals a rather depressing end to months of feverish diplomacy. Some brief thoughts:
Who is to blame for the failure of the talks? Hamas blames Fatah for being subservient to foreign influences (i.e. the U.S. and Israel), and Cairo for being too nakedly pro-Abu Mazen in its mediation. That's almost certainly right. Fatah blames Hamas for refusing to make basic concessions towards the Quartet conditions necessary for the international community to deal with a unity government. That's also almost certainly right. The Egyptians blame Qatar and Iran for stiffening the resolve of Hamas, while a lot of people blame Egypt for mismanaging the dialogue and being too obviously biased towards Fatah. Some point the finger at Washington, for not offering any positive signals which would lead either side to make the necessary conditions. The net takeaway from all those pointing fingers? The failure was probably over-determined.
Is the failure a bad thing? That depends on what you hoped to see accomplished. A lot of observers and players saw the talks as holding purely instrumental value, as an attempt to force Hamas to capitulate to Abu Mazen's leadership and the Quartet principles. They simply view Hamas as beyond the pale and would have seen any agreement which included them on more neutral terms as a failure -- and so the suspension of the talks may appear as a net positive. But others of us saw an urgent necessity in overcoming the Hamas-Fatah divide, for the reintegration of the West Bank and Gaza, the channeling of desperately needed reconstruction assistance to Gaza, and the negotiation of a coherent single Palestinian government and negotiating team. For what it's worth, 73% of Palestinians wanted to see a unity government. If you want to be glass half-full about it, I suppose you could argue that the new Israeli government wasn't going to deal with a Palestinian government of national unity anyway so they might as well take more time to get it right. But I'm more glass empty on this one, because...
Where do we go from here? Nowhere good, I fear.
- Without some kind of Palestinian agreement, there can't be legitimate new elections in the West Bank and Gaza -- so Abu Mazen will likely try to stay on despite the fact that his legal mandate ended long ago. He may also try to persuade Salam Fayyad to rescind his resignation. But whatever the case, the gap between Abu Mazen's group and the general Palestinian public which was accelerated by the Gaza war is likely to grow into a chasm.
- If American efforts primarily go into continuing to build the Palestinian security forces under General Keith Dayton's guidance, without any commensurate political progress, then we may be heading towards another round of intra-Palestinian conflict... but this time in the West Bank. It's especially alarming in this regard that both sides seem to feel that they would win such a conflict -- perfect conditions for a war to establish the real balance of power.
- The Israelis and the United States will likely now talk a lot about making the West Bank prosper and Gaza starve in order to demonstrate the benefits of pursuing peace. They said the exact same things a year and a half ago when Salam Fayyad took over, as Asad Abd Al-Rahman points out today, but the West Bank has notably failed to bloom. I'm fairly confident based on past precedent that all this talk will not in fact lead to the West Bank prospering -- and that settlement building and the other forms of Israeli occupation will proceed apace.
- More and more Palestinians are now talking about the prospect of the complete collapse of the Palestinian Authority. I don't think that's implausible at this point. Nor do I think that a new attempt to transform and rebuild the largely-defunct PLO -- as suggested by Khaled Meshaal a couple of months ago -- is out of the question.
- It's an open question whether Hamas will find other ways to rebuild Gaza, but its incentives to moderate its stand in order to reach a unity agreement will diminish for a while.
- Arab impatience with Cairo may boil over. As I mentioned the other day, the Egyptians had been basing their reinvigorated diplomacy on their handling of these talks. They failed to deliver, just as they failed to convince anyone to avoid the Doha summit (even if the summit failed on its own anyway). Calls by Qatar and others to diversify the patronage over the talks may well pick up steam now that the Egyptian efforts have gone into remission.
I'm hoping that the Obama team has a plan for how to deal with all of this, beyond the West Bank First, Fatah Only concept which has been on public display thus far... or simply shifting over to the Syria track and putting the Palestinian track on the back burner. Really hoping. Because WBF/FO isn't going to work... and the Palestinian track has a way of not staying on the back burner.