The role of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a possible mediator and guarantor of any long-term Hamas-Israeli cease-fire has returned to the forefront of current diplomatic discussions. Abbas’ political resurrection is more the result of there being no other credible mediator than something of his own doing. What appears to have been the main cause of the war on Gaza — the reconciliation between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hamas — now appears to offer the potential to end the Israeli assault on the Palestinians.
The major problem facing Israel and the international community is that they need the acquiescence of the Islamic movement for any sustained cease-fire, yet they refuse, for political reasons to communicate, recognize or seriously engage with Hamas. The problem began when the Egyptian government, which has a peace treaty with Israel, offered a cease-fire agreement to Hamas via the media — that is, without even consulting the Gaza-based group. Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt has blamed Hamas for the security troubles Cairo faces in the Sinai Peninsula and has been reluctant to lend Hamas the credibility it needs for a truce and vouch for or give any long-term guarantees about Hamas to the Israelis.
Other possible guarantors, such as Qatar and Turkey, have been rejected by Israel. Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, viciously attacked the Qataris and called for banning their flagship satellite station, Al Jazeera. As for Turkey — which has yet to fully restore ties with Israel after the killing of nine of its citizens by the Israeli navy in the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident — Ankara has been rejected because of, among other things, statements by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan referring to Israeli actions in Gaza as “more barbaric than Hitler.”
The United States was also considered as a mediator, but like Egypt, its hands are tied by its own national legislation, which in the Americans' case has considered Hamas a terrorist organization since 1997. Regardless, Washington, which has publicly supported Israel, would not be able to convince Hamas that it can be a neutral mediator.
Thus, the absence of credible parties that can engage both Israel and Hamas and, most important, guarantee any agreement has returned the Ramallah-based Palestinian president to center stage. Abbas has been busy shuttling between Cairo, Ankara and Doha with the aim of finding the formula to put an end to the bloodshed.
Initially, Abbas publicly came out in favor of the Egyptian cease-fire proposal. He worked hard trying to convince the Islamists that the two-stage Egyptian plan would allow them to achieve some of their long-term goals — such as guaranteeing the permanent opening of the Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings — in the second stage. Hamas, which has little confidence that it can get anything in a second stage, especially given Israel’s routine violations of the November 2012 cease-fire, prefers to include any serious provisions in the initial phase.
The Palestinian president has a number of political assets to his credit. The most significant is that he is the president of all Palestinians, and his newly established government is a unity government, representing the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He therefore stands as the appropriate party not only to sign an agreement, but also to guarantee it on the ground.
Such a guarantee, however, would need to upgrade the current reconciliation agreement, which does not specify an integration of the security situation in Gaza for Ramallah-based security forces to have boots on the ground. At a minimum, security and administrative personnel from the Presidential Guard would need to be redeployed in Rafah as per a 2005 agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which Israel had accepted provided European security officials were also present on the border.
Abbas has a few other problems to deal with to succeed at this huge task. The head of the Islamic Jihad movement, Ramadan Shalah, has said that Abbas should not play the role of a mediator, but rather that of a representative of the Palestinians in the face of the Israeli onslaught. Such a position would require Abbas to do some of the things that the previous president, Yasser Arafat, probably would have done — in particular, go to Gaza and show solidarity with his embattled people rather than act as an outside mediator.
A senior Fatah official, Amin Maqboul, told Al-Monitor at the start of the war on Gaza that the Palestinian leadership had discussed the idea, and it was decided that either Abbas or Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah should go to Gaza. Neither, however, has. Instead, news out of Ramallah is that Abbas' family has temporarily relocated to Amman, which is not a good look for the Palestinian leader.
Ironically, Israel — the one party that has been opposed to the Palestinian president and the reconciliation agreement with Hamas — is now backtracking on its opposition and is sending signals of wanting Abbas to play a leading role. The prominent Israeli columnist Nahum Barnae wrote on ynetnews.com that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now less opposed to a high-profile role for Abbas specifically because of his reconciliation agreement with Hamas.
Abbas' role could possibly be integrated into an international partnership with the United States, Egypt and maybe Qatar. The presence of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Doha and the regional diplomatic shuttling by US Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Abbas could mean that we are getting closer to a cease-fire that would place a major part of the responsibility for implementation on the shoulders of the Palestinian president, who only last week seemed powerless to do anything about the war on Gaza.
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