x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Who has Obama's ear on Middle East policy?

The US threatens to withdraw financial support offered to the Palestinian Authority if a new Palestinian national unity government includes Hamas but one of President Obama's senior advisers recommends the new administration should talk to Hamas. Talks being held in Cairo on the formation of a Palestinian national unity government were deadlocked on Saturday after representatives from Hamas and Fatah failed to agree on the composition and obligations of such a government.

Talks being held in Cairo on the formation of a Palestinian national unity government were deadlocked on Saturday after representatives from Hamas and Fatah failed to agree on the composition and obligations of such a government, officials told AFP. Work began five days ago as committees were formed in an effort to iron out differences between the two factions. "The difficulties are, first, what kind of commitments the government ought to give to gain international acceptance and, second, whether [the government] is composed of [representatives of] the organisations or independents," said Nabil Shaath, a senior Fatah official. While rejecting the conditions that have been imposed by the Middle East Quartet - the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia - Fawzi Barhum, a spokesman for Hamas said: "I don't think there is any country in the world, including the US, that forms it government according to foreign dictates." Earlier, Haaretz reported that Western and Israeli diplomatic sources said US$900 million (Dh3.3 billion) pledged by the United States to the Palestinians will be withdrawn if a Palestinian unity government does not recognise Israel's right to exist. "During her visit to the region last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas against forming a coalition with Hamas that will not meet the expectations of the Quartet. "Clinton told Abbas that Congress will not approve funding of a Palestinian government that does not recognise Israel's right to exist and renounce violence. She added that if those requirements are not met the US-funded programme under the supervision of General Keith Dayton training PA security forces would be the first to be axed." While the positions articulated by Mrs Clinton do not depart from those of the previous administration, an influential group of former US officials and one currant adviser are urging the Obama administration to talk with leaders of Hamas. The Boston Globe reported: "The bipartisan group, which includes economic recovery adviser Paul A Volcker and former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, made the recommendation in a letter handed to Obama days before he took office, according to Scowcroft. "The group is preparing to meet this weekend to decide when to release a report outlining a proposed US agenda for talks aimed at bringing all Palestinian factions into the Mid east peace process, according to Henry Siegman, the president of the US/Middle East Project, who brought the former officials together and said the White House promised the group an opportunity to make its case in person to Obama. "Talking to Hamas, which the State Department has designated a terrorist organisation, would mark a dramatic reversal for the US government. Longstanding US policy has stipulated that before engaging in any talks, Hamas must renounce violence, recognise Israel, and agree to all previous agreements signed by Palestinian negotiators. "I see no reason not to talk to Hamas," said Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to President George HW Bush." Other signatories included Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who for many years was chairman of the House committees on foreign affairs and intelligence; James Wolfensohn, a former head of the World Bank; Thomas Pickering, former United Nations ambassador from the first Bush administration; Carla Hills, former US trade representative in the Ford administration; Theodore Sorensen, former special counsel to President John F Kennedy; and former Republican senators Chuck Hagel and Nancy Kassebaum Baker. The Economist, which reported on the initiative last month, said: "The letter's three key demands were that Mr Obama should appoint an even-handed special envoy with real clout (done); that he should spell out a clear vision for a Palestinian state (awaited); and that he should seek to draw Hamas into talks (not so easy). A key member of Mr Mitchell's staff, Fred Hof, who previously co-drafted Mr Mitchell's famous report on the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2001, is close to the Scowcroft group. "Mr Mitchell's appointment was warmly applauded by that group and greeted coolly by many in the old pro-Israeli lobbies, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac). More to the point, though there have been other recent envoys to the Middle East, none has as much potential influence on the president as Mr Mitchell. General Jim Jones, too, Mr Obama's new national security adviser, is a tough realist with recent experience in trying to improve security between Israel and Palestine. He is in hock to neither side. "No one is sure how Mrs Clinton, as secretary of state, will relate to Mr Mitchell - or to the Israelis and Palestinians. Since she became a senator for New York, she has ardently echoed more or less whatever Aipac has said about Israel-Palestine.... "As for Mr Obama himself, no one is certain what he thinks; listening on such ticklish issues has been his forte. But those who have discussed Israel-Palestine with him reckon he is a lot more knowledgeable, even-handed and open-minded than his predecessor. He will not jump into the morass without careful preparation, but there is a fair chance, once Mr Mitchell has drawn up a plan, that the new president will engage quite soon." If or when such an engagement may come for a president who will for the foreseeable future remain immersed in the challenges posed by an economic crisis, remains uncertain. So far there have been much clearer signs of continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations. The latest example is a Gaza security initiative whose principles were set in place in the final hours of Condoleezza Rice's term in office as US secretary of state. Following on from that January US-Israeli agreement, Reuters reported: "The United States, Canada and seven European nations agreed on Friday to try to stop the flow of weapons to Gaza by methods such as interception at sea, information sharing and diplomatic pressure. "Experts from the nine nations, meeting in London, agreed on a programme of action to prevent arms reaching the Palestinian enclave bordering the Mediterranean, a senior British diplomat said. "But states are not obliged to join any particular action and the diplomat said that naval vessels would not use force. "Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway signed up to the programme, the diplomat said. "Stopping the flow of arms is seen as a crucial part of international efforts to bring a durable ceasefire to Gaza and persuade Israel to lift tough restrictions on humanitarian and reconstruction aid reaching the Palestinian territory." Meanwhile, a new tape recording attributed to Osama bin Laden and broadcast by Al Jazeera was highly critical of Arab leaders. "Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qa'eda, has said in an audio tape obtained by Al Jazeera that some Arab leaders were 'complicit' with Israel during its offensive in Gaza. "Bin Laden said in the tape aired on Saturday that Arab leaders were 'hypocrites', and that 'liberating Jerusalem needed honest Arab leadership' to fight and liberate the Arab people. " 'It has become clear that some Arab leaders were complicit with the crusade Zionist alliance against our people. These are the leaders that America calls moderate,' bin Laden said."

pwoodward@thenational.ae