What Secretary Rice’s Agenda Should Be

If U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had wanted to make a real contribution to enhancing future prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, she would not be spending her time in the region "sketching out broader political issues" with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. After too many years of U.S. neglect, these issues are abstractions that pale in comparison to immediate needs.

What the secretary should be focusing her energy on is reinforcing the Mecca Accords and pressing Israel to end its strangulation of the Palestinian economy and society.

The agreement signed in Mecca between Hamas and Fatah, under the sponsorship of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, was an important development that the U.S. should have immediately, even if conditionally, embraced. They did not. Still hoping for an intra-Palestinian confrontation that Fatah would decisively win, the U.S. has made clear its displeasure with Mecca’s compromise arrangements.

As a compromise, the accords can be criticized by partisans and ideologues alike. What cannot be denied is that they achieved what was possible by recognizing important realities. First and foremost, there is the acknowledgement that a balance of force and a division of loyalty exists in Palestine. While Hamas won the election, Fatah retained not only the office of the President, but an important role in Palestinian society. For example, while the U.S.- and Israeli-led embargo starved the Palestinian economy and made it impossible for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to pay salaries of over 150,000 civil servants, it is important to note that most of those affected were Fatah loyalists. The result: Palestinians in general – not just Hamas – paid the price.

Pressure mounted between the rival parties, resulting in months of deadly clashes. But, in the end, came the realization that neither side could impose its unfettered will on the Palestinian polity. If left unchecked, the violence would have created permanent fractures, benefiting no one.

With Israel expanding its intrusive wall and settlements in the West Bank and maintaining its economic blockade of the West Bank and Gaza, and the U.S. remaining passive in the face of these measures and imposing its own punishment on the PA, and with the Palestinian factions pathetically reduced to turning their self-destructive violence on each other, the situation had become desperate. Saudi Arabia stepped into this breach using its political, religious and economic clout in order to encourage an intra-Palestinian compromise.

The political formula outlined in the Mecca Accords is significant. Hamas retains the post of Prime Minister, which they could not be denied, having won the last election. But they now become a minority faction within the new cabinet, holding only nine ministerial posts out of 23. Fatah and other smaller Palestinian parties will take over 10 ministries, while four of the most sensitive posts (including foreign affairs, finance and interior) will go to independents acceptable to both sides.

At the same time, the role of the Palestinian presidency to negotiate with Israel has been firmly established and recognized by all parties. And though still Hamas-led, the new Palestinian government has committed itself to respect "international and Arab resolutions and agreements previously signed" by the PLO.

Despite this less than clear acceptance of U.S. and Israeli demands, the U.S. should have acknowledged the positive steps that have been taken. With the Mecca Accords, Hamas has embraced a political path and ceded diplomatic leadership to President Abbas. They have taken a step back from rejectionism by endorsing the Arab League’s Peace Declaration of 2002 and signaled a commitment to a five-year truce. Most importantly they have agreed to work, under the Saudi umbrella, to form a coalition government, thus removing Iran from the Palestinian picture.

If the U.S. were serious about making progress towards a two-state solution, they would seize on these accords and resolve to work with Saudi Arabia to build on this accomplishment by pressing the parties to live up to their obligations by implementing the agreement in good faith.

At the same time, the U.S. would press the Israelis to fulfill their obligations and commitments: to honor the U.S.-brokered agreement to facilitate access and egress from Gaza; to stop settlements and wall construction and other provocative actions that impose undue hardships on Palestinians; close down internal checkpoints freeing Palestinian commerce; and return, as the U.S. has asked of them, to the status quo ante of March 2002.

Without steps such as these, even the modest progress made by the Mecca Accords may be lost. What is needed now is leadership that solves real problems, reinforcing and rewarding steps made toward moderation and strengthening the role of the Palestinian presidency. Reigning in the Israelis and restoring some degree of normalcy to the Palestinian situation are prerequisites for any future progress.

It is not too late for the U.S. to play a constructive role and spare the region more senseless bloodshed. I’m not counting on this happening, but I’d love to be surprised.