The limits of indulgence
The Palestinian Authority is meeting with Palestinian factions in order to smooth power transition. Change will not be easy, however, reports Khaled Amayreh from the West Bank
As uncertainty continues over the exact health status of Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Yasser Arafat, PA and opposition leaders have been holding talks aimed at consolidating national unity and preventing possible chaos after Arafat's death, an ever more likely event.
Earlier this week, PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei chaired what were described as "positive and constructive talks" with the leaders of 13 Palestinian factions and organisations, including the powerful Islamic resistance group, Hamas. Qurei emphasised that "Violence is not the solution. Any domestic problem must be solved by national dialogue. This is the only way. Taking up arms is not the solution."
According to several informed sources from the meeting in Gaza there was a general consensus among all factions over the need to display utmost national responsibility at "this delicate juncture".
Hamas's representative, Ismael Haniyyeh, stressed that Hamas was making every possible effort to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority to overcome the "present crisis". He dismissed reports originating in Israel about the prospect of inter or intra- faction violence as "wishful thinking", adding that Israel "has been trying to stoke the flames of civil war among Palestinians but we have always proved that we are a strong people".
It is not clear why Qurei warned against "taking up arms" since all Palestinian factions were unanimously and strongly opposed to this prospect. "We don't know why he mentioned this, nobody wants to take up arms," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. It is possible that Qurei is more concerned about an intra-Fatah power struggle than about a showdown with Hamas and other opposition groups.
One PA official told Al-Ahram Weekly that the often contentious security agencies, particularly in the Gaza Strip, constituted the "weak link" in Palestinian ranks at present. A few months ago violence erupted after Arafat appointed his widely despised nephew, Moussa Arafat, as security chief in Gaza. The ensuing demonstration eventually forced the Palestinian leader to revoke the appointment. Though this action has only put the problem on ice.
Yet this is not an indication that Hamas is willing to give the post-Arafat Palestinian leadership a "blank check", as a Hamas representative in the Hebron region put it. "We are willing to give them a grace period of a few months to prevent the outbreak of lawlessness and chaos... said the veteran Islamist leader. When asked to specify exactly what he meant, he explained that Arafat's autocratic style, having been tolerated for psychological and objective reasons, would not be accepted, or tolerated, from a new Palestinian leadership. "They will have to be answerable to the people, and this could only be put into effect through free, fair and genuine elections."
Hamas, while careful to display national responsibility, is none-the-less worried that the "new leadership" might slip back to the Oslo path and find itself, once again, "in the lap of the US and Israel". This, argue Hamas leaders, would be translated, almost automatically, as a showdown with Hamas. Washington would consider "fighting terror" -- translated as "cracking down on the Islamic opposition" -- as sine-qua-non for any conceivable revival of an Oslo-style peace process, including the American-backed "roadmap" for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Hamas dreads this prospect and is unlikely to allow the new leadership to evolve into another "Oslo gang", as the former Oslo-time leadership was often dubbed by the Islamists.
Notwithstanding, Hamas is likely to find itself in a somewhat advantageous position vis-ˆ-vis the Palestinian leadership once Arafat becomes part of history. With Arafat no longer around and with his galvanising effect gone for ever, the evolving Palestinian leadership will be less able, and probably less inclined, to confront Hamas head-on since such an act would portray the leadership as working in cahoots with the Israelis against Palestinian national interests.
There is no doubt that an appearance of collaborating with the Israelis or Americans against Hamas is the last thing the new post-Arafat leadership will want. A certificate of bad conduct at best and at worst, political suicide, apparent collaboration will be the easiest way to lose the fragile and conditional legitimacy already hinging only on good behavior and commitment to the national cause.
The new Palestinian leadership will have to manoeuvre very carefully between the Palestinian "main street", where Hamas's presence is conspicuous, and regional and international pressures. External forces will likely be making nearly impossible demands on an untested and unelected leadership that will no doubt be struggling to obtain acceptance and support from the Palestinian masses.
Elections may ultimately be the only solution acceptable to all Palestinian factions. Elections would not only arbiter the potential for contention between the PA and the Islamist camp but also would provide the Palestinians with the opportunity to weed out -- via the ballot box -- those elements within the PA they deem corrupt
Ultimately what worked under Arafat is unlikely to work under Abu Mazen, Ahmed Qurei or any other post-Arafat leader, be they elected or otherwise. Excluding the Israeli occupation, this is undoubtedly going to be the ultimate challenge, not only for the new leadership, but for the Palestinian people as well.