U.S. the Big Loser in the Mecca Deal?

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Suhaib Salem / EPA

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R), Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (C|) and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh walk inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca on February 9, 2007.

Palestinians may still be celebrating the Mecca accord reached between rival factions of Hamas and Fatah to form a national unity government, but there is no such sentiment coming out of Washington. "Peace is not at hand," a senior U.S. official said today. But while the Bush Administration may view the deal as a setback for the prospects of Middle East peace, many observers think it is really a setback for U.S. influence in the region — especially its goal of isolating Hamas.

On its face, the agreement signed in Mecca between Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party and Khaled Meshal of Hamas, falls far short of the principles of the international mediating group known as the Quartet, composed of the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia, that a unity government must recognize Israel, reject violence and commit itself to the peace process. The Mecca talks, convened by Saudi King Abdullah, resulted in a Hamas pledge to "respect" previous Palestinian agreements to engage in peace talks with Israel. But Hamas leaders pointedly did not embrace Quartet demands that they concede Israel's right to exist and move toward a two-state solution.

And U.S. officials make clear that so long as Hamas doesn't embrace and act on the Quartet's demands, the stalemate will continue. Early this morning, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with other Quartet representatives — U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, EU security policy chief Javier Solana, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner— via secure telephone conference call. In a statement issued later in the day, the group reaffirmed its principles, adopted a wait-and-see stance on the unity government plan and called a Quartet strategy session for Feb. 21 in Berlin.

State department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters that the U.S. would wait until the national unity government was actually formed and engaged in policy-making to judge whether the U.S. could resume sending financial assistance to the Palestinian government. For now, said Casey, "the U.S. position on Hamas hasn't changed. It's an armed terrorist organization and that places restrictions on U.S. activities and U.S. engagement."

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, now director of the Brookings Institutions' Saban Center for Middle East Policy, argues that the Mecca accord is a "considerable embarrassment" for Rice and a setback for her hopes of brokering Israeli-Palestinian talks that will lay the groundwork for the establishment of a peaceful Palestinian state. State Department officials said today that Rice still plans to travel to Jerusalem Feb. 19 for Israeli-Palestinian-U.S. trilateral talks with Abbas, [popularly known as Abu Mazen] and Israeli President Ehud Olmert.

"This is not what the Administration had in mind," Indyk told TIME today. "They were expecting that Abu Mazen backed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would be moving into a process of excluding Hamas. They did not expect that Abu Mazen would compromise with Hamas. They didn't want him to compromise with Hamas, and they didn't think it was necessary." The U.S. team, Indyk argues, failed to anticipate that Abbas would opt for "conciliation and cooperation rather than confrontation" with Hamas.

Moreover, Indyk says, the deal casts a shadow over the Administration's efforts to form a strong coalition with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the other moderate Arab states on a range of issues, including not only the Israel-Palestinian issue but also opposing Iran's nuclear defiance and operations in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

"They expected that Egypt and Saudi Arabia would play a different role," says Indyk."The Saudis had started off with a very hard line against Hamas but that policy shifted at the beginning of January. In a sense Abu Mazen, the Saudis and the Egyptians reached the decision it was better to cohabit with Hamas than confront them. They decided to step back from the brink and to make a variety of concessions."

Indyk also predicts increased tensions within the Quartet. While there's no daylight yet showing between the U.S. and the Europeans, he says, "Russia will see this as a license to deal with Hamas."

Since Hamas won control of the Palestian government in last December's elections, the U.S. and Western Europeans have cut off direct funds to the Palestinian Authority. Many critics have argued that the measures have amounted to a financial stranglehold of the Palestinian territories that is fueling a humanitarian — and political — crisis. But the Western powers insist they have tried to avert a that kind of crisis — and international pressure to compromise with Hamas — by pouring massive amounts aid into the territories via non-governmental organizations. According to U.S. and European officials, the Palestinians received $700 million in external support last year, compared to $350 million in 2005. "It is not a humanitarian crisis," a senior Administration official said in a briefing last week. "There's a difficult economic situation in some places, even more acute than others. But overall, I think that the international community has been able to distribute assistance in the manner in which it said it would about a year ago." Still, some private aid groups question the complicated mechanism's effectiveness, claiming that it costs more money and takes more time to get the much-needed aid to the Territories.