Settling the dust
The west's response to Hamas' epochal victory in the Palestinian elections has been one of absolute indecision, writes Graham Usher in Gaza
On Monday the West decided not to decide. Following emergency consultations within the Middle East Quartet -- the US, UN, European Union and Russia -- US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signalled there would be no immediate suspension of international aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the aftermath of Hamas' triumph. Instead we are entering a grace period contingent on the formation of the next Palestinian government.
The hope among Palestinians was that this would take about two weeks. Not any more. Under guidance from the Quartet and Egypt, PA President Mahmoud Abbas is suggesting an "interim" administration to manage the PA's transition from a Fatah to a Hamas-led government. The recommendation of the Americans is for a transition of two or three months or until after the Israeli elections on 28 March.
Diplomatic indecision reflects the enormous contradiction the Palestinian elections have posed before US policy in the region. On the one hand, the election of a radical Islamist movement whose doctrinal positions advocate armed resistance, reject the Oslo peace process and its later offshoots like the Quartet's "roadmap toward peace" and recognises the legitimacy of neither the Israeli occupation nor the Jewish state.
On the other hand, there is a wall-to-wall Western consensus -- arching from Tel Aviv through Washington to Brussels -- that the price of Hamas' entry to governance is that it must recognise Israel, disavow "violence" and adhere to all agreements signed between Israel and the PA, including and especially those on security coordination.
These positions clearly are not going to be reconciled any time soon, says Ziad Abu Amr, a Hamas-backed "Independent" MP who is widely tipped to become a minister in the next government.
"Hamas has already said it recognises the reality of the Oslo agreements and has signalled that it is prepared to extend the cease-fire. It may offer further clarifications, assurances and guarantees. But it is not going make concessions on its political programme, not at least until Israel concedes on its programme by agreeing to end the occupation," he says.
The man mandated to square the circle is Abbas, the PA's perennial "transitional" leader. Last year -- upon his election as president -- he was presented as "the bridge between generations," with the now forlorn hope that he would peacefully pass the baton from Fatah's "old guard" to the young. Now he is the conduit between a PA dominated by his Fatah movement and a new government that will be led by its historical Islamist adversary. As always Abbas is trying to navigate these waters with a ballast of regional support.
On Tuesday he met Jordan's King Abdullah, who laid before him the mandate. All the Palestinian factions, he said, must "understand the requirements of this period; deal with it logically and prove to the whole world that there is a Palestinian partner able to go forward and achieve peace".
On Wednesday Abbas met Egypt's President Mubarak, whose message was almost certainly identical. Muburak then met with Israel's new foreign minister, Tsipi Livni, whose message came with the imprimatur of her acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert: Israel will refuse tax monies owed to the PA until Hamas renounces violence and adheres to agreements, she said.
Egypt is likely to tell her not to punish the Palestinian people for its democratic choice, and that any attempt to bring Hamas to its knees through financial extortion would be "disastrous," in the phrase of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal.
With Abbas the discussions focussed on the nature of the next Palestinian government. Egypt is said to prefer a "national coalition," with Fatah representatives keeping the crucial portfolios of foreign affairs, finance and interior. Hamas too says it wants a national coalition, although "following our huge victory I believe we should take the main ministries," says newly-elected Hamas MP for northern Gaza, Atif Udwan. The greatest of these would be prime minister, with Hamas political leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, being the obvious and most popular choice.
Hamas sources say they have no problem with Nasser Al-Kedwa returning to the Foreign Ministry and have offered the Third Way's Salam Fayyad finance (so far he is refusing). But the critical chair is the interior minister, technically responsible for the PA's 50,000-strong and Fatah-dominated security forces and currently the main domestic opposition to a Hamas-led government.
On Sunday Abbas announced that all the PA security forces would be answerable to the presidency. This followed violent protests in Gaza by Fatah activists widely seen to have been orchestrated by former security head, Mohamed Dahlan. It was a decision Hamas rejected, pointing out that it not only violated the PA's basic law but was the reason for Abbas' resignation as prime minister under Yasser Arafat's presidency in 2003. "Any step that is motivated by a fear of Hamas taking over the military apparatuses is a wrong step," said Haniyeh.
The former interior minister was Nasser Youssef, a police officer historically loathed by many in Hamas and deeply unpopular among Palestinians for his failure to bring law or order, especially in Gaza. An alternative could be Dahlan, one of the few successful Fatah candidates in the elections and known for his close relations with Egypt, Jordan, the US and Israel. But "Dahlan is the fiercest opponent of Fatah joining a Hamas government," says Abdel-Hakim Awad, a Fatah leader in Gaza. Still, he adds interestingly, "anything is possible in politics."
Beyond the composition of the next Palestinian government there is the question of how it will accommodate Israel and the Quartet's demands upon it. One solution -- said to be favoured by the EU -- is a technocratic government made up of "experts" and a smattering of Hamas "independents". Another -- currently being discussed by the factions in Gaza -- is to redraw the blurred distinction between the role of the PLO and that of the PA.
The PLO is the Palestinian body responsible for negotiations with Israel and is the signatory to all the Israel and Palestinian agreements. It has also long recognised Israel's right to exist behind its 1967 borders. Hamas is currently in the process of joining the PLO but is not yet a fully-fledged member. The compromise being mooted is one where the PLO reaffirms its historical commitments, while Hamas concentrates on the issues of governance, particularly in the ministries of education, health, religious affairs and local government. After all, Hamas' priority now is to "empower Palestinian civil society," says Hamas political leader, Musa Abu Marzouq.
Israel will almost surely reject the fudge. It will point out the contradiction of accepting the commitments of an organisation whose main elected part is dominated by a movement that is not a PLO member and is politically opposed to its core policies, above all, peace with Israel on the basis of a Palestinian state in the 1967 occupied territories.
But the fudge could be enough to satisfy the US and other Quarter members. It would at least give them time as they come to terms with regional policies that have so far strengthened Islamist opposition in Egypt and Syria and brought to power Islamist-led governments in the PA and Iraq.