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Dialogue of the deaf?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 12 - 06 - 2008

Are Fatah and Hamas really going to talk, asks Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah
In a terse speech marking 41 years since the 1967 Arab- Israeli war, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for a broad national dialogue with Hamas that would bolster national unity and place the Palestinian people in a better position to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
"I call for a comprehensive national dialogue in order to implement the Yemeni initiative [between Fatah and Hamas]... We are doing this in order to end the national division that has caused the worst damage ever to our cause and increased the level of suffering of our people in Gaza," said Abbas.
"For this national dialogue to succeed I will act on the Arab and international levels to secure the support we need to augment the move in a way that will restore to our people their national unity and provide a stronger guarantee for the restoration of our inalienable rights to self determination, return and independent statehood."
Abbas, who has been meeting with Arab leaders to expedite his initiative, said he would call for new presidential and legislative elections but did not say if the holding of such elections would be conditional on a successful outcome of the dialogue with Hamas or, indeed, the conclusion of a peace agreement with Israel.
After a brief visit to Egypt on Monday where he met with President Hosni Mubarak, Nabil Amro, Palestinian ambassador to Cairo, announced plans for Egypt to host a meeting of all the Palestinian factions.
On 7 June, a day after Abbas gave his speech, Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the ousted Hamas government in Gaza, welcomed Abbas's overture and urged him to take "swift steps" to facilitate the holding of a fruitful dialogue.
Haniyeh called for political prisoners to be released, offices reopened and civil servants sacked because of their political affiliation to be reinstated. He urged Abbas to order his security forces to stop arresting Hamas supporters in the West Bank as an expression of good will. Haniyeh also called for an immediate end to the year-old propaganda war between Fatah and Hamas and said he had instructed Hamas's media in Gaza to stop attacks on the Palestinian Authority and Fatah.
In return Nimr Hammad, chief advisor to and spokesman for Abbas, ordered the suspension of incitement against Hamas "in the interest of Palestinian national unity".
Observers in Palestine see Abbas's speech as a tacit acknowledgement that American-backed peace talks with Israel have failed. The speech suggested that Abbas now despairs of even a semblance of US evenhandedness towards the Palestinians, especially after George Bush's speech before the Knesset in which he displayed his administration's complete infatuation with Israel.
But Abbas's speech could also be interpreted as a defensive reflex to counter recent decisions by Israel which his critics argue underscore Israel's disregard for the entire peace process, including a new law enacted by the Knesset adopting Jerusalem, including Arab-East Jerusalem, as the eternal capital of Israel and the Jewish people, as well as Olmert's government's dogged insistence on settlement building in the West Bank.
Abbas's speech coincided with the first anniversary of Hamas's counter-coup in Gaza and the failure of Israeli, American, European and Fatah efforts to destroy the Hamas government through economic blockade.
One Fatah official told Al-Ahram Weekly that the PA in Ramallah feels increasingly that the Bush administration is treating it as if it were a "quisling entity" rather than the national representative authority of the Palestinian people.
"I think some of our people here have got the feeling that the US and Israel were utilising the Fatah-Hamas rift to place the PA under American-Israeli tutelage and cripple its ability to recover Palestinian rights. Abbas's speech can be seen as a sort of wakening from this illusion."
While most Palestinians welcomed Abbas's call for unconditional national dialogue, some Palestinians question whether the PA leadership in Ramallah really has the will to pursue successful reconciliation talks with Hamas given its near total dependence on American financial and political backing.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly conveyed to Abbas her "worries" about any rapprochement with Hamas without the latter first recognising Israel, renouncing armed resistance and accepting the peace process.
Meanwhile, Israel this week temporarily paralysed the Palestinian government in Ramallah by refusing to transfer Palestinian tax revenues, forcing the American-backed Fayyad government to postpone the payment of salaries to more than 160,000 civil servants for a week. One Palestinian commentator viewed the move as a "stern warning" to the PA against mending bridges with Hamas.
"If they are willing to sever payment of customs revenues to the PA, imagine what they would do if Fatah and Hamas agreed to establish a government of national unity," said Hani Al-Masri.
Statements issued on Tuesday by Amro are already predicting problems ahead. He told reporters: "US, American and I don't want to say Arab pressures" have been exercised over Abbas to retreat from his call for direct talks with Hamas.
Meanwhile, Damascus-based Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal on Tuesday called for a meeting between eight Palestinian factions to be held in the Syrian capital next week "to boost national unity".
Last week Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni openly warned Abbas against "getting closer to Hamas".
"Abbas knows the Israeli position in this regard," Livni told the Israeli state-run radio.
Some pro-Hamas pundits privately accuse Abbas, whose term in office has six months to run, of electioneering. Abbas had indicated on several occasions that he was close to resigning and would not seek a second term as president of the PA, statements that have been discounted as an attempt to pressure Israel to be more forthcoming in peace talks.
This week Ahmed Qurei, number-two in the PA's political hierarchy, told reporters that Fatah was for general legislative and presidential elections and that Abbas would be Fatah's candidate for the post of PA chair. Abbas's extended hand may well be a tactical gesture aimed at placing the PA leadership in an advantageous position vis-à-vis the elections.
Many Hamas supporters are unlikely to give Abbas the benefit of the doubt. They would argue that Abbas's speech is a pre-emptive gesture, likely to be followed by a wide-scale Israeli invasion of Gaza. In this case, goes the argument here, Abbas will be able to deny any collusion or connivance with Israel, pointing to his call for rapprochement with the Islamic movement. (see pp.6&7)

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