The Economist (Analysis)
January 21, 2012 - 1:00am

NO ONE disagreed with the cautious assessment of King Abdullah of Jordan that “little baby steps” had been taken when Israelis and Palestinians met several times in Amman, the king’s capital, in early January to see if there were grounds to resume full-scale peace talks that might one day lead to the peaceful coexistence of two states. Even this tentative diplomatic toe-dipping was fraught. Big grown-up strides still seem a long way off.

The Palestinians have threatened to abandon further talks unless there is real progress by January 26th. They cite an agreement in September, when the Quartet of peacemaking bodies, consisting of the United States, the European Union, the UN and Russia, launched talks about talks in Amman. Both sides were to exchange “comprehensive proposals on territory and security” within three months. The Israelis dispute the Palestinians’ definition of when the Quartet’s clock started ticking, arguing that January 26th is a “non-date” and that the current crisis is “artificial”.

In any case the Palestinians have their own internal problems: they are still arguing among themselves over whether they should be dragged back to the negotiating table when the Israelis are still building Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the main chunk of a future Palestinian state. Plans to reconcile the Palestinians’ two main factions muddy matters still more.

The Palestinians have submitted a paper suggesting where the border between the two states should run. Israel has responded with a document listing 21 issues that it says must be resolved before even a “framework agreement” can be concluded. Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, told a parliamentary committee dismissively on January 16th that the Palestinian paper had “not changed a nanometre” from papers submitted before.

Mr Netanyahu’s officials vaguely “accept as a goal” that an agreement on territory and security should be struck within a year, as the Quartet suggested. But baby steps seem to be the pace that suits him, his coalition partners and hawks in his own Likud party. His foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who leads the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, and is in a last-ditch battle to avoid indictment for alleged financial shenanigans, shows no sign of leaving the government over the peace talks.

As a sweetener to the Palestinians, Israel may free some prisoners it has held since before peace talks began in 1993. Tony Blair, the Quartet’s representative, is asking Israel to hand over to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, the customs duties it currently withholds on goods entering the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Islamist Hamas faction still opposing Mr Abbas.

Quite apart from his row with the Israelis over dates before real talks have even resumed, Mr Abbas is having problems as ever within his own camp. His efforts to reunite both chunks of his disconnected Palestinian realm, comprising his Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the far smaller Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on the coast, look unlikely to bear fruit soon. Last May he signed a deal with the head of Hamas’s politburo, Khaled Meshal, who has been based in Syria, to do away with separate governments and appoint a technocratic one instead.

Not yet a united front

But such plans have been stymied by Hamas’s sheriffs on the ground, who see little point in sharing power when the Islamist tide sweeping across the region will—they think—sooner or later engulf Mr Abbas. As for Mr Meshal, having realised to his chagrin that Gaza was no longer his to bargain away, he declared that he would retire after 15 years in the job. But some say he may reconsider that decision.

To keep Mr Abbas on the defensive, Hamas’s leaders in Gaza have sought to block the joint programme he negotiated with Mr Meshal. In place of their agreement to suspend violence against Israel and to promote peaceful “popular resistance”, Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s prime minister in Gaza, has begun talks with a view to merging Hamas with Islamic Jihad, another Islamist group with a powerful armed wing in Gaza committed to fighting on. “We want peace, but Israel only understands force,” says a Hamas guard outside a resort the group has opened on Gaza’s beach front. It was Hamas’s capture of an Israeli soldier in 2006 that secured the release of over 1,000 prisoners last year, he noted, not Abbas’s so far fruitless call for non-violence.

For now, Mr Haniyeh’s Hamas men in Gaza dangle the idea of reconciliation before Fatah, promising much but accomplishing almost nothing. Deadlines for exchanging their captives—Mr Abbas’s faction holds scores of Hamas men, and vice versa—come and go. So do promises to let each other’s newspapers be freely distributed. The head of a committee to arrange compensation for the 670 Palestinians killed and many more wounded in four years of feuding between the factions says the process will take at least three years. And though Mr Haniyeh has promised to hand back the keys to Mr Abbas’s own house in Gaza, Hamas heavies stand by his front door, refusing to budge. “It’s just talk,” says one. “I see nothing called reconciliation on the ground,” says Maryam Saleh, a Hamas member of parliament in the West Bank who was a professor before she turned to politics.

While Hamas’s leaders in Gaza shore up their mini-state, Mr Meshal’s power base in turbulent Syria is crumbling. Most of his officials have fled elsewhere in the region. The portly Mr Haniyeh is encroaching on Mr Meshal’s turf, touring the region with a posse of ministers from Gaza, to be hosted by heads of state. With Hamas’s centre of gravity shifting back to Gaza via Cairo, Mr Haniyeh may be eyeing Mr Meshal’s job.

But Mr Meshal is not finished yet. He would not be the first Palestinian leader to announce his departure only to continue to run the show for years. In recent interviews he has sounded less Islamist and more of a Palestinian nationalist. Even if deposed as head of Hamas’s politburo, he may fancy replacing Mr Abbas as head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the umbrella that covers all Palestinian outfits, though it has hitherto excluded Hamas.

After months of promising not to negotiate with Israel unless it stopped building Jewish settlements on the West Bank, Mr Abbas’s decision to return to talks without preconditions has annoyed many of his senior colleagues. “Is he speaking for anyone else but himself?” asks a fuming member of the PLO’s executive committee. Last weekend a cacophony reverberated through Ramallah, the Palestinian seat of government in the West Bank, as protesters outside the newly fortified walls of his headquarters called on drivers opposed to talking to Israel to hoot. Angry Fatah members have begun plotting elections of their own.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017