A package deal or none at all
Negotiations between Hamas and Fatah for re-organising Palestinian politics look serious, says Saleh Al-Naami
Every few minutes, one of the men picks up the phone, calls someone to inquire about something, then goes back to work. Others are discussing details of one of the issues at hand. This is the scene in a flat in a residential building across from Gaza port. About 20 Hamas experts are formulating the movement's position on the major issues their leaders discussed with Egyptian officials in Cairo last week.
One of the experts, speaking anonymously, tells me that the group is honing the movement's position on the formation of a government of national unity, rebuilding the security services, and restructuring the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). They are also discussing the future shape of the Palestinian Authority and reviewing matters of political partnership. He says that the agreement reached with Egyptian officials was preliminary in nature and that the details have to be ironed out in future talks.
Ghazi Hamad, who has been asked by the Haniyeh government to hold talks with other Palestinian factions, is not optimistic about the current dialogue. "To agree on these issues, both sides need to show immense flexibility and goodwill. I have no doubt that deep differences would emerge when we start addressing the details."
Hamas and Fatah have agreed on the need for a government of national unity, but finding the right person to head such a government is a problem. Hamas is not insisting that it heads the future government, but finding a candidate acceptable to both sides is not easy.
Another sticking point is the policy of the upcoming government. Hamas wants the government's programme to abide by the Mecca Agreement of February 2007, while President Mahmoud Abbas prefers a programme that is compatible with PLO policies.
Although Hamas and Fatah have agreed to restructure the security services in the West Bank and Gaza, the task seems daunting. Hamas has established a security force numbering thousands of men, and it wants all of them integrated in the new services. Meanwhile, the security chiefs working for Abbas are bitterly opposed to the incorporation of Hamas members in the police services. Israel, too, would be opposed to such a move.
Hamas and Fatah have agreed to rebuild the PLO, but both movements differ on how. Fatah says it is willing to discuss changes only after Hamas has joined the PLO and accepted its programme. Hamas wants to see changes introduced first.
Even the introduction of a new administrative structure poses serious obstacles. Hamas has hired thousands of new employees and is refusing to dismiss any of them. And Fatah has no desire to incorporate those employees into the new administrative apparatus.
The only thing that may entice the two movements to come together is the threat of Arab sanctions. Ibrahim Abul-Naga, a senior Fatah official, says that Arab countries have threatened to boycott any Palestinian group that obstructs the process of reconciliation. "Anyone who opposes the Arab consensus would be held accountable by all Arab countries, and thus risk isolation and condemnation," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Abul-Naga says that Fatah is doing its duty in full. In particular, it gave a "positive answer" to the questions Egyptian officials have asked. The ball is now in Hamas's court. To prove its goodwill, Hamas will have to provide a satisfactory answer to a document now being prepared by Egyptian officials. This document is going to be submitted to all Palestinian factions once it is endorsed by the Arab League.
Ahman Taha, a key figure in Hamas, brushes off the prospect of Arab sanctions. The final Egyptian document would be submitted to an Arab committee made up of six foreign ministers. Three of those -- the Qatari, Syrian, and Lebanese -- are sympathetic to Hamas' views. Egyptian, Saudi, and Jordanian foreign ministers make up the other half of the committee.
Taha says that Hamas is not about to act hastily or under pressure. The issues being discussed are complex and need time to be examined in full, he notes. Taha prefers the dialogue to be held primarily between Fatah and Hamas and with no time limit.
Any agreement approved by Hamas would have to involve a package deal, Taha states. Hamas wants all measures to be implemented in a parallel and even-handed manner, not in a you-then-me fashion. Hamas doesn't want to repeat what happened in Mecca, where an agreement was reached on a government of national union, while leaving the PLO and the security services for later.
Hani Al-Masri, a well-known Palestinian commentator, says that any Palestinian dialogue should aim at creating a unified political system featuring full partnership and a common programme. Hamas should end its control of Gaza in return for full partnership in the Palestinian Authority and the PLO. And security services in both Gaza and the West Bank should be non-partisan.
Al-Masri says that Hamas wants a package deal, not just an agreement on a government coalition. So long as the West Bank and Gaza remain divided, any partial agreement would end up in something resembling a federal arrangement. "Such a government would be unacceptable -- but better perhaps than the humiliation of the current divisions," Al-Masri notes.
According to Al-Masri, a government of national reconciliation can either be the first step towards unity, or the final nail in its coffin. Any agreement must recognise the fact that the Palestinians are living under occupation and need a common programme to resist the occupation. Only after such an agreement is reached can one start thinking in terms of government and opposition, Al-Masri says.