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

Strategic pragmatism

Ahead of forming the new Palestinian government, Hamas is working hard to allay the fears of international actors and Fatah competitors, reports Khaled Amayreh in the West Bank

Even before forming the next Palestinian Authority (PA) government, Hamas is already displaying a considerable amount of pragmatism. The movement, which won a clarion victory in recent Palestinian legislative elections, has been sending out positive signals to the international community in an effort to allay fears that Hamas might seek to corrode peace efforts, including the American-backed "roadmap".

This week, Hamas leaders, including Ismael Haniyyeh and Mahmoud Al-Zahar, met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza. The meeting reportedly was held in a "positive atmosphere" as Hamas thanked Abbas for keeping his promise to hold the elections on time. Abbas, for his part, asked Hamas to refrain from introducing "radical and destabilising policies" that might undermine Palestinian national interests.

According to Islamist leaders, Hamas assured Abbas that the movement would act in accordance with national responsibility and fully cooperate with his office for the common good of the Palestinian people and their national cause. During the meeting, the two sides also agreed that the new parliament would hold its inaugural session 16 February and that Abbas would ask Hamas to form the government.

Hamas displayed considerable good will by telling Abbas that it won't seek to control all Palestinian security agencies. In the past few weeks, Fatah has been urging Abbas, now dubbed as Fatah's "last stronghold," to make sure that all security forces remain answerable to him and under his command. It is likely, however, that both Palestinian police forces as well as the Preventive Security Forces will come under the control of the Interior Ministry, not the presidential office.

Hamas leaders reportedly assured Abbas that any disagreement or differences in this regard would be settled in accordance with the Palestinian constitutional law.

Meanwhile, Hamas leaders have revealed some of the general guidelines governing the upcoming Palestinian administration. In political matters, Hamas said it wouldn't seek to terminate political contacts between the PA and Israel even though the movement had no faith in the Oslo peace process and its derivatives, which Hamas leaders are convinced is more about public diplomacy and public relations than about genuine peace making.

"We are sure that Israel will not give us a state if we continue like this for another 50 years. Israel wants to give us a deformed, truncated, disconnected, scattered and unviable entity, without Jerusalem and without economic potential," said Professor Aziz Duweik, a newly-elected lawmaker from Hebron.

"I am sure that the PA is wasting its time in negotiation with Israel; I say wasting time because Israel has not and will not take a strategic decision to give up the spoils of the 1967 War," Duweik added.

Another Hamas lawmaker spoke in an equally cynical tone: "If Abu Mazen (Abbas) succeeds in getting Israel to dismantle the settlements and return Jerusalem to us and repatriate the refugees, then we would give him a monumental salute of honour, and if he doesn't -- and we know he won't -- then he alone would bear responsibility for his failure."

Despite such views among many, Hamas's propensity to expedite the transition of power quietly, and to avoid confrontational politics, is vindicated by the near absence of rash reactions by Fatah to Hamas's victory, as had been feared. Fatah's leaders, shocked by their crushing defeat, initially made frantic statements warning any Fatah leader against joining the next government. However, some Fatah leaders have now moderated their posture, indicating that they might join the government but without appearing as being subservient to Hamas.

To be sure, Hamas needs Fatah at this crucial juncture for two main reasons: first, the inclusion of Fatah in the next government would guarantee a certain psychological continuity that is necessary to assure the international community that the election coup of 25 January won't lead to destabilising effects. Second, Hamas realises well that it would be very difficult for a Hamas-led government to carry out domestic reforms, and especially combat corruption, without tacit cooperation, at the least, from Fatah.

This week, the Palestinian Attorney- General Ahmed Maghani disclosed in a news conference that as much as $700 million of public money had been lost to corruption. Maghani pointed out that high-ranking PA officials, including people who worked closely with the late Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat, were involved in the embezzlement of hundreds of millions of dollars. Maghani said dozens of corrupt officials had been arrested and that more were being pursued, adding that the PA was asking Interpol and certain countries to which corrupt officials may have fled to apprehend and arrest suspects.

Needless to say, the bulk of these people are affiliated with Fatah and in order for the next government to pursue and prosecute them without raising political sensitivities and causing grudges, it would be wise and desirable to get Fatah itself involved in the process. Doubtless Hamas will devote a great deal of its energy to the "corruption file" in the hope of saving hundreds of millions of dollars which would prop up the Palestinian economy, dependent as it is on foreign aid.

Hamas also hopes that success in stemming corruption would substantially enhance its image worldwide and might as well lead to some sort of normalisation with the West, especially the European Union.

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