What's Behind the Arab-Israel Summit

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Hatem Moussa / AP

Palestinian supporters of Hamas wave flags as they listen to a speech of the party's leader Ismail Haniyeh in the Gaza City.

Arab diplomatic sources tell TIME that the Arab-Israeli summit in Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday is intended as a stern message to Hamas: Stop fighting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, or we'll launch a political war against you. But the sources say that the goal of the Arab regimes is to press for Hamas to join a new Palestinian unity government along with Abbas's Fatah party. Explains a senior Arab official, the decision to hold a meeting between Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah II and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "is a diplomatic warning to Hamas: If you try to strip Abbas's authority, think twice. We'll throw all our support to Abbas and work against you."

Privately, Arab leaders are steering some of the blame for the Palestinian political meltdown towards the Bush Administration and Olmert's government. They say the U.S. and Israel have effectively encouraged Hamas and Fatah to resume their bloody power struggle, which resulted in Hamas's armed takeover of Gaza and the collapse of the three-month-old Palestinian national unity government. First, Arab sources say, despite a symbolic resumption of the peace process in January, neither the U.S. or Israel provided any tangible political or financial support to bolster Abbas's increasingly shaky leadership against Hamas's growing political and military challenge. On the eve of this week's Sharm el-Sheikh summit, Olmert announced that Israel will finally transfer to Abbas's emergency government — which excludes Hamas — hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenues collected by Israel but withheld after Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006.

Second, the Arab sources add, by refusing to recognize the Palestinian unity government formed in February in the hope of ending the financial siege, the U.S. and Israel handed Hamas and Fatah an excuse to resume their turf battles. In a TIME interview last month, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal hinted at his government's disappointment. "Palestinians bear the main responsibility, but I think the Western countries and United States could have acted more positively," he said. "For an agreement like that, if you don't show signs of acceptance, and of inclusiveness, it does damage the effort."

The new summit comes against a backdrop of deepening Arab frustration and despair over the failure to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, worsened by the spectacle of Palestinians killing each other. "Gaza has become an embarrassing and frightening scene evoking sorrow and grief in the hearts," Saudi commentator Abdulrahman al-Rashid wrote in the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat last week. Lately, Arab officials have grown anxious that their own increased diplomatic efforts are going unrewarded as they watch the growing influence of Iran, which backs radical Arab factions, including Hamas. While Hamas' power play humiliated the Saudis, which took pride in mediating the creation of the Palestinian unity government through February's Mecca Agreement, it also alarms the authorities in Egypt and Jordan, who face political challenges from Islamist parties in their own countries.

Arab diplomats say that besides warning Hamas, their aim at the summit is to lobby Olmert to provide help Abbas in the short term by releasing Palestinian money and easing Israeli security in Fatah-controlled areas, and in the long term by moving toward acceptance of the 2002 peace initiative recently relaunched by the Arab League. Meanwhile, they say, once passions have cooled down, their next move is to encourage Hamas and Fatah to restore their governing partnership. "We will try everything," an Arab diplomat explains. "None of us agrees with Hamas. But they are a political fact that you can't ignore. The Arab position is to encourage Palestinian reconciliation."

Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa Program director of the International Crisis Group, agrees with that approach, warning that, even as they try to help Abbas, neither Israel nor the international community should aim at dividing the Palestinians. Olmert's move Sunday to release funds and improve life in the Palestinian territories, says Malley, a former Middle East advisor in the Clinton White House, is "late, but absolutely welcome, though it should be done with eyes open, not to marginalize or defeat Hamas."

The way forward, Malley argues, "sooner rather than later has to entail new compact between Hamas and Fatah. A strategy built on a premise of marginalizing Hamas will not work. Hamas has certainly retained all of the spoiling power they had. We have seen the evidence of that in Gaza. The notion that you could build a peace process, or security and stability, without somehow bringing Hamas in, seems to me to be an illusion. It's a policy divorced from any long-term strategy and any credible assessment of realities on the ground."