The Riyadh Summit & the Mecca Agreement
– Editor Mark A. Heller
April 2, 2007 - No. 15
The Riyadh Summit, the Mecca Agreement and What Lies Between Them
By Anat Kurz
The Arab Summit that convened in Riyadh on March 28 2007 reaffirmed the “Arab peace initiative” originally adopted by
the Arab League in 2002. It calls for Arab-Israeli peace based on Israeli withdrawal from the territories captured in
1967, a just and agreed solution to the refugee problem based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194, and the creation of
a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. Principled differences between Israel and Arab League members
over some of the elements in the proposed arrangement will make it difficult to translate the initiative into an actual
agreement. Another substantive obstacle is the absence of an authoritative Palestinian interlocutor. The President of
the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, supported the initiative, but Hamas leaders refrained from endorsing even the
conditional readiness to recognize Israel. The question of recognition is a central feature of the division between
Hamas and Fatah. As part of an effort to bridge that gap and lay the foundation for a unified Palestinian delegation,
pre-Summit preparations included diplomatic steps to establish a Palestinian national unity government. That government
was sworn in on March17 on the basis of the agreement reached in Mecca under the aegis of the so-called “Arab quartet” –
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.
The national unity government’s policy guidelines include detailed political positions, including an obligation to
create a Palestinian state in the territories captured by Israel in 1967 and recognition of Arab Summit conference
resolutions over the years. To that list of resolutions is now added the one in Riyadh that Hamas refused to embrace.
However, this rejectionist position will not lead to a coalition crisis, because the regional political context was not
the major concern of Fatah and Hamas leaders when they formulated the principles of the national unity government.
Indeed, to facilitate the creation of that government, Abbas even retreated from his demand for Hamas recognition of
Israel, which had been a Fatah condition for joining a national unity government ever since the Hamas’ victory in the
January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections.
Fatah-Hamas cooperation is intended to bring an end to the economic embargo imposed on the Palestinian Authority when
Hamas took office, and especially to stabilize the domestic front against the background of violent clashes between
elements of the two movements. A subsidiary objective was to create a coordinating mechanism to sustain the relaxation
of the struggle against Israel that was agreed by Abbas and Hamas in November 2006 and which prompted Israel to withdraw
forces operating in the Gaza Strip since the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit in June. Although the unity government’s
platform stresses the intention to continue the struggle for liberation with all means, the understanding on a
Fatah-Hamas ceasefire reflects acknowledgement by both organizations of the link between intra-Palestinian violence and
the struggle against Israel; the latter provokes Israeli military responses which are bound to accelerate the
disintegration of the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel, and the consequent absence of recognition from the unity government’s platform,
preclude Israel support for the process of Palestinian national reconciliation. Israel still sees Abbas as a partner for
dialogue, but his political partnership with Hamas threatens to prompt an Israeli reassessment. On the eve of the Riyadh
Summit, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuaded Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas to agree to meet on a regular
basis, but Israel maintains its economic embargo on the Palestinian government and its military pressure in the
territory of the PA. These measures are intended either to weaken Hamas or, alternatively, to encourage a change in its
position vis-à-vis Israel in order to avoid a further decline in its public standing.
In addition to Israeli pressure, the bitter rivalry between Fatah and Hamas and the economic embargo by western
countries will also complicate the task of consolidating the unity government. However, the collapse of that government
will not necessarily weaken Hamas’ military capabilities or undermine its public support. Indeed, freed of institutional
constraints, Hamas might even become more aggressive. Fatah, for its part, is too weak to fill the Palestinian public
space and become an authoritative interlocutor for Israel. True, the unity government does not yet constitute a viable
alternative to the deteriorating security situation in the Palestinian arena, hence, in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
But without any effort to achieve the goal behind the creation of the unity government, the already faint chance to
stabilize both arenas will recede even more.
Stabilizing these arenas is intrinsically important but it also has regional implications. Any results from contacts
between Israel and the Arab states will be very modest as long as the inter-organizational struggle in the territories
goes on. That struggle will make it impossible to implement any security understandings reached in the past or in the
future between Israel and Abbas, Hamas will subvert any political agreements to which it is not a party, and the ongoing
confrontation will cast a long shadow over relations between Israel and the Arab states. As a result, neither this “Arab
initiative” nor any other can provide a detour around direct Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
However, stabilization of the Palestinian front may well help promote a regional process. Indeed, Arab states bent on
lowering the profile of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict see in stabilization of that arena a necessary – if not
sufficient – condition for advancing the political process. Political momentum that gains public support in the
territories might well push Hamas to adopt a more compromising position, because fear of being perceived as the main
obstacle to some regional plan could prompt its leaders to overcome the political and ideological inhibitions preventing
recognition of Israel. Israel is rather more skeptical about the chances of that happening and makes negotiations on the
future of the territories conditional on explicit recognition of it by all components of the Palestinian government. By
contrast, the members of the “Arab quartet” expect the unity government to back Abbas in his attempts to formulate and
implement understandings with Israel, either separately or in some regional context. They also hope that political
partnership with Fatah will move Hamas closer to the center of Palestinian politics. The unity government, like the
“Arab initiative,” is a product of inter-Arab politics that fully reflects this hope.
INSS Insight is published
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Sari and Israel Roizman, Philadelphia