Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 February 2006
Issue No. 781
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

To be decided

The policy architecture of the new Palestinian government is yet to be formed while Hamas is standing strong on its long-held refusal to negotiate with Israel, reports Erica Silverman

"The Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections may be a blessing in disguise," announced Hanna Siniora, co-director of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information (IPCRI) at a recent forum exploring what Hamas's victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections means for peace. Siniora, an East Jerusalemite, waged an unsuccessful campaign for one of two seats in Jerusalem reserved for Christians, in the PLC elections held 25 January.

"I see the disguise, but I do not see the blessing," countered Danny Rubenstein, a popular Israeli columnist for Haaretz newspaper, Israeli's third largest daily, and Ben Gurion University professor, reflecting the overwhelming sentiment amongst Israeli politicians and the Israeli public that "there is no partner on the Palestinian side" after Hamas's sweeping victory over Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

How will the Palestinian and Israeli peace camps attempt to continue a dialogue in light of Hamas's victory? The open forum, held at the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem -- known as "Camp David" to locals -- was also hosted by Gershon Baskin, the Israeli co-director of IPCRI, a joint Israeli-Palestinian think tank that seeks peace through a just political process, along with Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, head of the Ramallah based Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PRS), who has conducted over 100 polls in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Palestinian voters chose Hamas believing they will end internal lawlessness and corruption. The peace process and the economy were not key issues of the election, explained Shikaki. "People did not suddenly become religious," he continued, reporting that only 55 per cent of Hamas voters polled described themselves as religious. "Forty-two per cent of the [Palestinian] population supports the peace process," while only about one-third of Hamas supporters polled stated they support the "roadmap," a two-state solution, and the collections of arms, stated Shikaki, arguing that Hamas voters' perception of the peace process is not indicative of the total population. "The president was elected by 62 per cent of the population on a peace platform," Shikaki reminded listeners, adding that, "Hamas cannot interpret these elections as an endorsement of their peace plan."

The IPCRI argues that "a clear majority of Palestinians voted against Hamas," however even Palestinians in the more socially liberal East Jerusalem are vocal about their support for the movement.

The Israel Policy Forum, a Washington-based think tank that promotes American efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, believing it will strengthen Israeli security and advance US foreign policy interests, has drawn the same conclusions. M J Rosenberg, director of policy analysis, stated: "Hamas won the elections by a large margin, capturing 74 of the 132 seats ... however these numbers are misleading. Hamas won well under half of the popular vote." A vote for Hamas was, "for most Palestinians, a vote against Fatah Party corruption and not necessarily a vote for the destruction of Israel or for the kind of Islamic republic Hamas favours," he continued. Meanwhile, the director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAD) -- a direct- action group that opposes occupation policies, including the destruction of Palestinian houses, closures and land expropriation -- stated we "will take the lead from the Palestinian organisations we work with in terms of how to behave," in regard to Hamas.

Hamas has drawn their political lines, refusing to negotiate with Israel. "Now that they are in power, Hamas will have to take responsibility for the future. They will have to become more moderate. Now they are part of the democratic game and they will have to play by the democratic rules," stated Siniora. Hamas is in a difficult position. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is totally dependent on outside sources, including the transfer of tax revenue from Israel and aid from the international community. Continued dependency on Israel for basic services, divisions within Fatah, and high expectations of the Palestinian public all make the present and future difficult to negotiate.

There are three options on the table for Hamas: first, to form a unity government with Fatah. Although, "It is unlikely that Fatah will join a Hamas government ... Any government should have the same political lines as Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO)," presidential spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh told Al-Ahram Weekly. However, Abu Rudeineh is not confident that Hamas will align with Fatah in its ideological approach to Israel. The second option is for Hamas to form a technocratic government of experts and academics. This leadership, although not necessarily from Hamas, would be accountable to Hamas. The third option is to form a Hamas-dominated government and confront the potential collapse of the PA.

The new PLC will meet for the first time on 16 February, with President Abbas to outline the political guidelines by which the new government should abide. According to law, any future government and prime minister should abide by PA agreements and commitments, by the resolutions of the PLO, and the cease-fire agreement ( hudna ) signed in Cairo, affirmed Abu Rudeineh. After one week Abbas will receive notification of Hamas's choice for prime minister, then issuing an official letter asking the new prime minister elect to form a government. Hamas will have a maximum of five weeks to do so, and must submit its line-up to the PLC for a confidence vote.

How will Palestinians and the PLO, chaired by President Abbas, continue to negotiate for peace in light of Hamas's victory? The PLO Negotiations Affairs Department is responsible for the implementation of the Interim Agreement signed by Israel and the PLO in 1994, and negotiations with Israel have fallen under the jurisdiction of the PLO since. As such, the PLO still largely controls Palestinian foreign policy, along with all embassies, ambassadors and diplomats. Also under the PLO's jurisdiction are the intelligence services and the armed forces, in addition to the 14-member National Security Council, headed by Abbas, including the prime minister, foreign minister, and security chiefs.

"In his capacity, if Abbas wants to act like Arafat, to demonstrate his leadership, he has the constitutional powers," stated spokesperson Abu Rudeineh. "According to our constitution, almost 70 per cent of powers are in the hands of the president," he continued, asserting that the PA will remain a presidential system, despite the newly competitive PLC.

According to Palestinian law, once the 132 PLC members are sworn in they automatically become part of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the circa 600-member legislative body of the PLO, and its supreme authority. Hence, Hamas officially joins.

Could Hamas form a government along current political lines, while the PLO and Abbas's administration continue negotiations with Israel? "We must wait and see how they will form a government and what will be their agenda," responded Abu Rudeineh. "If they abide by the legalities of the system, we will be speaking the same political language. Any future government must abide by the policies of the PLO, not vice versa," Abu Rudeineh affirms.

The logistics of governing while eschewing negotiations with both the Americans and the Israelis appear insurmountable. Officials would not be able to travel between Gaza and the West Bank, still less abroad; even the Palestinian president requires permission from Israel to travel. The Israelis, on the other hand, collect tax revenues for the PA, since all import and export duties come from Israeli customs. Israel has finally agreed to transfer the $54 million it owes the PA, paying close to 150,000 PA employees their delayed salaries, but doubts exist as to whether next month's revenue will be paid when there is a Hamas government.

Meanwhile, Abbas is trying to convince the international community, including donors, not to stop supporting the Palestinian people; especially not until Palestinians form a new government and Hamas determines its policy.

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