Showtime in Palestine
Today, Singapore, 21/09/2006
Last week, Palestine PM Ismail Haniye finally gave up his attempts to keep Hamas in power alone. He agreed, jointly with President Mahmoud Abbas, on a deal for a coalition government with Fatah. He consented not because he wanted to compromise with President Abbas, the only Palestinian official who is presently acceptable to Israel and the West. He did not agree because he wanted to change course, accept reality and recognize Israel. As it behooves the head of a democratically elected government, Haniyeh did what he had to do because there was no choice. The coffers of the PA (Palestinian Authority) are empty, the government is unable to function and the support for Hamas among the Palestinian population is waning – if elections were held now, Hamas would lose. The way out was a joint coalition government with the rival Fatah movement, the lone viable alternative to an eventual collapse of the PA ever since Hamas’ upset victory in January 2006.
Since Hamas came into power on an agenda of change, it was unable to advance its programs, being shunned by most Western countries and, off-course Israel. This de-facto embargo led to a serious economic downturn and a disastrous humanitarian situation in Palestine. Reduced to smuggling money in suitcases, Hamas was apparently taken in by the grandiose promises of the Arab countries to make up for the substantial funds due to the Palestinian government withheld by Israel and the donor countries. As usual, those promises where just that and Hamas was left broke, unable to get enough money to pay salaries or keep commitments to the voters. The imminent coalition agreement will provide the movement with a lifeline and if PM Haniye plays his cards right, he may be able to regain at least some of the ground that Hamas has lost.
The new government that will be formed by Fatah and Hamas will split up the ministries based on the need to cooperate closely with Israel. Ministries that require frequent contact with the Israeli authorities will go to Fatah. Ministries that deal more with relations with the Arab world, will go to Hamas. This way the Palestinian government will be able to function, more or less, avoiding direct interaction between Hamas and Israel.
The basis for the coalition government is the prisoner’s document that was worked out by Hamas and Fatah prisoners held in Israeli jails. It implicitly recognizes Israel by accepting a solution for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Hamas was quick to clarify that it has no intentions whatsoever to ever recognize Israel but to expect the movement to complete in 6 months what it took Fatah and the PLO 30 years, is not realistic.
The prisoner’s document also calls for a stop of hostilities against Israel but here again, Hamas clarifies that this does not apply to the occupied territories. Let’s hope that this clarification is for declarative purposes only. Previous agreements with Israel are not unequivocally sanctioned and that remains a problem.
If the coalition agreement, lacking as it may be, will get the donor money flowing, there is hope. Provided it is nurtured carefully and supported by the West and tacitly by Israel, it should at least improve the situation on the ground for the suffering Palestinian population. However, the ability of the new government to engage in a meaningful dialogue with Israel remains questionable. Ismail Haniyeh, appointed again by President Abbas to form the government, is only a local strongman in Hamas. Assuming he wants to, he alone can hardly bring about the major changes in the movement’s charter necessary to negotiate with Israel. He is not even strong enough to push through a prisoner exchange with Israel, a move that would give him a lot of public support in Palestine and considerable credit in Israel. His competition, Hamas radicals in Damascus, appear to be loath backing up Haniye’s political efforts and are fighting him tooth and nail refusing concessions to a persistent Israel insisting on the three pre-conditions: Recognition of Israel, non-violence and respecting previous agreements.
President Mahmoud Abbas will only be able to negotiate with Israel’s PM Olmert from an empowered position if Hamas’ stance is softened perceptibly. Let’s hope that Israel will know how to recognize the relative improvement of the situation and move towards a more positive stand vis-à-vis the new government in Palestine even if not all conditions are met. Everybody would gain from such a change in attitude.