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The Riyadh Summit & the Mecca Agreement

The Riyadh Summit & the Mecca Agreement

INSS Insight – Editor Mark A. Heller
April 2, 2007 - No. 15

The Riyadh Summit, the Mecca Agreement and What Lies Between Them


By Anat Kurz

The Arab Summit that convened in Riyadh on March 28 2007 reaffirmed the “Arab peace initiative” originally adopted by the Arab League in 2002. It calls for Arab-Israeli peace based on Israeli withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967, a just and agreed solution to the refugee problem based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194, and the creation of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. Principled differences between Israel and Arab League members over some of the elements in the proposed arrangement will make it difficult to translate the initiative into an actual agreement. Another substantive obstacle is the absence of an authoritative Palestinian interlocutor. The President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, supported the initiative, but Hamas leaders refrained from endorsing even the conditional readiness to recognize Israel. The question of recognition is a central feature of the division between Hamas and Fatah. As part of an effort to bridge that gap and lay the foundation for a unified Palestinian delegation, pre-Summit preparations included diplomatic steps to establish a Palestinian national unity government. That government was sworn in on March17 on the basis of the agreement reached in Mecca under the aegis of the so-called “Arab quartet” – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.

The national unity government’s policy guidelines include detailed political positions, including an obligation to create a Palestinian state in the territories captured by Israel in 1967 and recognition of Arab Summit conference resolutions over the years. To that list of resolutions is now added the one in Riyadh that Hamas refused to embrace. However, this rejectionist position will not lead to a coalition crisis, because the regional political context was not the major concern of Fatah and Hamas leaders when they formulated the principles of the national unity government. Indeed, to facilitate the creation of that government, Abbas even retreated from his demand for Hamas recognition of Israel, which had been a Fatah condition for joining a national unity government ever since the Hamas’ victory in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections.

Fatah-Hamas cooperation is intended to bring an end to the economic embargo imposed on the Palestinian Authority when Hamas took office, and especially to stabilize the domestic front against the background of violent clashes between elements of the two movements. A subsidiary objective was to create a coordinating mechanism to sustain the relaxation of the struggle against Israel that was agreed by Abbas and Hamas in November 2006 and which prompted Israel to withdraw forces operating in the Gaza Strip since the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit in June. Although the unity government’s platform stresses the intention to continue the struggle for liberation with all means, the understanding on a Fatah-Hamas ceasefire reflects acknowledgement by both organizations of the link between intra-Palestinian violence and the struggle against Israel; the latter provokes Israeli military responses which are bound to accelerate the disintegration of the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel, and the consequent absence of recognition from the unity government’s platform, preclude Israel support for the process of Palestinian national reconciliation. Israel still sees Abbas as a partner for dialogue, but his political partnership with Hamas threatens to prompt an Israeli reassessment. On the eve of the Riyadh Summit, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuaded Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas to agree to meet on a regular basis, but Israel maintains its economic embargo on the Palestinian government and its military pressure in the territory of the PA. These measures are intended either to weaken Hamas or, alternatively, to encourage a change in its position vis-à-vis Israel in order to avoid a further decline in its public standing.

In addition to Israeli pressure, the bitter rivalry between Fatah and Hamas and the economic embargo by western countries will also complicate the task of consolidating the unity government. However, the collapse of that government will not necessarily weaken Hamas’ military capabilities or undermine its public support. Indeed, freed of institutional constraints, Hamas might even become more aggressive. Fatah, for its part, is too weak to fill the Palestinian public space and become an authoritative interlocutor for Israel. True, the unity government does not yet constitute a viable alternative to the deteriorating security situation in the Palestinian arena, hence, in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. But without any effort to achieve the goal behind the creation of the unity government, the already faint chance to stabilize both arenas will recede even more.

Stabilizing these arenas is intrinsically important but it also has regional implications. Any results from contacts between Israel and the Arab states will be very modest as long as the inter-organizational struggle in the territories goes on. That struggle will make it impossible to implement any security understandings reached in the past or in the future between Israel and Abbas, Hamas will subvert any political agreements to which it is not a party, and the ongoing confrontation will cast a long shadow over relations between Israel and the Arab states. As a result, neither this “Arab initiative” nor any other can provide a detour around direct Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

However, stabilization of the Palestinian front may well help promote a regional process. Indeed, Arab states bent on lowering the profile of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict see in stabilization of that arena a necessary – if not sufficient – condition for advancing the political process. Political momentum that gains public support in the territories might well push Hamas to adopt a more compromising position, because fear of being perceived as the main obstacle to some regional plan could prompt its leaders to overcome the political and ideological inhibitions preventing recognition of Israel. Israel is rather more skeptical about the chances of that happening and makes negotiations on the future of the territories conditional on explicit recognition of it by all components of the Palestinian government. By contrast, the members of the “Arab quartet” expect the unity government to back Abbas in his attempts to formulate and implement understandings with Israel, either separately or in some regional context. They also hope that political partnership with Fatah will move Hamas closer to the center of Palestinian politics. The unity government, like the “Arab initiative,” is a product of inter-Arab politics that fully reflects this hope.

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

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