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The Palestinians - Hamas Wins Over Fatah In A Mecca Agreement Brokered By Saudis.

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NICOSIA - The Feb. 8 agreement in Mecca between Fatah and Hamas on forming a unity government has been greeted with relief by many Palestinians as their best hope for an end to the fighting which had killed 100 Palestinians since December. But the details remain vague, while the deal is in favour of Hamas.

While the US, Israel and most European states were cautious in their reactions, it was clear this new government will not meet the international community's three benchmarks for normal relations. In that sense, the meeting was a success for Hamas, whose spokesmen have since Feb. 9 taken time to proudly discuss their unwillingness to meet all three conditions: to recognise the right of Israel to exist, to forswear violence and to accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

The Mecca deal presented a dilemma for the US, which will have to work hard to keep unity in the Quartet - the US, EU, Russia and the UN - on the need for a new government to accept all three conditions to qualify for direct budget support. The deal caused a split in Quartet ranks. Russia, France and new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the deal. But Israel and its closest allies are not happy as the deal does not address the recognition.

The US is reluctant to dismiss what the Saudis have accomplished, given Washington's interest in creating a broader moderate Arab coalition, including Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states, to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions and expansion of its regional influences.

Hamas wants talks with the EU. Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas government, last week was quoted as saying: Western states "cannot ignore this agreement and impose their own conditions. The EU should open a dialogue with this new government and this is the only way to have stability in the region".

If reports are confirmed that the Saudis promised a new government $1 bn in aid, much of the West's leverage on Hamas will disappear. With a monthly budget of about $185m, $120m of which is salaries, a new Hamas-led government, which has some internal tax receipts and external support from Iran and other states, would have about a year of grace.

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, pressed by Washington, wanted a new Hamas-led government to accept previous agreements, on the basis of which the PA itself exists. But Hamas, which will dominate the new government, agreed only to "respect" the agreements, not to accept them.

The new government does not promise to stop attacks on Israel and Israelis in the name of "resistance to occupation", although one of the documents in the agreement urges Palestinians to "focus" attacks on Israeli-occupied areas which are outside the 1967 boundary lines.

As for recognising Israel, Hamas spokesman Nizar Rayyan was explicit: "We will never recognise Israel. There is nothing called Israel, neither in reality nor in the imagination". Hamas aide Isma'il Radwan said: "The position of Hamas is well-known: non-recognition of the Zionist entity. The government is not requested to recognise the occupation".

For Abbas the most important aim at Mecca was to stop the blood-letting, which humiliated Palestinians and the Arab and other governments which support them. Abbas aide Sufian Abu Zaida said: The main goal of this deal was to save Palestinian blood, adding: "if they can't end the economic and political siege, there is no guarantee that the [new] government will last very long".

Abbas appeared weak, put by the Saudis in a position of symbolic equality with the exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Mesh'al and unable to produce an agreement on the international requirements. A new government means Abbas's threat to call early legislative and presidential elections will be hollow.

Abbas had insisted that Fatah would not take posts in any new government, but in fact Fatah will take six positions, most of them relatively minor except for the job of deputy prime minister, which probably will be filled by Muhammad Dahlan. Hamas will continue to control the Interior Ministry through a so-called independent figure nominated by Hamas.

However, on Feb. 15 Abbas was reported to have postponed a speech because of differences with Hamas over who should be the deputy prime minister and over other issues. But as Hamas PM Isma'il Haniya and his government resigned on Feb. 15, clearing the way for a unity government, Abbas re-appointed Haniya to form the new cabinet within three weeks.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner on Feb. 12 held out the prospect of resuming aid to the PA. The 27-state EU had frozen direct aid to the PA since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006. But Ms Ferrero-Waldner suggested the Fatah-Hamas deal could transform the situation.

The EU is the biggest donor to the Palestinians, in an effort spearheaded by the European Commission. In 2006, the EU gave about 700m ($907m) in aid to the Palestinians, but bypassed the PA itself after Hamas won power. Ferrero-Waldner said: "When it becomes possible to re-engage with a national unity government we could then hopefully resume support to the Palestinian Authority, ministers and ministries and agencies from which we have had to distance ourselves in the last year".

Her statement highlighted a growing divergence between the EU and the US and Israel. The EU has consistently been more enthusiastic than the US about a national unity government with which it can do business, while Washington has found it much more difficult to express support for any government with Hamas members. Privately, EU officials often say the bloc will need to talk to Hamas eventually and that it is unrealistic to demand that a new government explicitly recognise Israel.

However, principles agreed by the Quartet in the wake of Hamas's victory explicitly demand that Palestinian leaders recognise Israel, as well as abide by past agreements and renounce violence. The Feb. 8 agreement addresses the last two points; but it does not require that the new administration recognise Israel in any way.

Ms Ferrero-Waldner's latest proposals follow a Quartet declaration this month which calls for "international support in the areas of [Palestinian] governance, institution building and economic development".

The New York Times quoted an un-named Israeli official as saying many difficult issues were unresolved, including Hamas's demands for reform of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and who might fill particular cabinet posts. The official suggested that if Washington saw Abbas as compromised by the agreement - brought closer to Hamas, rather than Hamas brought closer to him - "it could have repercussions" for his planned summit meeting on Feb. 19 with Olmert, to be led by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But no one expects serious peace negotiations with Olmert and Abbas so weakened politically.

The US warned Abbas about the dangers of a unity government headed by Hamas. And if the Saudis do provide large sums, the Israeli official said, "it could mean that the moderate Arab aid boycott of Hamas is over". Tzachi Hanegbi, head of the Knesset's Defence Committee, said Abbas "failed completely and awarded a significant victory to Hamas". As a result, he said on Israel Radio, "the chance of advancing an effective initiative and an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has receded".

Saudi Arabia, for its part, emerged as a winner for hosting the Feb. 6-8 meeting, taking responsibility for the Palestinian cause and lessening the influence of the Shi'ite theocracy in Iran on Hamas.

Hamas emerged as a winner for sticking to its refusal to bow to Western demands and recognise Israel and renounce "resistance" or accept previous agreements like the 1993 Oslo accords. Hamas co-opted Fatah into the unity government Hamas wanted and short-circuited any threat of early elections. Ordinary Palestinians feel they are winners if the killing stops and their salaries get paid.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:7SAUD
Date:Feb 19, 2007
Words:1399
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