Friday, 18 May 2012

The New Palestinian Government

The Palestinian Authority (the PA) is nominally the governing body of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza. However the world knows that, following the elections of 2006, Hamas seized control of Gaza in a bloody fratricidal coup, and has been the de facto ruling authority ever since, remaining at daggers drawn with its political rival, Fatah, which controls the PA. The latest in a long line of attempts to foster a formal accord between the two took place on the 6th of February 2012 in Qatar’s capital city, Doha.

Efforts at reconciliation between the two power blocs within the Palestinian body politic began as early as 2008. Five rounds of talks held in Cairo failed to achieve agreement. A sixth meeting, held in June 2009, was intended to pave the way for final reconciliation on the 7th of July. It never happened. All the same, Egypt continued hosting intermittent joint discussions between the parties in the forlorn hope of achieving a breakthrough – forlorn, because all such efforts are attempts at reconciling the irreconcilable.

Insofar as Mahmoud Abbas has embraced the concept of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has consistently engaged with Israel – even if to no obvious effect, as yet – and went so far in September 2010 as to sit down at the same table with Israel’s prime minister and talk peace, in Hamas’s eyes the PA has placed itself beyond the pale. For Hamas remains what it has always been – an extreme Islamist and terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel.

Hamas, which includes in its official charter the notorious antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has never endorsed the two-state solution, since to do so would be to recognise Israel. For the same reason Hamas opposed Abbas’s attempt, in September 2011, at gaining United Nations’ recognition of Palestine within the old 1967 borders. Recognising Palestine within the 1967 borders would, by extension, mean recognising Israel outside them. Nor has it accepted the three minimal requirements for official recognition demanded of it by the Middle East Quartet, representing the US, the UN, Russia and the EU. These are recognizing Israel’s right to exist, abandoning terrorism, and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements – all of which are accepted by the PA.

Nevertheless, in February 2012 these irreconcilable differences appeared to have been overcome. After several rounds of discussion, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and the leader-in-exile of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, formally signed the Doha Declaration. which called for the formation of a national consensus Palestinian government whose main mission would be to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections and rebuild the Gaza Strip. Abbas was appointed interim prime minister of the new joint Hamas-Fatah unity government.

The reaction of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was instant. “You can’t have it both ways,” he said, addressing Mahmoud Abbas. “It’s either a pact with Hamas, or it’s peace with Israel.”

Of course he was quite correct, and in little more than three months the Doha declaration has been revealed as a slap-dash papering over of cracks, and incapable of providing a lasting accommodation.

Abbas and his spokesmen insist that at Doha Hamas agreed to honour all previous agreements signed between the Palestinians and Israel, and accept that being part of a united Palestinian government means recognising Israel. But Hamas officials themselves have repeatedly denied this, and their various leaders have failed to unite behind the Doha deal. Senior Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip, including Gazan Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, and Mahmoud al-Zahar, criticised the agreement from the start, and signs soon emerged of a growing split within the movement.

By swearing in a new Palestinian government in the West Bank on 16 May, Mahmoud Abbas and the PA have acknowledged the validity of Netanyahu’s options – engage with Hamas or engage with Israel – and openly declared their choice. It is to continue their struggle against Hamas, and perhaps to re-engage in negotiations with Israel that might lead to an accord. For following an exchange of letters between Israel’s prime minister and the Palestinian President, Abbas is travelling to Cairo today, Friday 18 May, where he is scheduled to hold talks with Mohamed Tantawi, the de facto ruler of Egypt.  He will also visit Amman for talks with King Abdullah, and the tour could also include Qatar and Saudi Arabia. PLO executive committee member Wasel Abu Yusef said that Abbas was planning on requesting a meeting of the Arab League to discuss the Israeli reply to his letter.

Meanwhile Salam Fayyad, the West Bank Palestinian leader widely credited with developing and boosting the Palestinian economy over the past few years, though anathema to the Hamas leadership, remains prime minister. His previous additional role as finance minister is now taken by Nabil Kassis, a former university president who will have to deal with the challenge of steady decline in donor funds. The PA is relying on foreign aid to cover a 2012 budget projected to reach nearly $1.7 billion. Most of the aid comes from the European Union, the United States and Arab countries.

The new cabinet consists of representatives of Fatah, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestinian Democratic Union, as well as independent figures. It includes six female ministers – the largest number of women to serve in a PA cabinet.

Prior to the swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Ramallah, Abbas told a news conference that the incoming government "will be dismissed immediately" if the political partnership with Hamas is consummated. It looks as though the new Palestinian government is safely installed for its full term.

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