الرئيسية » هاني المصري »   06 آب 2023

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هاني المصري

"It is not an exaggeration to say that the outcomes of the El Alamein meeting fell short of even the lowest expectations," contends Palestinian commentator Hani al-Masri on the independent Palestinian news-portal www.masarat.ps.

It concluded with President Mahmoud 'Abbas announcing the formation of a follow-up committee without issuing a statement outlining the agreements reached, even out of courtesy to the host country and to claim an achievement to the public. This happened for two reasons:

First: The president was the star of the show from beginning to end. His legitimacy was reinforced even by the factions opposed to him. After all, he was the one who sent the invitations, chose the time, place, attendees, and duration of the meeting. He was the one who opened and closed the meeting and presided over everyone. He attended as the head of a delegation, but it was not the Fatah delegation, which was led by his deputy chairman, Mahmoud al-'Aloul. This is reminiscent of another occasion [when he avoided attending as a mere faction leader]. In last year's Algeria meeting, the president asked [Fatah representative] 'Azzam al-Ahmad not to co-sign the Algiers Declaration, despite the removal of the clause calling for the formation of a unity government after several factions refused to recognize international legitimacy unless it was in specific reference to UN resolutions that protect Palestinian rights. Ahmad signed the declaration on Fatah's behalf and later convinced the president that it was the right call due to the detriment not signing would cause to Palestinian/Algerian relations.

Second: Egypt did not serve as a sponsor, as it did in other reconciliation talks that took place on its soil. It was content to play the host. This afforded it some distance from the meeting, allowing it to applaud the outcomes if it succeeded and avoid the consequences if it failed.

To highlight the significance of this, it is worth noting that all the meetings that Egypt did sponsor were held in the Egyptian intelligence building and chaired by a national delegation. Most of these meetings resulted in agreements outlined in joint statements that were implemented in part before later collapsing, from the March 2005 Cairo Declaration to the May 2011 agreement and the October 2017 Empowerment Agreement.

The president was remarkably assertive. He took a clear, firm, non-negotiable position, from the moment he called for the secretaries-general meeting. He was just as firm in his speech in Jenin camp and in his refusal of all pleas and intercessions to release political prisoners – especially after the Islamic Jihad movement announced that it would not attend the meeting unless they were released. It would even have accepted the release of some prisoners before the meeting and the rest afterwards, but the president would not budge.

To understand the significance of this, consider what 'Abbas told Isma'il Haniyeh and the Hamas delegation in Turkey a few days before the El Alamein meeting. 'We will not allow recklessness and militants in the West Bank who seek to destabilize and topple the PA with their operations', he declared. It is unacceptable for Hamas to reach understandings with the occupation state to establish calm in Gaza while engaging in escalation in the West Bank, he argued. 'There must either be escalation in both arenas, or – and this is what should be the case – calm in both the West Bank and Gaza'.

In defense of his position, 'Abbas argued that resistance operations serve the hardline government in Tel Aviv and give it a pretext to continue its aggression against the Palestinians. 'The only effective way to deal with the occupation government is through peaceful resistance and ongoing efforts to persuade the U.S. administration to exert pressure on it', he stated.

In both Turkey and Egypt, the president maintained that he would not permit Hamas and Islamic Jihad to join the PLO unless they agreed to uphold international legitimacy and the PLO's commitments. Otherwise, he would jeopardize its international recognition. For the same reason, he would not agree to replace a recognized government with another that the world shuns.

Of course, Haniyeh denied that the resistance in the West Bank is targeting the PA rather than the occupation state. He called for an integrated resistance movement and to agree on a strategy to confront the occupation, while demanding the release of prisoners in PA custody.

If the reports are to be believed, at the meeting in Turkey, the Hamas delegation proposed to hold elections based on the 2020 Istanbul understandings, which stipulate forming a joint list with a Fatah majority and endorsing Mahmoud 'Abbas as a consensus candidate for the presidential elections. But the president snubbed the proposal.

A Hamas member or supporter would argue that this was proposed as a tactical maneuver, knowing that the president would reject it. But if it is a tactic, it is a very flimsy one, because it overlooks fundamental disagreements and Hamas' overall stances towards the policies and practices of 'Abbas and the PA – so much so that Hamas vacillates between accusing 'Abbas of excesses and treason, and then accepts his invitations to meet and agrees to endorse him as a consensus presidential candidate. This wavering between two extremes raises suspicions.

If we try to reconcile this, we find that it is consistent with Hamas' longstanding position that from the outset, it has never considered achieving unity to be dependent on ending the split or agreeing on a joint strategy. The Istanbul understandings were based on the assumption that the split is a reality, and efforts to resolve it must wait until after the elections. In other words, Hamas advocates coexisting with the split and striving to manage it.

Moreover, various past agreements, including those that the PA participated in, did not involve agreeing on a political program or on how to deal with the Oslo Accords and its provisions. This is a strong indication that Hamas initially preferred to participate in the PA, but after its coup/takeover of the Gaza Strip, it began to prioritize remaining in power. That is why it listens to the advice of its Qatari and Turkish allies and backers and respects the pro-reconciliation position of Egypt, its 'big brother' and Gaza's only neighbor. This explains why Hamas seemed so meek in all the aspects of the meeting from start to finish, and why it would agree to meet without ensuring serious preparation and a positive climate, and indeed amid tense conditions.

Some might argue that it is better to agree to manage the split or form a follow-up committee than to continue to deceive and collude against one another and to keep churning out statements that remain ink on paper. Meanwhile, the episodes of the reconciliation drama continue to unfold like an interminable Turkish soap opera full of ups and downs and success stories that soon turn out to be yet another failure, while we await the next season.

But who said there was an agreement to manage the split? There is no evidence of that, and no such thing has been agreed on. And who is to say that the follow-up committee will carry out its duties? It may meet the same fate as the interim leadership framework with broad powers established by the Cairo agreement, only to be whittled down to a clause stipulating a regular secretaries-general meeting that Hamas and other factions clung to like a lifeline. The same goes for the plan to hold elections, which was canceled at the last moment. Or the committees, and indeed governments, that were formed in the wake of reconciliation agreements only to collapse before, or barely after, seeing the light of day. All of this should serve as a lesson to deter the participants from falling into the same trap over and over again. All these committees and governments quickly collapse. Any committee, agreement, or framework of any kind requires common ground and governing principles to succeed.

If we assume for the sake of argument that the follow-up committee does convene, along with the secretaries-general assembly, it would lend legitimacy to the PA and president and reinforce his policies and choices. This would strengthen the PA's influence in Palestinian cities, and therefore its campaigns to contain or crack down on resistance brigades and groups, especially in Jenin and Nablus, without exacting any concessions in return – especially since the president has set his mind on a new version of the old wager on the possibility of creating political prospects to revive the 'two-state solution'. The president has reiterated on multiple occasions, 'We must prepare for what is to come. There are developments and changes unfolding in the region, in the world, and in Israel, and we must prepare for them'.

Now consider what this means in light of reports of U.S. efforts to broker a major Saudi/Israeli normalization deal, which includes provisions regarding the Palestinian issue. When asked in a private interview why the U.S. administration is neglecting the Palestinian cause and the Palestinians while prioritizing Saudi/Israeli normalization, a U.S. official responded: 'This happened after the Saudi crown prince informed Washington that he had taken a strategic decision to make peace with Israel and presented the terms that the U.S. must meet in return, but asked for time to formulate his demands regarding the Palestinian issue.'

The deal would see Saudi Arabia taking a step back from China in return for ending the official annexation of the West Bank and creating prospects for a political settlement, but without a full-fledged Palestinian state, which both the Israeli government and opposition reject. It would also stipulate providing generous support for the PA to prevent its collapse, ensuring a smooth transition of power, launching operations in the Marine gas field [offshore Gaza] as well a major projects in the Beit Hanoun crossing and Sinai, and opening the El Arish airport and sea port for the use of Gazans.

But this deal is likely to be torpedoed by the current Israeli government. Therefore, it will be necessary to dissolve it and form a new one that excludes most of the ultra-hardline ministers and includes less hardline figures like Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz.

The PA and 'Abbas have scored a goal, or rather multiple goals, against Hamas and the other factions, which are locked in disagreement. To mask their disappointment, they argue that the mere fact that the meeting was convened is progress, forgetting that it came in the wake of a long saga of failed meetings and agreements. They argue that the absence of a concluding statement is better anyway, overlooking the fact that it gives the official leadership license to do as it pleases. The factions are amenable to the formation of a follow-up committee due to the lack of preparation, as if the important thing is that they are recognized and represented in a committee, and not that it has an impact or serves a program.

Why did they not demand thorough preparation before holding the meeting? That is not an unreasonable condition. In fact, it is a requirement for success. Instead, most of the factions attended unconditionally, in the absence of a positive climate or adequate preparation for the meeting. There were some factions that boycotted, but this points to a rift between factions engendered by a broader dispute over resistance strategies, which led to Islamic Jihad fighting three battles without Hamas (in 2019, 2022, and 2023). Some agree with the 'truce for economic benefits and easing the blockade' formula, per the understandings enabling the flow of Qatari grant funds, providing 20,000 Gazans with permits to work in Israel, and boosting commercial exchange with Egypt, which accounts for 43% of the Strip's total trade volume. There are also attempts to develop these understandings into a long-term truce in exchange for lifting the blockade and implementing major projects, but no agreement has been reached on this yet.

Hamas' failure to reach an agreement on a unified program and a single political strategy for the national struggle and to present a theoretical and practical alternative to the official leadership's approach, whether alone or in collaboration with other factions, explains what has happened and what may happen. This has empowered the president to regain the initiative, despite the PA's significant deterioration, especially following the rise of resistance in the West Bank, in light of the lack of political process and the catastrophic results of the Oslo track. In recent years especially, the bar has fallen far short of the Oslo provisions. This is further compounded by the deterioration and dispute within Fatah due to the competition for succession, as indicated by the failure to convene the eighth congress or even reschedule it.

All of these weaknesses can be leveraged to an advantage if one commands awareness, courage, and fortitude to forge a new path. But in the process, one must not idolize the PA, which has become an end in itself rather than a means to the state. And one must not opt for an establishment that emulates the PA and vacillates between it and resistance, while often favoring the former. It is also not enough to embrace a third option of adopting resistance without a comprehensive political project, as if resistance were an idol to worship rather than a means to achieve the Palestinian people's immediate and long-term aspirations and interests.

The Palestinian cause, people, and land are facing an existential threat. This has the potential to be a great unifying factor, if the resolve is present. This threat will not recede if the current Netanyahu government, with its decisive agenda in pursuit of the rapid annexation of the West Bank and the liquidation of the Palestinian cause, is dissolved. It would only be replaced by a government with a gradual annexation and expansionist agenda that also seeks, in its own way, to liquidate the Palestinian cause in all its facets.

"This is entailed by such a government's mere idea of maintaining political separation from the Palestinians under a self-rule formula while maintaining control of their land and everything on it and under it," concludes Masri.