DOHA, Qatar – An unprecedented gathering of top Palestinian politicians and academics this week suggested that the split between Islamists and secular nationalists has hardened into permanence.
There was an overwhelming sense of a national movement in crisis at the conference in Qatar – despite the intensity of the current mediation by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who returned to the region on Thursday for his ninth trip this year, less than a week after his last effort. The clear sentiment at the Doha conference was that Israeli-Palestinian talks, now in their fifth month, cannot succeed.
That left Fatah, the nationalist party that essentially controls the Palestinian autonomous zones in the West Bank, with a feeling of impasse. Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip in 2007 but is increasingly isolated and besieged, is hardly more ebullient. The lack of a shared vision – the Islamic militant group depends on force and Fatah continues to negotiate – only deepens the sense of fragmentation, said participants.
Other strategies are being tried, such as a push for an Israel boycott similar to the one that helped end apartheid in South Africa, but these are still in their early stages.
“Everyone says we have hit a dead end, but there is no alternative,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former spokesman of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ self-rule government in the West Bank.
The gathering in Doha where more than 200 Palestinians sought a way out of their impasse was the largest of its kind and was hosted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, a think tank funded by the Qatari government.
It came at a time of intense efforts by Kerry to prod Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toward the outlines of a deal on Palestinian statehood. Kerry also held talks with both last week.
In a sign of the Palestinians’ political and territorial fragmentation, top decision-makers and thinkers had to travel to Doha to be in same room. Among those attending were Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal and top Fatah officials.
Hamas wants to establish an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, including what is now Israel. Abbas is negotiating for a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967.
The rivalry turned into enmity when Hamas seized Gaza and set up a rival government, leaving Abbas with only parts of the West Bank where agreements from the 1990s established Palestinian pockets of autonomy. Attempts at reconciliation have failed.
Still, the Doha conference was marked by a jovial atmosphere. When Mashaal entered the conference hall in a luxury hotel, he embraced Fatah leaders sitting in the first row and later hosted them twice at his home in Doha.
However, conference participants, who spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for frankness, said there seemed to be no chance of ending the political split.
Abbas repeatedly has offered to hold new elections in the West Bank and Gaza – an idea rejected by Hamas, whose popularity appears to be declining. Hamas wants to enter an equal partnership with Abbas, without holding elections and without giving up its power base in Gaza.
Abbas has resisted a “unity government” for fear of losing Western backing. A Fatah leader told Mashaal in Doha that a Hamas-Fatah partnership wouldn’t be funded by the U.S. and Europe, which consider Hamas a terrorist organization. The Abbas government relies of hundreds of millions of dollars a year in foreign aid.
Both sides have been digging in, despite setbacks.
Hamas is increasingly isolated in Gaza, struggling to provide services to 1.7 million residents there, after losing Egypt, Syria and to some extent Iran as patrons. Egypt turned hostile after the military there ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July.
Mashaal and other Hamas leaders left their long-time base in Syria in late 2011, after refusing to endorse Syrian President Bashar Assad against rebels fighting to oust him. The departure also caused tensions with Assad ally Iran, and Hamas officials said Tehran has significantly reduced financial aid to Hamas.
When top Hamas official Osama Hamdan presented his group’s views in Doha, he was heckled by a man who said Hamas has turned into Israel’s security sub-contractor. Hamdan responded that “we will never put down our guns and we will never give up.”
Another participant interrupted a presentation by Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator with Israel. “You have been negotiating on our behalf for two decades and achieved nothing,” the man said. “Why are you and your people still there? ... We want change.”
Erekat responded that he was elected to parliament in 1996 and 2006 and that Fatah is ready for new elections.
Abbas is facing tough decisions in the U.S.-led negotiations with Israel that began in July.
Last week, Kerry presented a proposal for security arrangements that would give Israel control over the eastern borders of a future state of Palestine for at least 10 years, according to participants in the talks. The plan is apparently meant to entice Netanyahu to accept the idea of basing border talks on the pre-1967 lines.
Abbas aides argue they’ve been misled by Kerry who told them the goal of negotiations is to reach a final deal, not a “framework” – a word that has found its way increasingly into U.S. statements. They say Kerry is giving specific guarantees to Israel, but only vague promises to the Palestinians.
Palestinian critics say that without serious U.S. pressure, Israel will not budge from its positions – and they are skeptical about the prospects for this.
Different ideas have emerged on how to change that equation.
Abbas aides have said world powers should join the talks, as they did in the recent negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal. The Palestinians also threaten to seek further U.N. recognition, after the General Assembly last year recognized a state of Palestine.
“The Palestinian national movement is clearly in crisis,” said analyst Mouin Rabbani. They need a new vision and leadership, he said, but “seem further away from this essential precondition than they have been for many years.”
Associated Press writer Karin Laub in the West Bank contributed to this report.