Neighboring Countries Put Watchful Eye on Hamas-Fatah Fighting

The recent fighting between Palestinians loyal to Hamas and to Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party is of intense concern not just to Israel and the United States, but to neighboring countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller talks with Linda Wertheimer.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will go to Egypt on Monday to meet with the leaders of Israel and Jordan. The summit is an effort to strengthen Abbas as he struggles to hold Palestinians together after a six-day civil war in the Gaza Strip. Hundreds died in the bloody battles as Hamas, the rival of Abbas' Fatah Party took control of Gaza.

With me to talk about the repercussions of the fighting and Monday's summit is Aaron David Miller. He's a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He has served as a Middle East negotiator until 2003 under six secretaries of state. Mr. Miller, welcome.

Dr. DAVID MILLER (Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center): It's a pleasure to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Abbas will be meeting with Israeli President Ehud Olmert and with King Abdullah of Jordan. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak brokered the summit. What is the strategic interest of Arab nations here in the divide between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah on the West Bank?

Dr. MILLER: I think the Egyptians and Jordanians, given the fact that they are literally proximate to the boundaries of historic Palestine, have a major stake in ensuring that radicalism and splits within the Palestinian community not intensify to the point of sustained civil war.

WERTHEIMER: Israel announced that it will release hundreds of millions of dollars in frozen Palestinian tax revenues to the new government that Abbas has sworn in. Is that going to have any kind of impact?

Dr. MILLER: It will certainly have an impact. Hundreds of millions of dollars to a Palestinian economy that is starved will be important. It will help pay salaries. And anyway, it's the Palestinians' money to begin with since these revenues flowed from accords that were worked out between the Israelis and the Palestinians during the Oslo period.

The real danger, it seems to me, for Mahmoud Abbas is trying to find the balance between accepting these money for the West Bank, carrots for the West Bank in essence, but only sticks for Gaza. He cannot appear to be the Palestinian president who presided over the devision of the Palestinian polity and the intensifier of intra-Palestinian strife. So that's a tricky one for him to handle.

WERTHEIMER: The United States is also weighing in with cash. The Bush administration has resumed aid and contacts to Abbas that were suspended when Hamas took power in legislative elections. Is that likely to help to succeed? Is there a risk here?

Dr. MILLER: The only risk is that we pursue a policy based on a couple of flawed assumptions. Number one, Mahmoud Abbas does not control the West Bank. If anybody controls the West Bank, it's Israel. And number two, Mahmoud Abbas doesn't even control Fatah.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that the U.S. and Israel had a role in events that led to the division of power between Hamas and Fatah?

Dr. MILLER: You know, I've grappled with this one. I think the primary responsibility lies in one basic reality. In November 2004, Arafat dies. He dominated, presided over this movement for almost 50 years, the lid came off of Palestinian politics. For the first time, he had real genuine competition but competition between armed groups with grievances, so no. I don't think we are responsible for the dysfunction and divisions within the Palestinian community. But what I think we do bear some responsibility for is missing a very important opportunity in January of '05, in the wake of Arafat's death. Abu Mazen was elected with 60-plus percent of the popular vote as president of Palestinian.

WERTHEIMER: That's Mahmoud Abbas.

Dr. MILLER: Yes. And instead of jumping in with both feet and empowering him economically, we essentially sat on the sidelines and unfortunately for us, we're reaping some of the consequences of that decision to this day.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much.

Dr. MILLER: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: Aaron David Miller is a former Middle East negotiator. He's now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington.

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Hamas Leader Meets the Press

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh meets with Western journalists in Gaza City, his first meeting with foreign reporters since Hamas forcibly took control of the coastal strip more than two weeks ago.

Following the Hamas takeover, Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas fired Haniyeh, dissolved the power-sharing "unity government" and installed an emergency government in the West Bank.

But Haniyeh and his supporters insist he's still the legitimate prime minister.

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