Saturday, September 30

Will there be a National Unity Government in Gaza?

President Mahmoud Abbas and PM Ishmael Haniyeh are trying to find ways of forming a National Unity Government. Hamas has failed as a responsible ruling party. Ishmael Haniyeh gives the impression that he is a moderate (this is doubtful). The conditions required for establishing a national unity government, namely recognizing Israel, ceasing violence, promising to respect past peace agreements signed with Israel and releasing Gilad Shalit are not acceptable to Hamas at this stage.

Hamas would like to have a national unity government. The Palestinian economy is weak and the Palestinian Authority is virtually bankrupt because of sanctions imposed by Israel, the US and EU since the electoral victory of Hamas in January this year. They are in a crisis and need foreign capital urgently. There are many basic food shortages. Palestinian civil servants and public employees have not received their salaries for many months. Many feel that sanctions would be lifted under a national unity government. President Mahmoud Abbas met President Bush when he visited the US recently. President Bush described him as a “man of peace”. Abbas promised Bush that any future government of national unity would recognize Israel, end violence and uphold all outstanding agreements between the PA and Israel, thus meeting the conditions set by the Quartet (US, Russia, EU, and UN) for an end to the boycott.

The Hamas government could underplay its dominance and replace it by a moderate fa├žade called the National Unity Government under Mahmoud Abbas who enjoys the legitimacy that Hamas does not. The benefits to Hamas are obvious under these conditions. As the situation is now, the talks between Hamas and Fatah have stalled. Haniyeh reminded Abbas that the Prisoners’ Document would form the conditions for a national unity government

Mahmoud Abbas knows that a national unity government (as far as he is concerned) is dependent on Hamas recognizing Israel’s right to exist, ceasing violence and terror against Israel, releasing Gilad Shalit the Israeli kidnapped soldier and respecting all past agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Much depends on the resilience of Hamas towards US, British and EU demands of recognizing Israel’s right to exist. So far, there are still no signs that Hamas is willing to change its stance towards Israel or agree to the conditions outlined by Mahmoud Abbas. The question that remains is whether Hamas is prepared to change its charter and show pragmatism towards Israel’s existence or not. It is obvious that if there is a change in the Hamas position, Israel will also have to make concessions such as the release of Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for Shalit’s release. There does not seem to be any progress in negotiating Shalit’s release.

Unfortunately, the focus on the Palestinian – Israeli Conflict is not so much on the occupation anymore. Hamas, essentially a religious organization, has never agreed to recognize Israel though Hamas leaders have indicated on numerous occasions their willingness to accept outstanding agreements that themselves implicitly recognize Israel, a strategy that aims to allow the movement to claim it has resisted US and Israeli pressure, unlike its rival Fatah.

According to Al Ahram, the Egyptian weekly of 28th September-2nd October:

“The majority of Palestinians remains opposed to Hamas recognizing Israel, for both religious and ideological reasons, but also because Israel has not indicated any willingness to recognize a viable Palestinian state on all the Palestinian land it occupied in 1967. Israel has also consistently rejected the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in what is now Israel. Repatriation and indemnification for refugees is a key clause in the Prisoner Document on which any national unity government will be based.

Another factor militating against recognition of Israel by Hamas is the widespread suspicion that Israel is only using the issue as propaganda tool, something Israel's treatment of the PA during the Oslo years (1994-2000) confirms. Despite the fact that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat formally recognized Israel and agreed to annul the Palestinian National Charter, which called for Israel's destruction, successive Israeli governments continued to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank, effectively killing any prospect for the creation of a viable and territorially contiguous state.

Hamas believes Israel and the US are attempting to undermine the movement's credibility with its supporters by forcing it to walk in the footsteps of Fatah and adopt the very Oslo path that led to more Jewish settlements and now the gigantic apartheid wall which has turned Palestinian population centres in the West Bank into detention camps”.

It appears that a national unity government will be formed eventually despite the stalling of talks. However, this government initially will stop short of recognizing Israel and abiding by the requests of the Quartet. A proviso may be added to side step that thorny issue. It is a matter of speculation as to what that proviso would be. There could be a de facto unwritten recognition of Israel. This will make Israel’s recognition conditional on some form of a hudna, which means a long cessation of hostilities towards Israel dependent on the whims and fancies of Hamas. It is unclear as to whether the future national unity government will accept the US, EU and Israeli conditions. Much depends on the economic situation in the Palestinian territories that will determine future strategies by Hamas. It seems that Hamas has incredible determination not to give in to conditions laid down by the Quartet and Israel despite the dire economic straits of the Palestinian People.

President Mahmoud Abbas could dissolve parliament and build a cabinet of national emergency rather than unity. He could muster support for a referendum in order to dissolve parliament. This is his only option, as he does not have wide grass roots support. By doing this he could make the formation of a national unity government dependent on the Quartet and Israel’s conditions.

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