Dina Ezzat
September 16, 2008 - 8:00pm

The look on the face of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as he exited meetings with Arab foreign ministers at a late evening hour Monday, or earlier in the week after talks with President Hosni Mubarak, was one of despair. Abbas is all but saying that he cannot conclude a final status deal with the Israelis as he had hoped and that he cannot keep on fighting -- or as hard -- his immediate political adversary, Hamas. Abbas is saying this to all Arab, including Egyptian, interlocutors and is not getting much support from either.

The statements that were made Monday morning by Arab League Secretary- General Amr Moussa and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, the current chair of the Arab Foreign Ministers Council, upon the inauguration of a ministerial meeting at the League's Cairo headquarters, echoed the look on the face of Abbas. Direct negotiations with the Israelis, as launched at the Annapolis peace meeting last November, "are hitting definite failure", in the words of Moussa, while the internal Palestinian feud has "become more detrimental to the Palestinian cause than the Israeli occupation might be," according to Al-Faisal.

Arab diplomacy seems unable -- but maybe also disinterested and undecided -- to deal with the many problems of the Palestinian issue. The deliberations conducted for close to three hours Monday evening, both during the extended and detailed briefing that Abbas offered to the foreign ministers on Palestinian developments and on the fringe of the meeting among the top diplomats of prominent Arab states, failed to generate any serious, action-oriented plan. Options include declaring final status negotiations a failure; declaring Arab intentions to avenge Israeli intransigence; or calling upon on the international community, particularly the UN Security Council, to assume responsibility for protecting Palestinian rights.

When the Saudi Permanent Mission in New York Thursday forwards a request through the UN for a special Security Council session it will be aiming to prompt a clear stance on behalf of the international community against aggressive Israeli construction of illegal settlements on Palestinian territories.

"The Palestinians said they did not want to announce the ultimate failure of their talks with Israel. So nobody is in a position to do otherwise," commented one Arab diplomat based in Cairo. According to this source, Abbas told the meeting that he is not expecting anything from ongoing talks in terms of a final status agreement, and that the best he might get is for the US to take note of the draft outcome of negotiations that could offer a base for future peace talks under a new US administration.

Nonetheless, Abbas advocated giving negotiations another month or two to allow for the Americans to announce an end -- not necessarily the failure -- of negotiations under the current US administration, or to allow for a collective Arab position to be established. Moussa suggested on Monday evening, at the closing of the foreign ministers meeting, that an extraordinary meeting could convene in a month or so to "assess the situation of the seemingly inevitable failure of the ongoing negotiations".

Egyptian accounts of the prospects of Palestinian reconciliation scheme are not particularly optimistic. Previous failures, either by Egypt or by influential states, including Saudi Arabia, to prompt Palestinian reconciliation loomed large over discussions on Monday. Both Moussa and Al-Faisal made unprecedented threats of penalties to be imposed on "Palestinian organisations" that prevent reconciliation. Upon a Saudi proposal the Arab League is now to formulate a committee that should follow up on all reconciliation moves, to make sure that agreements reached are fully implemented by all. "We need to put our Palestinian brethren before their responsibilities and decide who is violating the commitments and actual implementation of actual agreements," Al-Faisal said.

Al-Faisal added that Arabs have "never let the Palestinians down. But the responsibility is now for the Palestinians to carry."

Al-Faisal's unusually direct address and Moussa's short-tempered attack on "all the Palestinian organisations with no exception that are fighting over ministerial posts of a state that has not been established yet", did not, either, lead to any clear plan of action. According to Moussa, ongoing Egyptian mediation to end Palestinian infighting would be given a few weeks more to work. "We cannot have yet another endless process that would be moving in parallel with the inconclusive peace process. We cannot wait 60 years for reconciliation," Moussa said.

At an extraordinary Arab foreign ministers meeting by the end of October, Moussa seems set to call for Arab states to decide the nature of penalties that would be imposed on recalcitrant Palestinian organisations. Moussa declined to define the nature of such punitive measures at this time. He denied that any such measures would be tailored specifically to punish Hamas and give leverage to the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) under Abbas. Time is running out for Abbas whose legal mandate expires in January.

Arab diplomatic sources say that punitive measures would likely be both political and financial. "The idea is that financial resources would be denied, or at least significantly reduced, and public blame would be put on the organisations that are perceived responsible for the ongoing Palestinian split," said one source.

The source suggested that the concerned reconciliation committee would draft a reconciliation paper that is inspired by previous and ongoing mediations and that would be presented by the Arab League, bypassing recurrent Hamas accusations of Egyptian bias towards Fatah. Defiant organisations would be named and shamed, the source added.

The stance of Syria -- current chair of the Arab summit -- on this proposal as well as that of Qatar and Sudan -- trusted interlocutors for Hamas -- is vague. According to sources close to Monday's foreign ministers meeting, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim did not firmly oppose the proposal during the Monday meeting. However, Al-Muallim made it clear to senior Arab diplomats that his country would not agree to any deal that attempts to avenge Hamas in favour of Fatah and the PA. Neither, sources add, would Qatar. Sudan, and Algeria, the same sources suggest, would also take a similar line.

Arab League sources exclude categorically that the secretariat would be used -- as some Hamas sources alluded with apprehension -- to apply a scheme to isolate or suffocate Hamas. The fact that the PA, in its capacity as the legal framework of self-government for the Palestinian people, would be exempted from all punitive measures, sources explained, is not meant to lend covert support to Fatah. The Arab League, sources said, would make sure that the PA would not use Arab support to favour Fatah over Hamas.

"The Arab League takes a middle ground from all organisations and is angry at all of them," Moussa said Monday evening.

Egyptian officials say they will use the firm collective tone voiced during Monday's foreign ministers meeting to pressure the Palestinian factions -- especially "Hamas and Fatah" -- on reconciliation.


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