Mixed signals in a complicated reality

As is by now usual after political failures or catastrophes, the international donor community met last week in Sharm al-Sheikh in order to pledge financial assistance for the reconstruction of Gaza. This followed Israel’s indiscriminate destruction of Gaza that left an estimated 15 percent of Gaza’s buildings either fully or partially destroyed in addition to the 1,300 dead and 5,000 wounded.

The latest donors’ conference was an echo of the Paris donors’ conference, which was convened soon after the November 2007 Annapolis conference failed to agree on almost anything except to launch a peace process that in turn achieved nothing.

While Palestinians continue to be in real need of international humanitarian and development aid in order to cope with the damaging practices of the Israeli occupation, the suspicion lingers that the international community, through these conferences, is simply trying to make up for its failure to make Israel comply with international law and in particular with the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.

Indeed, financial aid, which is necessary in the Palestinian case, can never be a substitute for a political solution of the kind that will end the Israeli occupation and allow for the creation of an independent Palestinian state on the territory occupied by Israel in 1967.

Although the donors’ conference committed generously to helping Gaza, it remains in the hands of the Israelis to allow the required materials for reconstruction to enter Gaza in the first place. Israel is so far allowing only humanitarian goods into Gaza and continues to prevent basic construction materials such as cement, steel, iron and glass from getting through. The donor community needs to commit political support in addition to financial support to pressure Israel to ensure that materials can reach Gaza.

The Sharm al-Sheikh donors’ conference came amid an unusually confused situation that included divided Arab states, a divided Palestinian polity, a transitional phase in Washington that caused some vagueness in the official American attitude toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as Israeli elections, which brought a new leadership that so far is refusing to express any commitment to the two-state solution, the basis of the peace process.

The conference witnessed statements from the new American secretary of state that seemed out of harmony with the constructive tone of the new US president, Barack Obama. On the issue of Palestinian reconciliation, Hillary Clinton repeated the rhetoric of the previous American administration that had been responsible for the abortion of successful Palestinian reconciliation efforts sponsored by Saudi Arabia in March 2007. The Mecca agreement that resulted from that Saudi mediation included a Hamas commitment to a political platform that differed significantly from the movement’s traditional platform and bound the first unity government to previously signed agreements between the PLO and Israel as well as the relevant resolutions of the Security Council and the Arab League, including the Arab initiative.

In fact, the attitude of the international community vis-a-vis domestic Palestinian politics is extremely important and can encourage or discourage the reconciliation process. And while Palestinian factions are negotiating a possible agreement on both forming a new unity government and reforming the PLO, a dialogue between those Palestinians and representatives of the international community, especially Americans and Europeans, would be of utmost importance.

Such a dialogue would allow the international community to understand the political limits of these reconciliation talks and, conversely, the Palestinians to understand what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to the international community. It will enhance the possibility of harmony between the outcome of the reconciliation dialogue and the position of the international community.

If true, media reports of the reactions to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s resignation, however, are an example of extreme shortsightedness. Haaretz and other Israeli papers reported that American and European officials have set conditions for who should lead the next government and are conditioning aid agreed in Sharm al-Sheikh on the personalities composing that next government. This is not constructive and will only greatly discredit Fayyad. A responsible diplomatic dialogue would be much more constructive.

The resignation of Fayyad’s government is in fact a sign of the possible successful outcome to the reconciliation dialogue. The move represents a win-win scenario for Fayyad. If the national reconciliation dialogue reaches agreement, he will be in good shape because he contributed to paving the way for that agreement. And if the dialogue fails and consequently President Mahmoud Abbas asks him to continue as caretaker prime minister, it will put him in a stronger position vis-a-vis Fateh, which has not been facilitating his mission until now.

The changed regional atmosphere and the recent reconciliation processes between Arab countries that had contributed to Palestinian divisions as well as the improved international atmosphere caused by the Obama effect should be allowed to play a constructive role in allowing the Palestinian dialogue to begin the process of reunifying the political system in the West Bank and Gaza.

That would necessarily require American and European pressure on Israel, which was strictly preventing any kind of movement between the West bank and Gaza even before the Fateh-Hamas split.