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The Tripartite Meeting: Fork in Road or Dead End?

INSS Insight – Editor Mark A. Heller
February 22, 2007 No. 11

The Tripartite Meeting:
Fork in the Road or Dead End?


Amir Kulik

On February 19, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) met in Jerusalem. The meeting was actually planned several weeks ago in keeping with President Bush’s promise, made during his speech about the situation in Iraq, to step up American involvement in the peace process. But the timing – after Hamas and Fatah had signed the Mecca Agreement on a Palestinian national unity government – complicated the situation for all parties and created contradictory expectations.

Abu Mazen wants to portray the Agreement to the international community as an important achievement and as evidence of Hamas’ willingness to moderate its position. Consequently, he hoped that Israel and the United States would at least ease, if only partially, the international boycott of the Palestinian Authority. Ehud Olmert, whose public standing is at a low point, could not allow himself to show flexibility on cardinal issues such as recognition of Israel by the new Palestinian government and he could certainly not announce, in the changed circumstances after Mecca, a resumption of negotiations on a permanent status agreement. For him, the meeting therefore served as an opportunity to show the Israeli public what might be termed a “determined” security posture.

Condoleezza Rice may have wanted to explore the possible new formulas for renewing the political process but given President Bush’s opposition to the Mecca Agreement, a similar mood in Congress, and the position of the Israeli Government, she was unable to extract any substantial result. The meeting did enable her to show (especially to America’s allies) that the administration was doing something on the Palestinian issue, but little more than that.

Given the political background, the U.S. and Israel adopted an uncompromising position on the Quartet’s conditions (recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, respect for international agreement signed by the PLO) for an easing of the boycott of the PA. Olmert managed to avoid “progress” and Rice could check the “Palestinian box” on her to-do list and could then return to Washington to deal with more pressing issues – the Iranian nuclear program, the American presence in Iraq, negotiations with North Korea, etc.

But unlike Olmert and Rice, Abu Mazen seems to have come out of the meeting as a clear loser. Not only did the embryonic Palestinian national unity government fail to win recognition; it will clearly not get any cooperation from Israel or the United States. In fact, Abu Mazen did not even receive any mealy-mouthed promises of future reassessment. The U.S. and Israeli positions were made crystal clear to him: compliance with the Quartet demands or continued deadlock.

What are the implications of this meeting? For the US and Israel, there might seem to be no significant implications. Olmert can go back and struggle deal with domestic politics and Rice can move on to other matters. However, the outcome of the meeting is likely to have a more serious impact on the Palestinians and on Israel than might be apparent at first glance. First of all, the meeting is an additional blow to Abu Mazen’s prestige domestically. Once again, the Palestinian President has been unable to secure some softening of the international community’s approach to the Palestinians. In this respect, the blow to his image is two-fold: both in terms of the Palestinian “street” and in the eyes of Hamas. After all, the diplomatic card is acknowledged as Abu Mazen’s major advantage over Hamas, both by the public and by Hamas itself. The results of the meeting undoubtedly further erode the value of this asset. From the Palestinian perspective, it can be argued that ultimately there is no real difference between the diplomatic achievements of Abu Mazen and those of the Hamas government. Both ultimately gained almost nothing.

The meeting is also likely to have an impact on the emerging unity government. For both Fatah and Hamas, the establishment of that government should serve two purposes. One is the elimination of the boycott, especially economic, of the Palestinian Authority and the renewal of foreign aid. But in the light of the tripartite meeting, it is already clear that this aim will not be realized. The international community will not recognize the new government and the PA’s economic problems will persist. That prospect will undoubtedly undermine the chances for actually forming the new government.

The second aim of the unity government agreement is to ease the violent confrontation between Fatah and Hamas supporters. The aim has already been achieved. Since the opening of negotiations in Mecca at the beginning of February, relative quiet prevails in the West Bank and Gaza. Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniya now has about a month to put together the new government, and that time-line will provide an additional period of calm.

A third possible implication has to do with Abu Mazen’s own incumbency as President. During 2003, Abu Mazen served as Palestinian Prime Minister under Yasir Arafat. A few months after his appointment, when he sensed that he faced a deadlock because of Israeli non-cooperation and pressures by Arafat, he did not hesitate to resign. A similar situation may well be emerging now. Israel and Hamas are adamant in refusing to change their postures and the United States shows little real determination to work for progress on this front. There is therefore little chance that the political process – the main plank in Abu Mazen’s election campaign – will resume. Nor is there any prospect that the Palestinian economic situation will improve. Moreover, the internal splits in Fatah show no signs of moderating.

If, in addition to these circumstances, the efforts to form a unity government fall short, Abu Mazen may feel impelled to resign and to call for new presidential and parliamentary elections. In the absence of any popular national leader who could challenge Hamas’ candidate for president, Abu Mazen’s resignation and call for early elections could well strengthen Hamas’ hold on the Legislative Council and also result in its “conquest” of the President’s Office. Such results are certainly not desired by any of the participants in the meeting in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, without any of the progress that Abu Mazen so badly needed, the meeting could easily turn out to be, not just another empty diplomatic exercise, but also an important factor affecting Abu Mazen’s future and his ability to move the Palestinian political system in more positive directions.

*************

INSS Insight is published
through the generosity of
Sari and Israel Roizman, Philadelphia

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