Hamas is determined that if Mahmoud Abbas is to remain president beyond 9 January 2009, it is only through "a package agreement", writes Dina Ezzat
Moussa Abu Marzouk
Moussa Abu Marzouk, the Damascus-based deputy chief of the Hamas politburo, is non-committal about the fate of Palestinian national reconciliation talks that were called off before they began in Cairo earlier this month. He is, however, clear about one thing: on 9 January the presidency of Mahmoud Abbas, leader of Fatah and an angry adversary of Hamas, ends. Any attempt to extend it by force, direct or indirect, will create a serious political problem on the Palestinian scene -- much serious than what has been unfolding over the past two years of animosity between Hamas and Fatah.
Intimating Hamas's possible reaction, "Yes, we could have two presidents," Abu Marzouk stated in his Damascus residence this week.
For Hamas, and some argue for the Islamic Jihad and other Islamist and leftist Palestinian factions, Abbas will automatically lose his legitimacy on 9 January. "Any attempt to re-interpret Palestinian basic law to extend his term in office would be simply void of legitimacy. We will not acknowledge him as a president one day beyond 9 January. So he has [less than two months] to go," Abu Marzouk said.
The Hamas leader, however, did not exclude an agreement by which Hamas and its political allies could agree to an extension of Abbas's time as chairman of the Palestinian Authority (PA), or Palestinian president. "But it has to be through a political package and it has to pass by the Palestinian Legislative Council." For Hamas, the package has to include gains.
First and foremost, the PA's security bodies in the West Bank have to stop targeting Hamas members and sympathisers -- something Hamas leaders say has been increasing systematically in cooperation with Israel to satisfy some regional and world capitals. "Abbas calls them 'security detainees'. What security detainees? Those are resistance elements that Abbas is putting in jail," Abu Marzouk said. Moreover, Hamas wishes to have clear guarantees that halting the targeting of Hamas elements will be more than a tactical move aimed at securing a green light for the extension of Abbas's presidency.
Second, Hamas demands reform of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which it deems Fatah controls unfairly. For Hamas, as for other political factions, and even some Fatah elements, the time has come for the PLO to be more reflective of the balance of political power on the current Palestinian scene. By taking an influential position within the PLO, Hamas is hopeful that it could block some commitments it sees Abbas is ready to make unilaterally against the best interests of the Palestinian people. "He has made far too many concessions. His presidency has really harmed the Palestinian cause," Abu Marzouk stated.
Third, Hamas wants to be in a coalition government with Fatah, even if the vast majority of cabinet members are technocrats. Hamas wants an end to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza who happen to be overwhelmingly in support of the Islamic movement. "What is happening in Gaza is a clear violation of international humanitarian law. This cannot be tolerated," Abu Marzouk said.
According to Abu Marzouk, Egyptian reconciliation mediation was supposed to lead to a package that satisfies Hamas's demands and accommodates the wish of Abbas to stay in office for a while longer -- Abu Marzouk would not say how much longer. Abu Marzouk is firm in rejecting all "allegations" levelled against Hamas of foiling the dialogue that he says could have brought about this deal. For him, it is Abbas and Egyptian bias to him that led to the last minute cancellation of dialogue talks slated to start in Cairo on 10 November.
Abu Marzouk confirms that Hamas and the Egyptian mediating team managed to reach an agreement satisfactory to all sides on a document that was supposed to be adopted as a basis for dialogue. According to Abu Marzouk, Hamas received a paper from Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman dealing with the fate of the Palestinian presidency, security arrangements in Gaza and the West Bank, proposed amended dates for presidential and legislative elections and the composition of the government and the PLO. Hamas introduced some changes that were negotiated with Egypt. "Then, when an agreement proved difficult on this paper, Minister Suleiman proposed a new paper that we largely accepted," Abu Marzouk said.
The sticking points, however, were related to the firm refusal of Abbas to release some 600 Hamas prisoners from West Bank jails and the insistence of Egypt to have Abbas sitting at the head of the table at the inauguration of the dialogue. According to Abu Marzouk, Hamas could not tolerate an arrangement that has Abbas sitting at the same table with Suleiman, the Arab League's secretary-general and the foreign ministers of the "Arab frontline countries" and of Saudi Arabia (who currently chairs the Arab Foreign Ministers Council).
"This seating would have indicated that he is a mediator when he is simply and strictly an adversary," Abu Marzouk said. Hamas, he added, could not accept that Abbas would make an inaugural speech and then not attend any of the negotiations to which he was delegating Nabil Shaath, his special representative to Egypt. "What is this supposed to mean? It simply means that the world should see Abbas as the ultimate and uncontested leader of all Palestinians. This is not the case," Abu Marzouk said.
For Hamas the core issue is one of legitimacy. "Abbas has the legitimacy of being the elected chair of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas has the legitimacy of being the majority of the Palestinian Legislative Council. In the Palestinian system there are two legitimacies. Our system is a parliamentary-presidential system, not simply presidential. Any deal would have to be based on this clear foundation," Abu Marzouk said clearly.
Despite his emphatic insistence, Abu Marzouk is not sure that his message has been received and accepted by either Egypt as prospective mediator or Fatah as the other Palestinian party. He hopes, nonetheless, that it would be. Hamas, he says, is willing to work for an agreement. "I would say that hope is still there for reconciliation to be achieved. I would not say that Egyptian mediation has failed. I don't know, however, when Egypt would resume its efforts," he said.
According to Abu Marzouk, pursuing dialogue is a priority for Abbas, given that he wants to stay in office as a recognised and legal president. "In fact, this is the real reason that Abbas has finally agreed to pursue this national dialogue that Hamas has been suggesting to Egypt since the summer of 2007," he said.
This week in Damascus, Arab League Secretary- General Amr Moussa met with Abu Marzouk and with Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal. Abu Marzouk did not wish to reveal the details of this meeting that some sources in Damascus suggest was also a mediation effort. All Abu Marzouk would share on this meeting is that the Arabs could help facilitate a Palestinian deal if they take a neutral, middle ground between the conflicting parties.
Said Abu Marzouk: "In all cases, Egypt will be the main mediator."