Palestinian Reconciliation Moves Forward, and Obama Discusses Iran, Israel
Fatah and Hamas, the main rival Palestinian political factions agreed this week to let Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas lead an interim government of technocrats that will prepare for elections. Until this week’s announcement, the two parties disagreed on how to implement the reconciliation agreement signed last May.
Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s role in a new government previously presented one major stumbling block to implementation of the reconciliation agreement. Under the new deal, Fayyad will no longer hold a government position and Abbas will hold the positions of both president and prime minster.
President Abbas and Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Meshal announced the agreement Monday in Qatar and will officially announce the composition of the new government on February 18. Newly appointed members of the government won’t have any party affiliation. Palestinians were originally aiming for May elections, but with repeated delays, it is unlikely Palestinians will hold a vote before the summer.
The announced deal created a rift between the Hamas leadership in exile and the leaders based in the Gaza Strip. Gaza leaders, including current Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, oppose the stipulation that Abbas serve in both leadership positions. A key bloc of Hamas legislators who are against the clause released a statement saying, “We call upon the parties who signed and those who sponsored Palestinian reconciliation to reconsider and ... not to bypass Palestinian law.” Khalil Shaheen, Palestinian political analyst says the dispute, “could undermine the implementation of the agreement.”
The inter-Hamas tension is not the only problem the reconciliation agreement faces. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the deal, saying Abbas needs to choose between the "path of Hamas or the path of peace." He continued, “We've seen recently that the PA (Palestinian Authority) has chosen to refrain from taking action against extremists, even chose to embrace them.”
On Wednesday, Abbas dismissed the criticism in a meeting with U.S. Middle East envoy David Hale. Abbas reportedly told Hale that the PLO is committed to all obligations from past agreements with Israel and reconciliation does not contradict the peace process.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland took a cautious approach. She told reporters on Monday, “We’re obviously seeking more information about precisely what was agreed. But as we’ve said many times, questions of Palestinian reconciliation are an internal matter for Palestinians…David Hale is seeking further clarification about what the implications of this might be.”
The EU was also hesitant to denounce the deal and said financial assistance would continue as usual. EU foreign relations spokesman Michael Mann released a statement saying, “The EU looks forward to continuing its support, including through direct financial assistance, for a new Palestinian government that should uphold the principle of non-violence.” The EU gives the Palestinians nearly $600 million in assistance every year.
Earlier this month, Israeli Education Minister Gideon Saar announced that students in junior and high school would be able to take tours of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Once a vibrant Palestinian city in the southern West Bank, Hebron is today a contentious city where 500-800 Israeli settlers live secluded in the middle of a Palestinian city of 160,000 people. Constant Israeli military presence is required to protect both sides from each other.
Some groups oppose the education ministry’s trips because they offer only one side of the story and ignore the impact settlers have on Palestinians residents of Hebron. This week, 200 Israeli teachers signed a letter to the Education Ministry refusing to participate in the tours that make the teachers and students “political pawns.” One teacher said, “The Hebron tours are political, by teaching half truths for one-sided, ideological reasons.”
Journalist Jeff Barak wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “the education minister is seeking to inculcate his right-wing political agenda into school outings.” He continues, “If school students are to be sent to areas that are at the heart of the of the country’s internal political argument, then it is vitally important, as part of the educational process, that they are shown both sides of the argument, and not just that of the minister who happens to be in charge at the time.”
In a contrasting Jerusalem Post piece, commentator Michael Freund expressed his support for the program. He writes, “If our schools can find time to discuss trapezoids and hexagons, then surely they can also strive to instill a healthy dose of Jewish national pride. Raising Israeli patriots, people who are virtuous, self-assured and confident in the justness of our cause, is key to safeguarding our survival.”
While the nation was gearing up for the Super Bowl last Sunday, President Barack Obama sat down with NBC’s Matt Lauer for an interview. They discussed several topics, including Iran and Israel.
On Iran, President Obama laid down a marker saying, "Any kind of additional military activity inside the Gulf is disruptive and has a big effect on us. It could have a big effect on oil prices. We've still got troops in Afghanistan, which borders Iran. And so our preferred solution here is diplomatic.”
He also took time to reassure those who are skeptical of his dedication to Israel, saying, "My number one priority continues to be the security of the United States, but also the security of Israel, and we are going to make sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this, hopefully diplomatically.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report this week detailing Israeli policies on Palestinian residency. Through its control of the Palestinian population registry, HRW reports that the Israeli military arbitrarily excludes thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, dividing families and causing many Palestinians to lose job and educational opportunities.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW says, “The current policies leave families divided and people trapped on the wrong side of the border in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel should revise these policies and process requests for families to reunite, so that Palestinians can live with their families where they want.”
Israel has cited “security” as the reason for its strict policies on residency and the slow pace at which it processes applications. Bill Van Esveld, one of the authors of the report based in Jerusalem told The Jerusalem Post, “There is definitely a real security concern [for Israel], the question is what’s the relation between the security concern and this policy? And our position is you can – and should – screen people to see if they are a security threat, but not to propose a blanket ban on everybody.”
In response to the report, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that HRW has a record of “anti-Israel bias.” He went on to say, “everyone knows Israel is a democracy and we have a powerful and vibrant independent judiciary,” explaining that those who believe Israeli government practices are arbitrary can turn to the Israeli courts to hear the matter.
Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a coalition of 24 national Church denominations and organizations, including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. It works to encourage U.S. government policies that actively promote a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ensuring security, human rights and religious freedom for all people of the region.