Voice

Levy: Fallout of the Fatah-Hamas Breakdown

I'm still recovering from my Jordan trip and will have a few comments of my own soon.  But in the meantime, Daniel Levy has offered up this set of comments on the implications of the latest setback in the Hamas-Fatah talks (which I think predates this morning's report in Haaretz that the U.S. had  allegedly warned the Egyptians that it opposed a national unity government agreement which did not meet the Quartet preconditions).  I would only add that none of the  Jordanians I spoke with -- whether Muslim Brotherhood or regime officials -- thought that a real Hamas-Fatah agreement was likely, even if a piece of paper might at some point be signed.  More on that later. 

GUEST POST

Daniel Levy: The Latest Blow to Palestinian Unity Efforts 

Rumors have been circulating in recent weeks of the imminent signing, in Cairo at the end of this month, of an Egyptian-brokered Palestinian reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. There is even what purports to be an agreed draft document in existence. Over the past week, that unity deal appeared less and less likely, notably against the backdrop of the fallout from the PA’s abandonment of the Goldstone report at the UN Human Rights Council and the dramatic impact that had on the already compromised standing of the Fatah leadership (and the way it strengthened Hamas’s hand). 

Well as of yesterday, the reconciliation agreement has been put on indefinite hold. PLO Chair and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas gave a televised speech in Ramallah in which he explained and defended the PA Ramallah’s position and launched a frontal verbal assault on Hamas. Within hours, Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal responded from Damascus with an assertive pushback, a withering critique of Abbas’s leadership and a definitive ‘no’ to any unity under current circumstances. Deposed Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh weighed in today from Gaza in support of Meshaal’s position, and on the flip side, some of Fatah’s leaders have begun to rally around their embattled leader.  

It is not clear what Egypt’s next steps will be or how this will unfold in the coming weeks. Marc Lynch has been kind of enough to allow me to post this guest blog with five observations on this latest deterioration in the internal Palestinian political situation.  

1. Abbas tries to shore up his base, Hamas overplays its hand

Mahmoud Abbas’s account of the PA/PLO’s management of the Goldstone report and his insistence that it will now be acted upon will do little to sway or convince his domestic political opponents or just about anyone in the NGO/human rights community, or third party/independent political forces in the Palestinian territories or diaspora. But they were apparently not his target audience in yesterday’s speech – rather, he seemed to be appealing to his home base inside Fatah.  

To recover from recent setbacks, Abbas has apparently decided he needs to first of all re-establish his standing inside Fatah, and he has started to do that by taking off the gloves and offering lots of red meat in his attacks on the enemy… not Israel, stupid, but Hamas. After a summer of impressive politicking by Abbas with the Fatah conference and filling of vacancies in the PLO’s Executive Committee, everything was beginning to fall apart as key Fatah members joined the unprecedented outpouring of anger expressed over the PLO’s Goldstone decision.  

Abbas provided just enough yesterday to give those parts of the Palestinian press that are PA-controlled (and who also found themselves having to join the criticism), and the PA-Fatah nomenklatura a just-about-plausible narrative to fight back with.  

Abbas received help from an unlikely source – Khalid Meshaal, who overplayed his hand by abruptly saying ‘no’ to reconciliation, thereby allowing some of the blame in the public debate to shift from Fatah to Hamas. This was picked up eagerly by the pro-Abbas elements of the PA-Fatah echo chamber, for instance in today’s editorial in the pro-PA Palestinian al-Quds.  
 

2. The Abbas-Fatah-PA Position Remains Tenuous  
Even though Abbas came out punching in his press conference and has shored up some Fatah support, it is still very unlikely to be enough to reverse the trends of the past weeks which run heavily against his leadership group. Even yesterday’s statement failed to provide a reasonable explanation on the Goldstone affair, to really accept responsibility, or to draw a line under this episode. The criticism of Abbas & Co. in the past fortnight has been dramatic. The handling of the Goldstone report was the latest and by far the most damning of a series of setbacks.
 

First Abbas attended the New York trilateral meeting without initially securing an Israeli settlement freeze, contradicting his own commitments (and the claim that he was just attending a meeting, not resuming negotiations–while actually quite logical and diplomatic–was not effective in political terms). Even prior to New York, a powerful anti-PA narrative existed regarding its ongoing security and economic cooperation (for the critics, read: collaboration) with Israel, suggesting the PA was acting for personal and patronage self-interests, and as a subcontractor of the occupation, rather than standing up for and defending Palestinian interests. Then came the release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Hamas producing video evidence of Gilad Shalit’s well-being (and Abbas hosting the released prisoners in Ramallah fooled nobody).  

The Goldstone debacle was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and yesterday will do little to reverse that tide. Abbas continues to be in an unenviable position. That is likely to remain the case until there is either a shakeup in Palestinian politics or until Fatah presents and acts on an alternative to its longstanding strategy of being exclusively negotiations-dependent. The Fatah leadership is simply still bought-in to a political strategy that has been fatally undermined and flawed, namely that with US support it will negotiate with Israel a way out of occupation and to independence, and will do so without a serious effort to mobilize international pressure or domestic resistance whether of the non-violent or violent kind (I’m not advocating any of the above, just setting out the debate).  

The US, put simply, has not delivered Israel. The Israelis are not dismantling the occupation of their own free will, and the PA-Fatah strategy has precious little traction with its own people. 
 

3. Can any good come out of this latest spat?

In actual fact, the collapse of the latest Cairo effort may not be such a bad thing. The draft document under discussion raised more questions than it answered, and a unity effort based on such a document would likely have collapsed in very short order. One of Abu Mazen’s closest confidants was heard recently to say that if the previous unity agreement lasted three months, this one would have barely lasted three days. Partly this reflects the state of play and more deepened animosity between the key actors in Fatah and Hamas. But it also has something to do with the mediation effort.  

The Egyptian monopoly in leading the reconciliation effort is just not helpful or conducive to success. Egypt has a role to play but it cannot be the exclusive mediator. Following the visit of Saudi King Abdullah to Damascus last week and the ongoing rapprochement between the Syrians and the Saudis, there is a strong case to be made for broadening the mediation effort to include these two key actors and perhaps others in addition, notably Turkey, Qatar, and if they were willing to play a role, Jordan too.  

A reconstituted Palestinian polity and national movement is likely to be crucial to any successful peace effort, and an optimistic take on the latest set-back to unity is that it could presage a redoubled effort in the future that is more effectively and solidly structured.

 

4. A Pyrrhic victory for Israel

The Israeli government has largely refrained from commenting thus far on these developments. If previous positions are anything to go by (and in this case, they most certainly are), then Israel’s political leadership will be encouraging further Palestinian division and enjoying every moment of it. At first glance, it would seem to make sense for Israel to favor a divided, and thereby weakened, Palestinian interlocutor/adversary.  

For any Israeli government seeking to maintain the status quo and avoid any hard choices on peace, a logic of win-win may even apply here. If the Palestinians remain divided then Israel can bemoan the lack of domestic legitimacy or capacity to implement of its Palestinian partner (“What’s the point of cutting a deal with Abbas? He can’t deliver anyway,” they would say).  

If there is a unity agreement, then Israel can claim that the Palestinian interlocutor has done a deal with the devil (as in Hamas), is now tainted with terrorism, and is therefore no longer a legitimate negotiating partner. In today’s circumstance, one can even throw a further ‘win’ into the mix – the Palestinian political standoff will make it even more difficult for Abbas to begin negotiations  without a settlement freeze, Israel ain’t doing a settlement freeze, and the Palestinian can be blamed for the lack of progress! 

The Israeli government’s standard modus operandi would now be to very publicly declare the need to strengthen its Palestinian partner, throw them a few economic bones, maybe a new frequency for a second mobile phone operator, or even a minor and highly sectarian prisoner release. The entirely predictable effect of this is, of course, to further stigmatize and delegitimize the Palestinian recipient of this faux largesse.  

Such a strategy may all seem terribly smart to its Israeli designers but I would suggest that this is an enormously costly and tragic pyrrhic victory. The net effect of this ongoing approach is to render ever less viable and likely a two-state solution. That in itself is far more threatening to Israel’s future than to the Palestinians (who, unlike any adherent to Zionism, can accept or even prefer a one state outcome).  
 

5. What does it all mean for America’s peace efforts?

I’ll keep this brief. Abbas is now in an even worse position to sign up for the new formula of resuming negotiations sans settlement freeze. Such bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would anyway now be rendered even less likely to produce a groundbreaking or even constructive outcome. 

I’ve argued elsewhere that for all the criticism that it has encountered, the Mitchell approach actually has its advantages and has created some useful potential pivots for the US peace effort. The diplomatic shuttling of Special Envoy Senator George Mitchell between the parties is likely to prove more productive at this stage than getting the parties to sit together. The most important conversations will anyway need to take place between America and each of its interlocutors – the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Arab states. Those conversations should now be shifting to a more sustained focus on the nature and details of a post-occupation two-state reality.  

The US needs to continue to work towards an appropriate moment, in the not too distant future, for presenting an internationally backed American implementation proposal for a viable and dignified two-state outcome.  

In that effort, the lack of a resumption of direct talks does not represent a setback, but the deepening division inside the Palestinian polity does. The Obama Administration cannot continue for much longer to sit this one out (de facto encouraging the split). A public U-turn is unnecessary; rather, the US should be quietly encouraging its allies and non-allies in the region to step into the breech (the aforementioned Saudis, Syrians, Turks, Qataris …etc) to supplement Egyptian efforts, and to help restructure a Palestinian national movement that can carry forward a serious peace effort.  

Daniel Levy is a Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation. He blogs at Prospects for Peace.

Marc Lynch

Tough times for the Awakenings -- crisis or opportunity?

 Like most people who follow Iraq, I've been watching the mounting tensions surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence with some concern.   I don't think that we're seeing the "great unravelling" quite yet, nor that we're yet seeing a return to higher levels of violence, insurgency and civil war.   But the increased violence and the growing chorus of complaints about the failures of political accommodation should be a cautionary note to the Iraqi government and to the major political players that time is running out to make the crucial political power-sharing agreements necessary before American troop withdrawals pick up their pace.

 The arrest of a leading Awakenings figure by Iraqi Security Forces which led to a highly-publicized military standoff a few weeks ago is only one instance of a wider pattern.  Tensions surrounding that arrest were exacerbated by an inflammatory blizzard of statements by Maliki and others warning that the Awakenings had been infilitrated by Baathists and al-Qaeda.  A series of attacks by unknown groups have added to the tension.  It all adds up to a general sense of apprehension, with members of the Awakenings worried about their future and many others worried that the security situation may be on the brink.

 The situation is extremely murky, and it's hard to really know anything with confidence.  What I've been seeing in the Iraqi and Arab media, and hearing from the people I've spoken with, is a wide range of competing interpretations and arguments over everything from the identity of the attackers (al-Qaeda? rival Awakenings groups? Shi'a militias looking to stir things up?) to the intentions of the Iraqi government (eliminate the Awakenings?  weed out the 'bad elements' within them? force the U.S. to take sides, and test the U.S. implementation of the SOFA?).  The high level of uncertainty and confusion is itself a significant point -- the impact of fear and uncertainty on strategic calculations should never be underestimated.

 Given all that uncertainty, it would be unwise to offer a confident assessment of what's really going on.  But the emerging crisis surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence do both seem to be primarily driven by the continuing refusal of Maliki and the Iraqi government to make meaningful political accommodations and their decision to move against at least some of the Awakenings groups at a convenient moment.  

 The official moves against the Awakenings look like salami tactics, divide and rule rather than a full-scale assault. Maliki, as in the past, seems quite happy to work with parts of the Anbar Awakenings (talk of a political deal with Ahmed Abu Risha is in the air again) even as he moves against Awakenings elsewhere.  Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are.  They are likely gambling that this fragmentation creates such intense coordination problems that they can take out a few of their most dangerous potential enemies here and there without triggering a widespread Sunni uprising.  Watching the reaction of the various Awakenings thus far -- as some protested angrily but others cheered -- suggests that they are right.  It's a dangerous game, though.  The question would be whether there is some tipping point, at which a large number of uncoordinated and self-interested small groups suddenly switch sides (as arguably happened in the other direction in the spring of 2007).

 It would not take a revolt en masse for a change in the status of the Awakenings to have an effect on security.  In a recent interview with al-Arabiya, Salah al-Mutlaq warned that the government's failure to deliver on its promises of security and civil jobs to the Awakenings and the arrest of a number of Awakenings leaders were spreading fear and uncertainty through their ranks. Members who aren't getting paid, see their leaders targeted, and see diminishing prospects of future payoffs could begin to fade away. They could stop performing their local security functions, allowing violent groups easier access to areas which had been off-limits for the last year or two.   Or some could return to violent action in an individual capacity -- and even if only 10% went that route, that could put 10,000 hardened fighters back into play (in addition to people recently released from the prisons, another issue which factors in here).

 The crackdown on the Awakenings has regional implications as well, particularly with the ever-skeptical Saudis who have generally supported the Awakenings movements.  The Arab press has taken careful note of their reversal of fortunes, which Adel al-Bayati in al-Quds al-Arabi calls Maliki's coup against the Awakenings.  Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (which usually reflects official Saudi thinking), complains bitterly today that recent events have made his warnings from last August about the coming betrayal of the Awakenings come true.  The Awakenings were not bearing arms against the Iraqi state, argues Homayed, but rather were protecting the Iraqi state against al-Qaeda and assisting its stabilization ahead of the American withdrawal. But, he warns, narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences. 

 This reflects a theme which extends beyond the Saudi sphere. Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accommodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings.  The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the "true Shia sectarianism" of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq.  

 I'm obviously worried about all of this.  I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due.  But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action. 

 That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence.  It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken.  Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress.  President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011.    Maliki and everyone need to take deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't.