The phased diplomatic process launched together by US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan for Ankara's comeback to the role of Israel-Arab peace broker – joined by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – was inching forward when all three players were floored by a snap Palestinian move: Wednesday night, April 27, Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah and its rival Hamas, ruler of the Gaza Strip, caught them unawares by initialing a Palestinian unity pact in Cairo – ready for their leaders to sign.
For the sake of closing ranks, Abbas gave substantial ground to Hamas, especially on security matters relating to the Palestinian Authority's coordination with American and Israel in counter-terror measures on the West Bank. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority per se and the institutions established for a future government will be scrapped in favor of a transitional power-sharing administration manned by non-partisan figures with no authority for peace diplomacy.
Hamas also gained its long-sought membership of the PLO, the roof organization which is the Palestinian representative for talks with Israel.
Abbas' formal role as Israel's internationally accepted peace partner is therefore up in the air, especially if Hamas, which Thursday reaffirmed its refusal to recognize or negotiate with Israel, wins the elections mandated by the new accord for a year hence.
Meanwhile, the reciprocal release of prisoners will turn loose the Hamas terrorists put behind bars in the last two years as a result of joint US-Israeli-PA counter-terror efforts.
Netanyahu's projected peace proposals thrown off course
Suddenly, those issues, which defeated at least three former Palestinian attempts at reconciliation, were no longer sticking points in Cairo, because the two factions were in too much of a hurry to get a unity deal in the bag before the secret US-Turkish-Israeli diplomatic track gained momentum.
Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Elaraby, midwife of the Palestinian deal, used it to pull the rug from under the Erdogan government and its pretensions to supersede Egypt as the leading Middle East Muslim power.
The strategic partnership Obama and Erdogan were developing to shape Middle East affairs was thrown off-course by the Palestinians, yet another setback which underlined its fragility. Earlier this week, the Turkish prime minister failed to parlay his close ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad to dissuade him from deploying his army and tank artillery against civilian protesters.
The strategy the Israeli minister had been developing in sync with Washington and Ankara was to have been unveiled when he addressed the two US Houses of Congress on May 21.
It suddenly looks outdated. Before a major rewrite, Netanyahu, as well as Obama and Erdogan, may well demand explanations of their secret services for the failure to catch on to the reality of Palestinian reconciliation. Both he and Defense Minister Ehud Barak might also ask themselves whether a harsh military hiding administered to Hamas for its February-March missile blitz against Israeli civilians might not have averted the Palestinian pact and its high benefits for the radicals ruling the Gaza Strip.
Obama bids to heal Turkish-Israeli breach and restore military bonds
Netanyahu may have been held back from meting out real punishment by the secret US-Turkish diplomatic track in which he was engaged. Instead, he met Hamas' plea for a ceasefire. By then, Washington was well into a bid to heal the breach between Israel and Turkey and end the bitter dispute sparked by Israel's 2009 Cast Lead operation for stamping out a former Hamas missile blitz and exacerbated by the Israel navy's interception of a Gaza-bound Turkish-led flotilla in May 2010 which ended in nine deaths aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara.
After that, Obama planned to move on toward reconstituting the old Israeli-Turkish military bonds and restoring the role of Israel-Arab peace broker which Erdogan filled for former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2007-2008. Only this time, the Palestinians would take priority over Syria which is embroiled in a violent showdown with rising dissidence. Netanyahu stipulated that Israel be afforded equal status with US and Turkey rather than be the object of their joint policies.
As debkafile reported Wednesday, Ankara made the gesture of postponing the next Gaza-bound pro-Palestinian flotilla due to sail in early summer. It is now awaiting a quid pro quo from Jerusalem.
Netanyahu had begun nailing down some of the diplomatic and territorial concessions for the Palestinians on which he has agreed with President Obama. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources reveal that more than three White House officials were privy to the top-secret points decided and those contested between them: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and the President's special adviser on the Middle East Dennis Ross.
The two confidants Netanyahu brought into the top-secret picture were his personal adviser Yitzhak Molcho and Elliott Abrams, head of the Mideast desk in President George W. Bush's National Security Council, whom Netanyahu has taken to consulting in recent weeks.
Mahmoud Abbas bolts the US orbit, adopts Hamas
But now, this common ground will have to be radically reworked in view of the defection of Mahmoud Abbas, the internationally accepted star Palestinian peace negotiator. By the Cairo unity deal, he lined up overnight with the Libyan, Saudi and Syrian rulers in defying the Obama administration and breaking away from US policies and interests in the region.
Co-opting Hamas to the Palestinian ruling administration brings to an end the PA security coordination with Israel under American oversight and has wide, seriously detrimental ramifications for US Middle East positions at large.
Abbas has reverted to the strategy branded by his predecessor Yasser Arafat who harnessed Hamas to the terrorist tactics he employed before and during his armed uprising against Israel from the late 1990s up until 2004. By making Hamas his strategic partner and opening the door to its veto control of Palestinian political, military and intelligence activities, Abbas has undone 25 years of hard-won American gains and shown Washington the door out of the Palestinian arena.
In Cairo, Fatah and Hamas negotiators agreed that Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, nicknamed Mr. US, must go – even though he is internationally recognized as the builder of Palestinian government institutions and the only respectable address for foreign donations.
How far Abbas will go on this new course is hard to tell. This unknown terrain will no doubt influence the nature of concessions Netanyahu secretly approved prior to the bombshell the Palestinians landed in Cairo this week. The Israeli prime minister had demanded some reward – initially that Washington and Ankara persuade the Palestinian leader to withdraw from putting a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood before the UN General Assembly in September.
That point is now moot: Mahmoud Abbas has abruptly turned his back on Washington. Exactly how far he will go after the Cairo shocker is anyone's guess.