The Meeting that Never Was

By Joharah Baker – The West Bank

Whichever way you slice it, the cancelled reconciliation talks slated to have taken place in Cairo on November 9 is bad news. If our goal is to merely cast blame, there is plenty to go around. Yes, though the talks were supposed to include a multitude of Palestinian factions under Egyptian mediation, we all know the major players here are Palestine’s Titan rivals, Hamas and Fateh. Unfortunately, the bitter fighting between the two has dichotomized Palestinian society almost surgically – if you are not a loyal supporter of the Palestinian Authority, you are, by assumption, a Hamas proponent.

On the street, this seemingly clear cut fission which has sharply manifested itself in and basically taken over Palestinian politics for the past several years, is not without its shades of gray. There are those who criticize both, who categorize themselves as independent Palestinians or those who still cling to leftist philosophies the Palestinian Communist/Marxist movements embraced long ago during their years of glory. Nevertheless, given the sheer power of both Hamas and Fateh – the former because of their stronghold on the Gaza Strip and the latter given its historical position at the helm of the Palestinian leadership – this battle has come down to these two. All others, no matter how sincere they may be in their intentions, have been pushed to the far margins of Palestinian political life.

On November 9, the Palestinians were to travel to Cairo and ostensibly, sit down, hammer out their differences and agree to a platform on which a national unity government could be formed. That, at least, was the hope. Hamas bailed literally at the last moment, less then 24 hours before the meeting was to take place. Egypt hastily announced the meeting would be postponed and delegations traveling to Cairo made a sharp U-turn back to Palestine. Egypt later announced the meeting would be rescheduled in the next two weeks, but frankly, the damage has already been done.

Unfortunately the failed meeting-to-be did not come as such a shock. For weeks beforehand, the accusations and conditions ping-ponged back and forth over the Egyptian draft for the talks. Finally, Hamas said it would not participate in the conference as long as the Fateh-backed government in the West Bank continued to hold Hamas-affiliated political prisoners, especially since the Hamas government in Gaza had released Fateh prisoners earlier in what they called a "gesture of good will." President Mahmoud Abbas and his government maintained at the time and continue to insist they are doing no such thing. The prisoners in PA jails are being held for criminal and not political purposes and therefore cannot be released for political reasons.

Without delving into the multitude of other reasons/excuses why the talks met their demise even before they were officially initiated, let us suffice to say the prisoner issue was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. For some already entrenched in the rhetoric of Hamas’ line, this was enough. For others, it was a mere bailout. But for those whose main concern is reaching a united Palestinian front, it was simply unfortunate.

So is the overall situation. The reality of Palestine today is an extremely divided society both ideologically and geographically, not to mention the very-alive Israeli occupation that continues to impose its oppressive existence on all Palestinians and therefore trumps any or all achievements the Palestinians may reach.

In Gaza, the de facto Hamas government is obviously unbending in its conviction that it is the legitimately elected government body. It has a point of course, given that it did win the 2006 parliamentary elections fair and square. On the other hand, President Abbas was also legitimately elected as president a year earlier and considers Hamas’ takeover of the Strip as an illegitimate coup.

Still, while Hamas and Fateh are the main players on this tattered and torn canvas, there are strong outside influences that play a major role in swaying both sides, including the ill-fated Cairo talks. For one, Egypt is known as one of the more moderate Arab states that already has a peace agreement with Israel and is clearly aligned with the West. Having said this, the PA, under Abbas, is already at an advantage with Egypt as the broker, both of whom want a more malleable Palestinian government in place in Gaza with a much more moderate leadership.

On the other hand, Hamas is not willing to relinquish what it considers its rightful power over the Gaza Strip and is egged on by Islamic powers such as Iran. Going to Cairo without its myriad of conditions being met means Hamas would have to risk the chance of losing what it is so hell-bent on maintaining, regardless of the consequences.

Of course, there is so much more that can be said as to why national unity seems so far out of reach today. The fact that the Palestinians have been afforded all the trappings of a government without actually having a state to govern over has in reality caused a multitude of problems and a dangerous attitude of entitlement amongst our leaders, who have fallen into the trap of a false sense of power. As a result, our judgment has been clouded and our energies diverted from our real goal, which is the liberation of Palestine.

There is no denying that both Hamas and Fateh are real forces to be reckoned with in the Palestinian and international arena, whether we agree with their political agendas or not. Both claim they have the people’s interests at heart and our national aspirations as their vision. Their actions, however, indicate otherwise. While they may both believe this internal split is serving their immediate goals, in the long run, it is serving none of us. On the contrary, the only party truly benefiting from this split is Israel, which is more than happy to see the Palestinians at each other’s throats, both literally and metaphorically.

Most importantly, it is harming us as a people. Being right is just not enough. Hamas and Fateh leaders need to peel away the sheath of factional agendas from their blinded eyes and cast away their hungry desires for power. Yes, ideologically, the two could not be farther apart. In this, they may never meet. However, if they are even remotely true to their declarations, they have an obligation to come together and create a united front. They are after all, leaders. If they cannot lead, we will inevitably reach the most unfortunate point yet. This cause, which we have all so ardently defended, will be lost, not at the hands of our enemies, but at our own.

-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (Originally published in Miftah.org, Nov 12, 2008)

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