One can pick and choose between the glaring new realities of the Palestinian political scene. With the resignation of the government and the more-than-likely appointment of a new one shortly — although how short is anybody’s guess — you will not be very wrong if you said its back to square one for divisive politics, discord and dissension along the traditional Fatah-Hamas lines. Maybe this is what is sought, not least by Israel.
The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President, Mahmoud Abbas, is likely to play it cool in choosing his next government. Although everyone is saying that forming a new government to replace the consensus one that resigned after 12 months in office will take as many days, Abbas is in no hurry to choose the new ministers based on political agendas very different from those of the outgoing administration.
This means the Palestinian political house is once again the subject of a powerful tour de force along the old/new split between Fatah and Hamas, the effective rulers of Gaza. Last year, both sides agreed to patch together a unity government that ruled in name only and was ineffective on the ground, especially in Gaza because of its Islamist arch-men. They were unwilling to relinquish power to the new consensus government, which they came to believe was a puppet of Abbas and his ruling Fatah faction in the PNA.
Moving Hamas out of the political equation maybe music to the ears of Israeli, American and European politicians, who have no qualms about labelling the organisation as a “terrorist” outfit. One can rest assured that Palestinian politics will from now be seen as running the gauntlet wherein ‘tenuous unity’ is replaced by factional antagonism that could lead to recrimination, rancour and even war, similar to the 2006-2007 situation when gunbattles between Fatah and Hamas were frequent on the streets of Gaza. This was caused when the latter retreated to Gaza after it won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, but was not allowed to form a government.
Regardless, Abbas is likely to be singing the praises of whatever government he chooses to appoint, especially since such an administration is likely to consist of male and female ministers who recognise Israel, renounce violence and submit to the diktats of the Middle East Quartet, and that excludes Hamas. But apparently, this is still in the realm of pontifications. You never know what an old-hand like Abbas is thinking, having played a long innings in the old political school of the Palestine Liberation Organisations. He is keeping the cards close to his wide political chest, not willing to let anyone know what he is thinking or contemplating until the game plan is complete, according to his rules.
Although he was purportedly saying any government will have to recognise Israel and renounce violence (a codeword for terrorism) — a view regurgitated by the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabuis who visited the Occupied Territories and Israel recently to kick life back into the faltering peace process, and was snubbed for it by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — Abbas is still mulling his options. According to his advisers, he is said to have backtracked and is now saying he will be looking to form another unity government that includes all Palestinian parties, like the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hamas and other factions. So now everybody will potentially be in the political game.
It is touch-and-go. We have to keep our ears close to the ground for the next couple of weeks. When Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah tendered his resignation last week, the prevailing view was that this was the end of his political career and he would go back to Al Najah University, where he was the president. But not so fast. He is still languishing in the corridors of the Muqata in Ramallah to see what Abbas has got up his sleeve. Hamdallah can still head a reformed government with new ministers, which was what he wanted all long, replacing the technocrats he could not deal with.
Because of the twisted nature of power in the region, which applies to Palestinian policymakers and even the rowdy Israeli politicians, the political game is constantly being altered, mired by conflicts, schisms and varying opinion with external inputs from the United States, Europe, Turkey and, of course, Arab countries like Egypt and Qatar, with the shifting of sands based on the fluidity of the situation.
Because of this, Hamas and Fatah continue to be at loggerheads. Tensions increased because of Israel’s 51-day war on Gaza last year that left the Strip devastated and paralysed, with the Palestinian government continually refusing to bankroll the reconstruction process because of Hamas’s refusal to let the Hamadallah administration exercise its rule over Gaza. That government only had a paper presence in the Strip.
This created a lot of ill feeling on both sides. As a way of punishing Hamas, the Hamadullah government failed to kick-start badly needed construction projects with aid money promised but not actually paid, and was blamed for letting the Strip continue to languish in a desecrated state. All this was made worse by Israel’s destruction of buildings and infrastructure, left as eyesores, with its people relying on handouts. The salaries of Hamas-appointed governmental and security cadre of 50,000 employees were only being partially paid.
Hamas leaders clearly felt such a situation couldn’t continue, for if not checked, it would lose the support of its wide, popular base in the Strip. They began making secret overtures to its arch enemy, Israel. A “back-channel” was set up wherein negotiations between Hamas and Israel were taking place through third parties, possibly Turkey and the Europeans. Israel unwilling at present to go for another war, feels there may be a possibility of creating a long-term truce with Hamas, despite the outward bellicose signs.
Abbas got to hear of the “back-channel” and felt he and his PNA were being left on the fringes, and their two worst enemies were set on making deals to improve the worsening standard of living in the Strip. Besides, there was talk of constructing a floating sea port that would ultimately break the nearly nine-year-old embargo on Gaza and open the Strip to the world.
Abbas clearly felt the rug was being pulled from under his feet, especially since the peace process with Israel was deadlocked and was likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. This added to his frustration, despite his constant overtures to the Israeli government.
This, then, may be the context and background to the current stalemated government, its future and intra-Palestinian relations. Abbas does not want another organisation to be seen as potentially replacing the PNA as a negotiating partner. He views the PNA as a body representing the West Bank and Gaza in one union. However, in light of the current situation, Israel dangles the carrot and the stick. And this doesn’t serve the Palestinian national agenda. A Palestinian government, regardless of its present and/or future formation, reflects the dominant power relations and is reactive to changes beyond its locale.
Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a Phd in Political Science from Leeds University in the United Kingdom.