Left out and hurt
Abbas and the PLO executive committee reject Hamas' programme for government, writes Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah
Palestinian politics took a new turn for the divisive Wednesday when President Mahmoud Abbas backed a Palestian Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee rejection of Hamas' programme for government. In a programme presented to Abbas that includes Hamas' proposed line-up for cabinet, the elected party does not recognise the committee as a legally representative body capable of taking final decisions on Palestinian political issues.
However, the move slighted PLO officials, and received Abbas' backing in their response. "Nobody can ignore the PLO," the president said. In addition, Yasser Abd Rabbo, a PLO official, was quoted as saying that "we can neither deal with nor accept the platform of this government, because the platform neglects the main achievement of the Palestinian people, which is the PLO." Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zahir responded by saying that the committee is not legally in the right to decide whether or not to reject its programme.
After protracted but fruitless coalition talks with Fatah and other mainly secular Palestinian factions, Hamas, which won legislative elections in January, formed a homogenous government, made up of technocrats, pro-Islamic professionals, academics as well as a number of Hamas's own law-makers.
Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister designate, submitted the government line-up to Abbas in Gaza on Monday, 20 March. Abbas's preliminary impression seemed neither enthusiastic nor despondent, indicated spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina. By Wednesday, however, in light of the executive committee's stance, his reaction had changed in harmony with the PLO.
According to protocol, Abbas first discussed the make-up of the government, and especially its political programme, with the Executive Committee, a virtually moribund body that certain Fatah members and leftists are now trying to revive in order to counter Hamas's power. The government must now be presented to the Palestinian parliament for approval -- a forgone conclusion given Hamas's overwhelming majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council.
In light of the mostly symbolic rejection, it seems likely that Abbas will procrastinate in the process of installing the new government, until after Israeli elections on 28 March, as has been suggested by some Palestinian and Israeli observers. Aside from the issue surrounding the legitimacy of the PLO, Abbas also has "nagging reservations" about the new government's political programme, which doesn't explicitly recognise "all the agreements" signed between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The government platform also effectively rejects the Oslo era, without mentioning it by name.
Needless to say, Abbas, a co-architect of the Oslo Accords, believes that at least a de facto acceptance of the agreement is a sin qua non for any Palestinian government since the very existence and legitimacy of such a government are based on the Oslo deal. Hamas rejects this rationale, arguing that the legitimacy of the government emanates from popular mandate, not outdated agreements which Israel made irrelevant by unmitigated settlement expansion in the West Bank.
Indeed, Hamas negotiators argued very strongly -- and convincingly -- during marathon talks with Fatah leaders that it would be suicidal for any Palestinian government, let alone one led by Hamas, to recognise and give legitimacy to vague agreements treating Palestinian land and rights as "negotiable and subject to the games of fudge and compromise". The new government's programme states that, "all agreements expedient to the Palestinian cause will be respected and honoured."
In hammering home the point about past agreements, Hamas leaders challenged Fatah to produce the definitive text of any past agreements, including the American-backed "roadmap" that is uniformly accepted by all parties, including Israel. "Which roadmap do they want us to accept; the one with the 14 Israeli reservations that considers East Jerusalem as Israel's eternal capital? Or the one that effectively views the West Bank as disputed rather than occupied territories," said Hamas's spokesman in Gaza, Salah Al-Bardawil.
Hamas reasserted its principled stance that it was foolhardy on the PLO's part to recognise Israel without a reciprocal Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state within at least the 1967 borders. "Besides, the issue of recognition should be the outcome of possible final status talks. Indeed, if Israel wants us to recognise it now, even without saying where its borders lie, then what is the point of holding negotiations in the first place?" asked Aziz Duweik, speaker of parliament.
This argument was rejected by Fatah on the ground that the agreements concluded with Israel were actually "international agreements", and that discarding or abandoning them would send the wrong signal to the international community and, significantly, give Israel pretext to keep up its unilateralist approach, which means more settlement expansion, more land grabbing, further truncation and isolation of Palestinian population centres, and a more hermetic sealing off of East Jerusalem.
Hamas retorts that the international community is hypocritical and can't be counted on to restore Palestinian rights, proven by it standing silent as Israel scandalously violates both the spirit and letter of all agreements reached with the PA. Besides, Hamas asked Fatah, "has Israel ever stopped stealing our land?"
As arguments and counter-arguments reached a deadlock, Fatah took a final decision not to participate in the government.
The decision apparently had a psychological impact on other leftist and secular factions, which too decided not to join the government for a number of reasons. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which had been expected to join the government, eventually decided to remain in opposition after coalition talks with Hamas hit another snag, namely the status of the PLO. The PFLP had also demanded Hamas recognise the PLO as the "sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people".
Hamas argued that the PLO as it stands today is anachronistic and doesn't represent the entire Palestinian people, adding that the organisation should be thoroughly reformed and reconstructed. The PFLP concurred, but insisted that recognition should come first. Hamas argued that reform and reconstruction were necessary preconditions, since the present PLO and its various bodies, including the Palestine National Council (PNC), neither represent nor reflect present political realities, whether domestically or in the Diaspora.
Disenchanted with Fatah "rejectionist" attitudes, Hamas accused the former governing party of succumbing to American pressure to refuse to join the Hamas-led government. According to the new Palestinian minister of information, Youssef Rizqa, a professor of communication and mass media, the US had warned Fatah that joining the Hamas-led government would result in the severing of American financial "aid" and other inducements and benefits to Fatah, such as allowing them to travel to the US. Fatah denied the allegations.
The US did give Fatah and other non-Islamic Palestinian factions at least $2 million to cover the expenses of their respective election campaigns in January. The revelation, made by The Washington Post and republished by the Palestinian media, may have contributed to tarnishing Fatah's image in the eyes of a decidedly anti-American Palestinian public.
Of the 24 cabinet ministers in the new government, only eight come from Hamas. The rest are professionals, academics and technocrats from the business sector.
According to cabinet line-up, Mahmoud Zahar will be Palestinian foreign minister; a choice not everybody is pleased with given Zahar's fiery style. Concerned about his image, Zahar has sought to assure the international community that he is aware of the fact that the rules governing diplomacy are different from those governing armed resistance.
Said Siyam, a prominent Gazan Hamas leader, is the new Palestinian interior minister. He was chosen, reportedly, for his close ties and trustful relationships with Fatah and other Palestinian factions, especially in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas has chosen Professor Omar Abdul- Razzaq, head of the Economics Department at An-Najah National University, to be the PA's next minister of finance. The decision was taken after erstwhile Finance Minister Salam Fayyad declined returning to his job because Fatah refused to join the government.
Hamas hopes that the high number of technocrats and independents in its government line- up will encourage the international community to moderate earlier convulsive reactions towards new political realities in the occupied Palestinian territories. It remains to be seen, however, if any political gesture could turn that particular tide.