Together despite pressure
While the issue of the premiership remains contentious, signs are that Fatah and Hamas are inching towards reconciliation, slowly but surely, writes Saleh Al-Naami
The staff at the cabinet's secretariat-general in Al-Rimal district, in northwest Gaza City, joke about the fate of their jobs if someone other than Ismail Haniyeh is chosen to form the next government. Despite their humour, these young civil servants, no older than 25 years old, realise that their work environment will change after Friday's meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal. There are rumours that Fatah and Hamas have agreed on the composition of the transitional cabinet that will be led by someone other than Haniyeh or Abbas favourite Salam Fayyad.
Sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that Mohamed Mustafa, the director of the Palestinian Investment Fund, is the frontrunner to form the Palestinian interim government after debate over candidates between the two factions during secret talks in Cairo. Informed Palestinian sources assert that Mustafa, a close confidante of Abbas, has a much better chance than Palestinian businessman Mazen Sonqrot who is a Hamas ally. The sources added that it is expected at the end of the Abbas-Meshaal meeting that they will announce their agreement on forming a government, and that Mustafa will be named as the new prime minister instead of Fayyad, since Hamas has made it explicitly clear that it would never agree to Fayyad forming the next government.
The sources continued that during the secret talks between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo, no candidates from the Gaza Strip were being discussed for the job of interim prime minister, although a few months ago Hamas had nominated Jamal Al-Khodari, an independent MP and chairman of the board of trustees of the Islamic University in Gaza.
Mustafa has a similar professional background as Fayyad, having experience in international companies, especially in the sectors of industry, energy, infrastructure and IT. Mustafa was an adviser to the economic reform and privatisation programme in Kuwait (2000) and a senior consultant in Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (1997-1998). He also worked in institutions in the US, Kuwait and Palestine, becoming the general manager of the Palestinian Telecommunications Company, PALTEL (1995-1996). He later became the director of the Palestinian Investment Fund and a senior adviser to Abbas.
Sources tell the Weekly that Fatah and Hamas have agreed to form a unified leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) that would include the secretary-generals of Palestinian factions as well as members of the PLO's Executive Committee. Informed sources also said that this unified leadership will decide on the political programme of the PLO in the coming phase, emphasising that outlining a joint political agenda is a critical step since this would help overcome differences when discussing other reconciliation issues, such as elections, restructuring the security apparatus, and reforming the PLO and its institutions based on new principles.
The source added that agreeing to a joint political agenda does not necessarily mean that the factions will abandon their ideologies, but that they will agree on common principles that allow everyone a margin of manoeuvrability on the domestic, international and regional stage. The source continued that Fatah and Hamas agreed that the immense changes taking place in the Arab world should be used to serve the Palestinian cause, and this requires a joint agenda.
The source also revealed that there is a proposal to form a committee of experts to include Palestinian and Arab intellectuals and researchers to assist in composing the suggested political agenda for the unified leadership. Among the candidates for membership in the committee are Hassan Nafaa from Egypt and Palestinian thinker Azmi Bishara, and others.
The source told the Weekly that despite agreement there are still concerns that the two sides would find it difficult to implement other reconciliation commitments, especially setting a date for elections and all issues pertaining to the security apparatus. The two sides have not yet agreed on an election date; Hamas proposed that elections be held one year after the transitional government is formed, while Fatah wants elections to take place in May 2012.
As for overhauling security agencies, continued the source, Fatah and Hamas are not the only parties that have a say on the matter. For example, the fact that all of the West Bank is under direct Israeli control cannot be ignored because it gives Tel Aviv the power to influence any agreement on security agencies operating there. The source added that it is certain that the occupation army that targets Hamas leaders and activists would not allow Hamas elements to be in senior positions of security agencies.
Khedr Habib, a leading figure in the Islamic Jihad movement, said that his group would not participate in any upcoming parliamentary or presidential elections. "Our position is very clear regarding legislative and presidential elections and it has not changed," Habib said. "We will boycott these elections because they are a product of the Oslo Agreement."
Israel has made it clear that it will not accept the Palestinians uniting ranks. Maariv newspaper reported that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sent a strongly worded message to the Egyptians because of the latter's efforts to achieve Palestinian reconciliation and the formation of a unity national government that includes Fatah and Hamas. The newspaper stated that Netanyahu informed the Egyptians that Israel would sever ties with the Palestinian Authority (PA) if the coming transitional government does not recognise the principles of the Internaitonal Quartet.
Maariv continued that the US administration is exerting intense efforts, in cooperation with Israel, to pressure Egypt to prevent the formation of a unity national government between Fatah and Hamas that does not recognise Quartet principles. The Quartet, membered by the US, Russia, EU and UN, outlined conditions for the recognition of any government that is formed or includes Hamas after its victory in the 25 January 2006 elections. These include recognition of Israel and commitment to earlier agreements signed by the PA.
Maariv added that Netanyahu's advisers had previously warned of a serious deterioration in security coordination between the PA and Israel if the new government were to reject the Quartet prerequisites. Israel threatened that if Hamas were part of the new government, Israeli forces would invade areas in the West Bank without prior warning or coordination in order to "protect Israel's security". Netanyahu stated several times that his call for re-launching direct talks without preconditions with the PA would be worthless if Abbas formed a unity government with Hamas. "We will not be able to negotiate with a government that calls for our extinction," he said, adding Israel would stop transferring tax revenues to the PA's treasury.
Some Palestinians believe that Tel Aviv's threats aim to help Fayyad stay in power, and it appears that Fayyad is using Netanyahu's threats to the same end. Ghassan Al-Khatib, director of the media centre in Fayyad's government, said that the PA would not be able to meet its financial obligations if Israel withholds Palestinian tax revenues. In this manner, Fayyad wants to deliver a message that if he does not remain as prime minister, nobody can guarantee that PA employees will receive their salaries regularly.
But there are doubts that Netanyahu will succeed in changing Abbas's mind about reconciling, and there are also doubts that Fayyad will be able to benefit from Israel's position. Fayyad realises that the voices within Fatah calling for him to step down are much louder than those calling for the same thing inside Hamas. Abbas Zaki, a member of Fatah's Central Committee, revealed that his group has decided to make reconciliation succeed at any cost, adding that opposition by the US and Israel will not deter the PA from agreeing to form a transitional government.
"The region is at the threshold of many great changes," he said. "The Palestinians must revise their positions and face these coming changes. It is time that we reject the negative aspects of the past and launch a genuine end of divisions, for our people, to reflect the will of the Palestinians. This would require a united position, agenda and rhetoric."
It appears that Fatah and Hamas are close to implementing the reconciliation agreement despite difficulties, obstacles, their history and pressure by Israel and the US, while the margin of flexibility for both groups is narrowing.