Desperate in Damascus?

Until now I had been convinced that the Annapolis conference was going nowhere; that it is ill-conceived, brings together weak and incapable leaders, and diverts attention away from the more urgent task of building viable Palestinian institutions in the West Bank. Now, along come Iran, Syria, Hamas and the Palestinian far-left splinter organizations and declare the need to meet in a parallel conference in Damascus in order to thwart the Annapolis effort. Why their desperation? Do they know something about Annapolis that I don’t?

Just as the Palestinian refusalists and their Iranian and Syrian state backers appear to be taking Annapolis seriously, so PLO/PA leader Mahmoud Abbas appears to take them seriously–to the extent of seeking to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to cancel the Damascus conference or at least commit it to not calling into question Abbas’ position as elected leader of the Palestinians.

Nor are the Abbas-Assad contacts the only ones between the two sides. Despite American and Israeli disapproval, Abbas recently prayed together with allegedly moderate Hamas leaders in the West Bank. Egypt is quietly preparing for renewed Fateh-Hamas talks on reconstituting a unity government after Annapolis. And even before Abbas’ request to Assad, the refusalist factions scheduled to meet in Damascus in parallel with the Annapolis conference were not threatening to replace the PLO or even oppose Abbas’ leadership of that organization. At a certain level, one could be forgiven for suggesting that the entire Fateh-opposition confrontation is loosely choreographed.

One thing appears certain: Abbas will need Hamas after the Annapolis and Damascus meetings because Abbas is damned if he succeeds in Annapolis and damned if he fails.

Suppose he appears to succeed, wresting from Olmert concessions regarding borders, Jerusalem and a timetable for negotiating them. Not only will the concessions not satisfy Hamas. Not only will Abbas prove too weak to deliver on his own security commitments under the roadmap (and Olmert too weak to dismantle outposts as mandated by the roadmap). Not only will Hamas in Gaza prevent progress there and possibly in the West Bank as well. But domestic politics, both Palestinian and Israeli, will get in the way.

If the triumphant Abbas opts for new elections in order to fortify his position, there is no guarantee he will win them. He has done nothing to reform his party, Fateh, and Hamas still appears to Palestinians to be the less corrupt and more efficient party. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, too, will almost certainly be forced into early elections–by defections from his coalition in protest over his concessions, by the Winograd commission report or by any number of criminal investigations pending against him. And elections, in Palestine and/or Israel, precipitated by the political weakness of both Abbas and Olmert, could obfuscate and delay any achievements they bring home from Annapolis.

If, on the other hand, Abbas fails at Annapolis, then he will certainly confront heightened pressures from Hamas and from within his own Fateh party. Either way, whether he approaches Hamas from a position of relative strength or weakness as a consequence of Annapolis, he is likely to see in negotiations aimed at renewing some form of Fateh-Hamas cooperation such as a unity government his next logical step at the internal Palestinian level. He will calculate that such a step could enable him to survive politically and, in the best case, proceed with the peace process launched at Annapolis.

In the last two years, Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament, then took over Gaza by force. Its next objective is the West Bank. Given the likelihood that the IDF would intervene militarily in any Hamas attempt to take over the muqataa in Ramallah by force, the best strategy for it to follow is to renew communications and collaboration with Fateh and Abbas. It knows Abbas will need precisely this after Annapolis.

The Damascus meeting, then, is a reminder for Abbas just who the refusalists are, how strong their Iranian and Syrian backing is, and what the price will be, post-Annapolis, for Abbas’ survival.

Finally, a note of caution regarding Syria. It is possible to interpret Syrian President Bashar Assad’s posturing over the Damascus conference, and even his unusual hosting of a Hizballah demonstration, as tactical maneuvers aimed at ensuring him a more meaningful invitation to Annapolis than anything he has seen so far. Yet even if Syria, in its own desperation, ultimately agrees to join the Annapolis meeting and cancel the Damascus meeting in return for symbolic mention at Annapolis of the Golan issue, the problematic Hamas-Fateh equation represented by the Damascus meeting and discussed here will not change.