Let’s Mecca Deal

Published February 16, 2007, issue of February 16, 2007.
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You might not know it from all the second-guessing, but the world got some good news from Beijing this week with the announcement of a breakthrough in North Korea nuclear talks. After years of broken deals and apocalyptic threats, America and its partners finally got the world’s most paranoid dictatorship to agree to freeze its nuclear arms program. Much remains unresolved, but there is a decent chance that the plan will result in a safer world. The reason, by most accounts, is that both of the main protagonists, President Bush and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, felt the ground shifting beneath them and figured it was time to cut their losses.

Maybe it’s something in the February air, but that mood of sullen compromise seems to be contagious. Just a few days before the Beijing deal, the leaders of the two main Palestinian factions signed an agreement in Mecca that is supposed to create a unity government with a mandate to negotiate peace with Israel. Up to now, Hamas has refused even to consider being a party to peace talks. Depending on who’s talking, it just might mark a breakthrough in the endless Israel-Arab wars.

The Mecca deal has met even more skepticism than the Beijing plan, and rightly so. Hamas, the radical Islamist movement that controls the Palestinian government, still refuses to recognize Israel or swear off terrorism. Those were minimum requirements laid down last year for ending the worldwide economic and diplomatic quarantine imposed on the Palestinian Authority after Hamas was elected to power. If Hamas still refuses to yield on the most basic points, skeptics ask, where’s the breakthrough?

Tellingly, the skepticism isn’t entirely shared by the people with the most to lose, the Israeli government. Israel’s official stance is to wait and see. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intends to hear out the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, when the two meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a February 19 summit. Olmert also wants to see how the deal plays out on the ground.

According to Israeli press reports, Olmert met at length this week with his foreign and defense ministers and the heads of his three intelligence agencies, declaring at the end that the Mecca deal held “enormous significance” and brought the Middle East to a “strategic crossroad.” Whether that’s good or bad won’t be known for weeks or months. For now, Olmert isn’t giving away the store, but neither will he bring down the house.

Critical to Olmert’s thinking, the reports say, is the secret, direct channel opened recently with the Saudi regime. The two nations now see each other as essential allies in the struggle to stabilize the region, rein in Iran and slow the spread of Islamic radicalism. The Saudis are desperate to keep Hamas from slipping into the Iranian orbit, and they want Israel’s help. Israel, Olmert reportedly said this week, doesn’t want to do anything to hinder the Saudi efforts.

How does the Mecca deal help? Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel, swear off terrorism or commit itself to upholding previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, as the diplomatic community demands. But Hamas does accept a mandate from Abbas, as president, to form a new government that will “honor” (or “respect,” depending on translation) the previous agreements. And those agreements include recognizing Israel and renouncing terrorism. Hamas thus ends up chairing a government that recognizes Israel.

What’s crucial is that Hamas will hold a minority of seats in the new government, meaning the Palestinian Authority is no longer Hamas-run. The ministries controlling foreign affairs and security will be out of Hamas hands. Abbas will be free to negotiate a permanent peace with Israel and then seek ratification. He’ll get it if the peace deal is good enough. Hamas gave up a lot in this deal — less than Israel or the West had hoped, but much more than Hamas wanted to give. Israel, for its part, has to swallow hard to sit back and let the events play themselves out.

Abbas has a lot to prove in the weeks ahead. Israel and its allies can help him or hurt him by the tone they set. Now is the time to show Palestinians there’s something to gain from compromise.

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