Groups Slam Palestinian Document

By Ori Nir

Published June 23, 2006, issue of June 23, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — American Jewish organizations are strongly criticizing the document guiding national unity talks between Hamas and Fatah officials.

Echoing Israel’s position, Jewish organizations say that the “document of national reconciliation” stakes out a series of positions that could end up undermining Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Known as the “prisoners’ document,” the proposed agreement was drafted last month by Palestinian faction leaders who were being held in Israeli jails.

For Palestinians, observers said, the purpose of hammering out a unified platform is not to trigger talks with Israel. Instead, the negotiations surrounding the document appear aimed at preventing an internal civil war and breaking the financial siege that the international community has imposed on the Palestinian Authority since Hamas, an Islamic terrorist organization, won the general elections in January and formed a Cabinet made up of loyalists.

“This is not a platform for negotiations with Israel, but for negotiations between Palestinians,” Haim Malka said. Malka is a Middle East expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

What the head of Fatah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas officials are negotiating is an option “which will end the financial and political isolation of the Palestinian Authority while preserving the domestic authority of both,” said Samar Assad, executive director of the Palestine Center in Washington.

Abbas has vowed to hold a national referendum on the issue July 26 if Hamas fails to join the secular-nationalist Fatah movement in endorsing the document.

This week, negotiators from both sides were reportedly on the verge of agreeing on a power-sharing formula.

Several Jewish groups — including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the 52-member umbrella group widely seen as the Jewish community’s main united voice on Middle Eastern affairs — are complaining that the Palestinian document driving the Hamas-Fatah talks has wrongly been described in the media as a “peace plan.”

Many observers say that the document offers an implicit endorsement of a two-state solution along the 1967 borders. This would mark a major shift for Hamas, which has refused to join Fatah in recognizing Israel. But Jewish groups counter by pointing out that the document does not call for negotiations with Israel, recognition of Israel or an end to terrorism against Israel.

“Not only is this not a peace plan, but it expresses positions that are much more hard line than the ones believed to be Fatah’s position on issues such as the right of return [of Palestinian refugees] and what they call the right of resistance” to Israel, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference.

The document, Hoenlein told the Forward, could only hinder future negotiations with Palestinian moderates, because it would blur distinctions between them and militants tied to Hamas and to other terrorist groups. “What this would say is that Hamas and Fatah of Abbas have now become the same thing,” Hoenlein said.

According to Palestinian media reports, as Hamas and Fatah representatives were negotiating the wording of what may become the platform for their future political cooperation, their leaders were discussing the practical makeup of such a partnership.

Leaders of the two factions are considering two main options. One is a unity government, which would include representatives of all the major Palestinian factions. Such a government could be headed by an independent, whose personal views could line up with the three conditions that the international community has posed for engagement with a Palestinian government: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and endorsement of past agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian leadership.

The other option, which Palestinians say has a better chance of garnering international recognition and support, is that of a “technocrat government,” composed only of professional experts in various fields of life. Hamas minister Atef Adwan, who holds the Cabinet’s refugees portfolio, told the French News Agency this week that he and his fellow Cabinet members are examining the possibility of a collective resignation to facilitate the formation of a government of technocrats. “That could be the way to solve the problems of the Palestinian people,” he said.

Hamas is not speaking with one voice on this issue. While the Damascus-based director of the movement’s political bureau, Khaled Mashal, called this week for the formation of a national unity government, the Hamas-linked Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyyah, told reporters in Gaza that his government has no intention of resigning. Haniyyah described any talk of a new government as “premature.”

Palestinian politicians are negotiating under pressure, with the specter of a civil war casting a shadow over the talks. In addition, frustration is mounting among the increasingly impoverished Palestinian population of Gaza and the West Bank, which has been cut off from its financial lifeline: foreign aid that has in recent years financed the salaries of the 140,000 employees on the P.A.’s payroll.

An agreement on the national-unity document and the possible subsequent formation of a new government may open the door for the international community to engage diplomatically with the P.A., Western diplomats in Washington said. It would not, however, be enough for Israel to resume substantial negotiations with the P.A., according to Henry Siegman, an Israeli-Palestinian relations expert at New York’s Council on Foreign Relations.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s preconditions for beginning negotiations with a Palestinian partner — namely, dismantling the infrastructure of terrorism — are so far beyond the reach of any Palestinian government, Siegman said, that even a new Palestinian government not staffed by Hamas and not comprising people affiliated with Hamas would be a “nonstarter.”

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