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May 11, 2006
Palestinian Unity Breakthrough?

Fatah and Hamas have proposed a platform which would bring both factions into the government and allow for meaningful talks with Israel on a two-state solution, the AP reports this morning. Leaders of both groups imprisoned by Israel for terrorism conducted the delicate negotiations, and the product has been embraced by Mahmoud Abbas on behalf of Fatah, while the Hamas leadership in the West Bank and Gaza study it:

After months of tensions, senior members of the rival Hamas and Fatah factions have forged a joint platform, including acceptance of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

However, it was unclear whether Hamas, particularly the group's hardline leaders abroad, will back the program, which would signal a major softening of positions. Until now, Hamas has balked at the West's demands that it renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept existing peace agreements. ...

"This document is very important. I adopt the position of those heroes," he said late Wednesday, referring to the prisoners. "It includes a deep and realistic political vision that to a very large extent represents my point of view."

Senior Hamas officials were not immediately available for comment. Hamas legislator Salah Bardawil said he has not seen the document, but that the views of the Hamas prisoners are considered important.

The negotiations took place between Fatah's Marwan Barghouti and Hamas' Abdel Khaleq Natche in the Israeli penitentiary Hadarim Prison, where both serve long sentences for their terrorist activity in Israel. Barghouti has tremendous cachet with the Palestinians and had been drafted for the position Abbas won handily even though Barghouti was imprisoned. It caused a diplomatic stir during the presidential elections when Israel refused to release Barghouti, even if he won. Less is known about Natche, who at one time led Hamas in Hebron. Whether he has enough influence to negotiate on behalf of the entire Hamas organization -- which has chapters all over the Middle East -- remains to be seen.

The agreement itself seems designed to address Western objections to the Hamas government in a substantial manner. It acknowledges Israel and recasts the struggle in terms of the 1967 occupation instead of the existence of Israel altogether. It explicitly accepts the two-state solution and calls for negotiation with Israel on determining the final border between Palestine and Israel. While it does not renounce violence, it specifically focuses its "resistance" to the disputed territories in the West Bank and Gaza.

Will this be enough to satisfy the West and garner agreement from Hamas? The latter appears desperate to achieve some diplomatic success in order to establish its credibility. Despite the promise of humanitarian aid from the Quartet and their allies, the Hamas-led government has no time left to resolve the financial collapse in the territories. The pressure placed on Hamas to govern came as a surprise, and clearly they want Fatah to join them in a unity government to both share that pressure as well as lend diplomatic assistance abroad. Either they accept reality or they will eventually face civil war, a fate narrowly avoided yesterday with a cease-fire between the two factions.

The West would like nothing more than to get Hamas to concede Israel's right to exist and force them to the bargaining table. The imposition of financial and diplomatic isolation appears to have worked, at least in getting Hamas leadership to understand that it will never achieve acceptance without major concessions in its platform. Although Western tenacity on this approach appears to have faltered somewhat this week, the West has made its point, and the misery the isolation caused made that point extremely clear. The Palestinians have no economy outside that donated to them by the West and Israel, and their Arab brothers have no particular passion to rescue them.

One faction that gets no mention in this agreement is Islamic Jihad, another Iranian-funded terrorist group that rarely honors cease-fires in the territories. Israel has had to close its borders on a number of occasions because of IJ attacks, especially from Gaza. The triangle offense that the Palestinians play against Israel rely on IJ as a "rogue" group outside of anyone's control. When Hamas and Fatah both have felt diplomatic pressure to act reasonably, they have relied on the smaller Islamist terror group to continue attacking Israeli citizens in order to get a reaction from the IDF -- which then takes Hamas and Fatah off the hook. Will the new unity government disarm IJ and ban its terrorist activities, at least against Israel itself? The new platform does not appear to address that, and until it does, it will be too incomplete to be reliable.

The opening gives hope for a return to negotiation, perhaps this time with a chastened Hamas and ascendant Fatah. The Quartet has better make clear that the Palestinians need to finally honor their Oslo accord and disarm terrorist groups within their territories. Otherwise, all of these initiatives will swiftly transform to vapor when Islamic Jihad or another splinter group lets the rockets fly against Israeli cities once again.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 11, 2006 5:15 AM

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