Dr. Azmi Shuibi, Advisor to AMANís Board of Directors
Following is an interview with Dr. Azmi Shuaibi, advisor to AMANís Board of Directors in ďHosted by MIFTAHĒ.
**What do you make of the latest changes in the Palestinian arena regarding understandings between Fatah and Hamas under Egyptian mediation? Are we seeing a real move towards implementing these understandings?
The main source of pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas as head of the PA, the PLO and Fatah, and which also impacted Hamas, its politburo and leadership in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is regional more than internal. That is, there was no fundamental change in the balances of internal Palestinian relations bur rather in the current regional environment, which was mostly aimed at finding a formula for alliances in the region to target extremist Jihadist Islamic movements Ė i.e. the Islamic State, ISIS -- and to dry up their financial and intellectual sources under the banner of combatting terrorism. However, the position on all political Islamic movements in the region is being reconsidered by local, regional and international parties, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which found its ground in Arab countries and the political system after the Arab Spring. The movement is under review at the regional, international and local levels. The Turks are advising the Muslim Brotherhood to reevaluate the opportunities for Arab political Islam to participate in it. What has been even more impacted is the Palestinian Brotherhood, represented by Hamas, because of the position of the current Egyptian regime towards the Muslim Brotherhood following the bloody struggle for power in Egypt. It seems that Hamas internal evaluation showed that it had to pay an intellectual and political price, so to speak, and that for now, they needed to put their heads down in the face of the storm, because current developments could threaten its existence as a Islamic political party and a resistance movement. Meanwhile, concessions could be made to the Egyptians, who play an important role in terms of regional arrangements given that they have a national interest in the Palestinians being part of these arrangements. No doubt, understandings took place with President Abbas in his capacity as head of the PA and PLO during the Amman summit, which Egyptian President Sisi and King Abdallah II attended, with the support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These leaders basically told him to get his house in order as a condition for being part of the upcoming setup, manifested in internal Palestinian reconciliation and the reunification of the West Bank and Gaza under his authority. This is so he would be able to speak in the name of all the Palestinians in a new alliance after ISIS is eliminated, ostensibly before the end of this year. At the same time, the Egyptians promised to rein in Hamas. This is why President Abbas adopted a stringent policy and measures regarding the situation in Gaza, so he could put that final pressure on the Hamas authority at a time when he had not previously made such stringent demands for ending the division, limiting them to the dissolution of the administrative committee formed by Hamas. I think the Egyptians advised him to put that condition only and promised to convince Hamas to carry it out. That would be followed by a transitional stage of unifying PA institutions rather than reconciliation in its literal sense. During this transitional stage, one government would be created with authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the President speaking in the name of all Palestinians. After this is completed, the more contentious issues could be discussed, but still under Egyptian sponsorship.
I think reconciliation will be achieved quickly in some areas such as the crossings and the PAís supervision over the Rafah Crossing in particular which the Egyptians will open. At that point, President Abbas will have to take responsibility for the electricity problem in Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas will be forced to hand President Abbas leadership of the electricity distribution company in addition to the Water Authority; the process of consolidating the ministries and the civil police forces will also begin.
**In recent statements on the reconciliation, Mousa Abu Marzouq reaffirmed that the weapons of the resistance would not be up for debate; he also expressed reservation towards elections and the conditions their results could impose on Hamas. How will this affect the current reconciliation efforts?
I think the Egyptians will repeat similar steps towards reconciliation, not necessarily in the same way as before, but rather steps they feel are possible to accomplish such as the crossings, electricity, employees, public freedoms and social reconciliation. There will then be an agreement on a conciliatory formula for the PLC, a formula that will be a formality in elections. This is because it is in the interest of both Fatah and Hamas to come to a prior agreement, not just on holding elections but on its goals and on what will happen after results are out. The principle of partnership will be adopted in the PLO in terms of peace and resistance. In addition, there will be another formula that says there was a prior agreement for the government that comes after the formation of the new PLC.
I believe that dialogue will revolve around a conciliatory mechanism more than a competitive one. As for the weapons of the resistance, this is something the Egyptians will handle. In any case, this was mentioned in the agreement overseen by the Egyptians. In the original schedule, it is postponed more than the other files and may not be discussed at this stage. It may be part of an undeclared understanding with Israel and as endorsement of the American-Arab initiative. This is in addition to the role the Egyptians may play in term of prisoner swaps and the truce.
As for the idea of partnership in the decision for peace and war, this is a new concept, but one which implies that Hamas does not have the right to carry out unilateral attacks against Israel without an inter-Palestinian agreement. At the same time, Abu Mazen cannot get involved in political efforts without the participation of Hamas. I believe this is the idea that will take shape between the two sides.
**Where does Israel stand on all of these developments? Will it be a key component in them?
For Israel, in this current regional framework, isolating Iran and limiting its danger on Israel is considered its number one priority in addition to eliminating jihadist movements. Hence, Israel has conditions pertaining to the battle against the Islamic movement, against ISIS in particular in Syria and Iraq. The Israelis have clear red lines with the Americans which they both agree on. They also have red lines still being negotiated with the Russians about the Iranian presence in Syria and Hezbollah in the Golan Heights and the fact that Hezbollah has advanced weaponry. No doubt, Israel will be interested in a long-term truce to buy time in negotiations without results with the Palestinians and to halt the Palestiniansí diplomatic moves to delegitimize Israel.
As for calming the Gaza front and the resistance, the Egyptians will take over this file along with the Israelis. And while [Egyptians] they are not an influential party in the agenda of the international conference, their presence is mandatory. Everyone wants to avoid the negative impact of their absence; they are a part of the Arab group whose core agenda is fighting Islamist jihadist movements and Iran. This begs the question: Does the Palestinian issue come first, or the Arab-Israeli issue? Which comes first? Normalization? Or resolving the Palestinian problem? I think they will look for creative ways to merge the two issues into one whereby our cause will be linked with the Arab-Israeli solution. There is initial approval for the idea of a regional, international conference under American auspices. The discussion will revolve around the regional countries in attendance and Israel will be present with American and Russian approval. The dispute will remain however, over Turkey and Iran. Also, the Arab alliance will continue to be represented by Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Palestine and Morocco. No doubt, other regional countries will want to attend in addition to Sudan.
These are some ideas I think are part of the overall understandings from the Arab Summit conference recently held in Amman. Their implementation, however, depends on certain local conditions including: drying up the resources of terror and political Islamist groups with Gulf funding. The Qataris, Saudis and Emiratis are players in identifying these targeted parties and in the dialogue on the position of the Muslim Brotherhood and other movements linked to non-Arab parties such as Iran (such as in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq). In addition to drying up the resources, the umbilical cord must be cut between some Gulf countries and these movements and ancient Islamic roots represented in Wahhabism (whose main location is still Saudi Arabia). With these two conditions fulfilled, the situation will be ripe for the conference; but we are only talking about a window of several months, that is, until the first half of next year to hold the conference.
** Can we really expect actual results from this conference regarding the Palestinian cause?
A Palestinian presence in any arena is always an important requirement. There will be an internal discussion and in the media and official PA and PLO institutions on our participation, which they will all agree is necessary because the risk of rearranged alliances and the exclusion of countries will scare the Palestinians from opposing this regional approach. That is why they will be there; absence is not an option. Perhaps the Arabs will justify the Palestinian presence by saying that it offers them an opportunity to obtain their rights, unlike previous international and regional conferences.
In my opinion, if there is not a radical change from within the Israeli government, we cannot talk about any kind of solution that the Palestinians will accept. The only thing they will be offered are new interim solutions or open negotiations and more castles in the sky. In his last UN address, President Abbas called for the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative. In regards to the refugee issue, he said the Palestinians would agree to a solution for implementing the right of return. At the same time, he determined East Jerusalem as the capital but said he was willing to make amendments to the 1967 border. Still, we donít expect the Palestinians will get any direct results because this depends on the changes in balances of power that take place on the ground, especially given the fascist and extremist Israeli government currently in place.
**What are the alternatives and options for the Palestinian leadership?
I donít think the current leadership has any other options. Until a new leadership takes form, it is impossible to think or expect any new or dramatic changes. The current leadership under Mahmoud Abbas still fully believes in soft peaceful and diplomatic means to achieve an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state; this is the only path the Palestinians are currently taking. When President Abbas mentioned the one state solution during his UN address it was more about pressure to accept the two-state solution rather than an option.
**What are the expected repercussions of the recent agreement between Hamas and Fatah in terms of internal issues such as elections and reviving the PLO?
No doubt, one of Hamasí basic demands is partnership in political decision-making; this partnership within the framework of the unified leadership failed while the idea of participation through the leadership infrastructure represented by the PLC is currently making no progress. Furthermore, the idea to hold elections through convening the PNC abroad after agreeing on the areas where they could be held, is still defunct.
The upcoming stage will force Fatah, Hamas and all parties to accept a mechanism for action based on agreement over most of the core issues such as competition, power struggles over authority or representation (the PLC or government). In this case, a PNC can be formed by consensus with election results in the West Bank and Gaza used to the benefit of the PNC. This is one core issue that needs to be finalized by Fatah and Hamas. That is, they must agree on a formula for representation within the PLO, which will be difficult for Fatah because of its fear of losing control over decision-making, which it has maintained throughout the many years of the revolution. This has guaranteed that it always holds one-half plus one in PLO institutions. However, Hamas will not be part of it if Fatah is in control of decisions. It may however, accept a formula of deliberation for taking decisions on war and peace between the two parties that ensures real participation.
**What is your take on the current development in Israel-Arab relations, especially with Gulf countries?
When [US President Donald] Trump went to Riyadh, he announced that he had no problem with maintaining the old royalty-based Arab security system and that he is not enthusiastic about any democratic transformations in the Arab region. That is, on condition that these regimes are prepared to fund the fight against terror and directly participate in drying up its financial and ideological resources. This is contrary to the positon of his predecessor, President Barak Obama and to previous US policy in the region, which believed that one reason for the spread of Islamic Jihadism, which bore terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, was the nature of the undemocratic political system in most Gulf countries, in Egypt and the Arab Maghreb. That is why Obama had no objections to moderate political Islam, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, to take the reins of power through general elections, which is what opened the door to the Brotherhood. As for the Israelis, they were already fearful of the demise of the old Arab regimes, especially in countries along its border. Hence, there are overlapping interests between the old Arab regimes and Israel in regards to Israeli policy for change in the Arab region.
In terms of re-categorizing friend and foe, currently, it is agreed that the jihadist movements in all their forms must be categorized as a mutual enemy for all parties in the region. This is followed by the stage where it is determined which parties are nurturing these movements. The old Arab regimes see that some area-countries such as Iran and Qatar fund and support these movements, which coincides with Israeli interests.
**What do you make of the new US administrationís change in policy towards the Palestinian cause and its retreat from the two-state solution?
The American position has and continues to coincide with Israelís. When the issue is directly about Israel, the American-Israeli understanding is based on issues that constitute red lines regarding the land and future of Israel, and the US always adopts the Israeli formula. However, on regional issues, which are a bit more removed from Israelís interests and borders, the Americans become the decision-makers. We saw this in the Gulf war, in the nuclear deal between President Obama and Iran where Israel exerted tremendous efforts to prevent the agreement. However, the Americansí response was that this issue was more about the higher regional interests more about Israeli ones. Today, the Israelis are able to pressure the US into adopting their position vis-ŗ-vis Iran and cancel the deal signed by Obama. Furthermore, they feel the circumstances are ripe for abandoning the two-state solution and convincing the US President to adopt the Israeli position on this topic.
I think it will be hard for Trump to cancel the Iran deal but it is easy for him to shun of the two-state solution and rather declare that he supports any agreement the parties agree to.