Marc Lynch

All aboard the Arab reconciliation train

All aboard the Arab reconciliation train

Amr Moussa and Khaled Meshaal in Damascus (Source: al-Jazeera)

The pace of the Arab and Palestinian reconciliation moves I wrote about on Monday continues to escalate. Over the last two days, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa met with Hamas political bureau leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus; Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas announced plans to visit Qatar, a key player in the rejection/resistance camp, soon; Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah applauded Arab-Arab reconciliation and praised “moderation”; Saudi King Abdullah vowed to overcome all obstacles to reconciliation; and Hamas leader Musa Abu Marzouq said that seven Arab states were acting jointly as patrons for the Palestinian dialogue.

Where might this be heading? There are at least four major destinations that the various players are mooting about in public, to which the U.S. may soon need to respond:

  •  A Palestinian unity government. The negotiations in Cairo over the form of a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation have gotten quite serious, by all accounts. Reports in several Islamist-friendly publications have outlined a well-developed concept of power-sharing, albeit with crucial details still vague. Such a unity government would have great advantages: it would establish a negotiating partner for Israel and the U.S., it would provide a legitimate conduit for the delivery of humanitarian supplies, and it would break the years of devastating political deadlock. The disadvantage from the traditional U.S. and Israeli perspective is that it would provide at least indirect recognition and reward for Hamas without it necessarily meeting the Quartet’s conditions (recently reaffirmed by Secretary of State Clinton). If the Arabs and Palestinians succeed in creating such a government, it will pose a direct and tough challenge to the Obama administration. I think that the rewards of agreeing to work with such a unity government outweigh the cost, and that doing so would demonstrate a substantive break with the failed Bush policies.
  • Israeli-Hamas ceasefire. Talks on an 18 month ceasefire are well underway, and seemed close to fruition until the latest round of attacks. The monitoring of smuggling into Gaza and sporadic exchanges of rockets and bombings are likely to be constant, ongoing irritants if such a deal is reached. Its fate will likely depend to some extent on the composition of the new Israeli government, though it’s possible that even Netanyahu would like to see the current government wrap up a cease-fire deal before he took power. The fate of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit seems to be a major hangup — Hamas does not want his release included in the truce deal, Israel seems to be demanding it. I find it hard to believe that this would be the cause of the failure of the truce talks — more likely the excuse, should Hamas not like the rest of the deal. But it’s there. The proposed Israeli prisoner release is also quite interesting — especially if, as widely reported in the Arab media, it includes the popular Fatah figure Marwan Barghouti. If Barghouti gets out, this would likely be as much a blow against Mahmoud Abbas as against Fatah — and could be the precursor to a much more solid kind of Palestinian unity government. Again, Americans and Israelis may blanche at the power this grants to Hamas at the expense of their preferred allies.
  • The Doha Summit. An Arab summit scheduled for Qatar next month could be the venue for the announcement of a comprehensive new Arab peace initiative. Such a summit in the capital of one of the key players in the “rejection/resistance camp” would symbolize the successful rehabilitation of the Arab order for which the Saudis and others are currently working. If it were to announce a new version of the 2002 Arab peace plan, with Qatari (and Syrian?) backing, it could galvanize the situation and put the onus on whatever Israeli government emerges to respond positively. The Obama administration should be encouraging such a unified Arab initiative, again breaking substantively with the Bush administration’s preference to heighten the divides between “moderates and extremists”.
  • Engaging Syria. While all of this is going on, both the U.S. and the Arab “moderates” have begun reaching out to Bashar al-Asad. Visits by the Saudi intelligence chief and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa signaled the Arab opening very publicly. The visit by a Senate delegation led by John Kerry is seen by many as a preface to official U.S. engagement, and many expect to soon see the return of an American ambassador to Damascus for the first time since 2005. Bringing Syria into a unified Arab camp and into direct talks with the U.S. could well smooth the path for renewed talks with Israel, and would reshape the political landscape in Lebanon.

There was a lot of skepticism about Obama’s Middle East policy in its first few weeks, with many people on both sides of the partisan divide equating it with Bush. But this sudden motion on the Arab side suggests that something else is going on. It now suddenly seems possible to envision an end to months, even years, of Arab and Palestinian political deadlock and a new regional role for Syria. (And that’s not even getting into Iraq and Iran.) Whether this is being led by Obama’s team or is being led by Arab actors trying to anticipate Obama’s policies, the effects are the same — or at least they will be if Obama can respond constructively, creatively, and effectively. Let’s hope that they swallow hard in the face of tough choices and make the right calls. None of this will be easy, any and all of it could easily fall apart in an instant, and the disasters of the last eight years won’t be overcome in a fortnight. But at least things are in motion in the right direction for a change.