Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 February - 2 March 2011
Issue No. 1036
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abbas running out of options

Amid vast regional transformations, pressure is mounting for the Palestinian president to reconcile with Hamas and stand up to the Israeli occupation, writes Saleh Al-Naami

There was good reason for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, his advisers and Fatah leaders to be worried. Contrary to all expectations, a large number of those who took part in the massive demonstrations on the streets of Ramallah demanding an end to internal divisions were from Shabiba, Fatah's student movement. What was particularly disconcerting for Abbas and his aides is the clear demand of demonstrators not to return to negotiations and to end all forms of security cooperation with the Israeli occupation. Instead, all efforts should be invested in reaching national reconciliation with Hamas.

"Everything has come to a halt," Khaled Eissa, a Fatah activist told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Negotiations have reached a dead end; the US mediator has abandoned us in an insulting and shameful manner, and great changes are underway in the Arab world which do not serve the political platform of our group. We must change our course entirely."

Aisha Hassan, a university student who is a Fatah supporter, believes that President Abbas should make the next move and go to the Gaza Strip to end divisions once and for all. "This is a moment of truth for Abbas," Hassan told the Weekly. "It is certain that continuing negotiations and relying on the US is suicide, not only for the president but for Fatah as a whole."

Majed Abu Shamala, a leading Fatah figure and member of the group's bloc in parliament, called on Abbas to sponsor a national dialogue by inviting parliamentary blocs to initiative direct discussions inside parliament. Abu Shamala argued that regional developments demand "Palestinian-Palestinian dialogue" to "reach appropriate formulas to end divisions, and work to bring the Palestinian cause back to the top of the agenda of the Arabs and the world."

Abu Shamala added: "Unilateral formulas and actions will only lead us to more divisions and splintering as events unfold quickly on the regional, international and domestic scenes." He urged the Palestinians not to wait for Arab or foreign initiatives, but to quickly take steps to end divisions through Palestinian efforts amongst themselves.

Abu Shamala further explained that dialogue should be divided into three basic themes, namely forming a technocratic national unity government ratified by parliament; deciding on a timeline for presidential, parliamentary and local council elections; and asking the incumbent parliament to continue its sessions and oversight, after agreeing on the terms of continued legislative work, until elections are held and a new parliament is elected according to law.

Popular consensus over the need to achieve national reconciliation was expressed through preparations for a popular campaign by Palestinian independents calling for an end to in-fighting and confronting Israeli challenges. The movement of independents stated that the campaign would target all cities, demanding an end to division and to unite the nation. The campaign would include factions, Palestinian figures, academics, businessmen, reformers, intellectuals and large sectors of the youth and grassroots committees. The movement said that the campaign's slogan would be, "The people want to end divisions," and that intense efforts are underway to convince all factions -- including Fatah and Hamas -- to participate in the campaign.

Abbas, who has come to realise that his margin of manoeuvre is narrowing, is now in a race against time to find a formula to allow him to maintain his political grip. The first step he took after president Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power was to announce his intention to hold presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as dissolving Salam Fayyad's government and asking Fayyad to form another government. But this move was rejected not only by Hamas but also by other Palestinian factions and human rights groups in the occupied territories. Some in Fatah also criticised the move.

Yehia Moussa, deputy leader of the Hamas parliamentary bloc, asserted that Fayyad "is not authorised by the people, namely parliament" to lead a government. Moussa told the Weekly that the timing of Fayyad's resignation "and his illegitimate government" was "a political ploy to change the faces in light of the revolt against injustice and ongoing transformations in the Arab arena". "The ruse of resigning has been played out several times before, to absorb the anger of the people who denounce the actions of the government in Ramallah and Fayyad's cabinet," Moussa added.

The Islamic Jihad "comprehensively" rejected the Abbas-Fayyad move in coming from "a party that does not represent the Palestinian people". Dawoud Shehab, spokesman for Islamic Jihad, said that "this call is an attempt to pre-empt events, especially that reconciliation is close at hand with new components and standards after the fall of the Egyptian regime." Shehab added that "holding any election without agreement is invalid and rejected, because balloting should be the result of agreement and dialogue."

Shehab argued that the current crisis could not be resolved through elections; elections would only deepen rifts. Moussa continued that there are more urgent matters, and the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organisation should address them first, especially the documents Al-Jazeera news channel revealed regarding perilous compromises made by Palestinian negotiators.

When Fatah realised that asking Fayyad to form a new government and calling for presidential and legislative elections will not resolve the crisis, the group announced that it is willing to start a dialogue based on the Egyptian proposal while accepting all the concerns by Hamas on the proposal. Nabil Shaath, member of Fatah's Central Committee, stated that his group accepts all of Hamas's concerns about the Egyptian plan. Shaath said he would visit the Gaza Strip within the next two weeks to pursue reconciliation efforts because continued division is unacceptable from a national, ethical and religious perspective.

In response to Shaath's call, the leaders of Hamas appear divided over the future of the Egyptian proposal. Moussa Abu Marzuq, deputy head of the Hamas politburo, said it was impossible to re-launch dialogue on the basis of the Egyptian plan. On the other hand, Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, a high-ranking member of the group's politburo, was more flexible. Al-Zahhar suggested a postponement of discussion of the Egyptian proposal until the situation in the region stabilises.

"Talk about the Egyptian proposal, should it stand or be scrapped, is best postponed until conditions on the ground around us stabilise, in order for us to know which way to go," he stated, adding that many factors now influence national dialogue, especially that negotiations with Israel have reached a dead end and it is becoming more apparent that the US, as mediator, is weak and biased towards Israel. Al-Zahhar believes that the transformations underway in the Arab world are also a new factor that will influence dialogue; most notably that Mubarak's ousted regime was opposed to nationalist causes.

Sources in Hamas told the Weekly that the group is proposing that instead of the Egyptian plan, inter-Palestinian understandings and agreement reached in the past should be revisited, most prominently the national reconciliation plan approved by all Palestinian factions, the Cairo Agreement of 2005, and the Mecca Accords of 2007. The Hamas source explained that many group members reject the Egyptian proposal because of the circumstances in which the proposal was formulated, and a strong sense that it was part of a scheme by the former Egyptian regime and Abbas to undermine Hamas.

Hani Al-Masri, a prominent writer and political analyst, believes that the Palestinian response to Israel's snubs and procrastination should be to reassert the national agenda and reach national reconciliation, in pursuit of an end to occupation, self-determination, the return of the refugees and to establish a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967 with Jerusalem as its capital.

"Despite the incredible flexibility of the Palestinian leadership and its demeaning compromises, it has now become convinced that negotiations should stop. This deserves support," Al-Masri declared. "Now it has begun to seek alternatives and has begun pursuing some, such as going to the Security Council and attempting to acquire recognition of a Palestinian state around the world, and supporting popular resistance and boycotting settlements. All this has subjected it to increasing pressure from the US and Israel."

Al-Masri asserted that these changes in tact or position should continue, to help end internal divisions and achieve national reconciliation.

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