The most significant thing about the national unity government agreement signed Thursday by Hamas and Fatah in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, under Saudi auspices was that it was signed in Mecca under Saudi auspices. This is probably more important for what it tells us about Saudi diplomatic stirrings than what it says about Palestinian-Israeli issues.
If this is the beginning of a new era in which diplomatically dynamic Saudis and politically pragmatic Palestinians assert themselves more forcefully on the regional stage, we might be on the threshold of better days ahead for the Middle East. I would not bet the family savings on it, but neither can we ignore the potential that is there.
Nobody should expect this accord to jumpstart a new Arab-Israeli peace process, mainly because Israel and the United States – with Western Europe increasingly in tow – have not seriously explored real openings for a negotiated peace in the past decade. The most forceful move ever made by the Quartet – the US, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia – that is supposed to shepherd the peace-making process, was to slap sanctions and tough demands on the Hamas-led Palestinian government, without making equal demands of Israel.
As such, the Quartet looks more and more like a legitimizing cover for Israeli-American positions that have killed any chance of a peace process.
Israel and the US are likely to repeat the Quartet s three demands: that the new Palestinian government explicitly renounce terrorism, honor all existing Palestinian agreements with Israel, and recognize Israel s right to exist. These are reasonable and legitimate demands – but only if Israel is required to abide by the same rules, which is not the case. The Quartet must demand, simultaneously, that Israel stop its colonization of Arab lands, its expansion of settlements, and its routine killings or assassinations of Palestinian militants.
The key to a breakthrough is for Israel, the US and other Western countries to give to the Palestinians as much as what they demand the Palestinians give to Israel. In this respect, the Palestinian accord in Mecca will not meet Quartet demands, and is unlikely to advance peace talks. However it could mark a positive turning point if the Israeli-American-Quartet camp were to see peace-making as a win-win situation, in which progress took place on the back of mutual gains by both sides, rather than through enforcement of Israel s unilateral demands.
The Palestinian national unity government has offered Israel two significant but symbolic olive branches: respect for all previous Palestinian agreements (such as the Oslo Accords and the Palestinian Liberation Organization s recognition of Israel s right to exist); and acceptance of the 2002 Arab peace plan, which offers Israel full peace in return for full withdrawal from occupied lands and a negotiated resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue. This same government, though, also recommitted itself to other Palestinian documents and Arab positions that make armed resistance against Israeli occupation both legitimate and noble. Which path defines Palestinian policy will largely reflect how Israel and the West respond to the Mecca agreement.
Those who truly seek peace should see this Palestinian gesture as an opportunity to explore serious means of negotiating a comprehensive, permanent peace agreement. Israel must make an important choice in the coming months: Will it reciprocate the Palestinian-Saudi gesture in kind and make equally broad but well-intentioned declarations of intent to coexist in peace and equality?
Or will it hold fast to its ironclad policy of refusing any diplomatic probes and persisting in its colonization, strangulation and military assaults on the Palestinians?
The agreement comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is also actively engaged with Iran in defusing tensions in Lebanon and in the standoff between Iran and the international community over Tehran s nuclear industry. Saudi Arabia affirmed its clout within the region in fostering the Palestinian accord, which Syria and Egypt both tried but failed to do.
If Saudi Arabia is more willing to use its considerable moral, religious, and financial power to help broker conflict resolutions in the Middle East, we should all welcome that. But we must also respond to Saudi gestures, rather than let them wither on the vine, as happened with the 2002 Arab-Israeli peace plan that Israel and the US never breathed life into.
It is important to recognize the significance of a diplomatically stirring Saudi Arabia that can have a positive impact in Iran, Syria, Palestine-Israel, and Lebanon, for starters. As in 2002, Saudis and Palestinians have made a sincere, constructive gesture for peaceful coexistence.
A return gesture of equal magnitude could change history. Snubbing this Arab gesture would only exacerbate existing tensions and conflicts in the region, and probably push them toward levels of suffering and destruction that would make the past five years look like a picnic.
Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.