Talk of Palestinian reconciliation

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Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said this week that he was quite happy to step down from his position in order to remove any obstacle in the way of Palestinian reconciliation.

It is not the first time he made such a statement, but this time it is politically important, and timely.

Fayyad’s statement comes as PLO’s efforts at the UN Security Council failed to produce any positive results and talks of reconciliation have once again heated up.

The Islamic movement Hamas has been insisting on a candidate other than Fayyad to head a unity government. Fateh, on the other hand, has publicly insisted on having him as premier, due to the high regard the West has for him.

However, with the UN process having reached a dead end, insisting on the former World Bank official is futile. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas did not wish to add to the difficulties he was facing by arriving at a unity government with Hamas at the same time that the PLO was trying to neutralise Israeli and US objections.

Now that the UN process has come to a halt, it is understood that Abbas will move fast to reach common ground with his Islamic opponents.

While Fateh and Hamas are likely to move quickly if the Fayyad "obstacle" is removed, it is not clear whether the premier’s willingness to give up his position will solve some of the deeper differences.

The US position regarding Hamas will be very telling. Washington has not been happy with the PLO’s moves at the UN Security Council, in New York, and by UNESCO, in Paris. But this issue is no longer a source of trouble since the US has not had to use its veto power.

Palestinians believe the heavy US intervention by countries such as Bosnia and Columbia meant that the Palestinian Authority has been unable to muster the nine positive votes that are required to force the US to veto.

Washington will have a hard time justifying taking a strongly negative position vis-à-vis the Palestinians because Hamas is an Islamic movement.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave an important policy speech last week, which reflected the shift in the US position towards the Islamic movements gaining power through the ballot box. She indicated that the US has no problem with an elected Islamic party as long as it believes in human rights and is not affiliated directly with Al Qaeda.

It is unclear whether this policy is applicable to the current leaders in Gaza who insist that they are not affiliated with Al Qaeda and that they respect human rights.

Israel’s position regarding Hamas or the upcoming reconciliation talks is unclear. In general, Israelis are opposed to this reconciliation, as exemplified by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that Palestinians must choose between Hamas or peace. Not that the Israeli prime minister was making any serious peace offers, but the right-wing Israeli government has shown in recent months a more pragmatic side to it.

The Israeli-Hamas prisoner exchange and the indirect negotiations, through Egypt, with the aim of stopping rockets coming from Gaza show that Tel Aviv is not totally opposed to an understanding that includes Hamas.

Perhaps the best proof of an Israeli decision to ease its opposition to Hamas was Israel’s granting this week permission for entry of building materials into the besieged Gaza Strip.

Fayyad’s fate as Palestinian prime minister will certainly be determined by a PLO-Hamas agreement on a successor. However, it is too early to count Fayyad out of Palestinian politics.

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