The Palestinian scene keeps changing according to positions taken by the Palestinian current favoring the peace process on the one hand and Hamas on the other, vis-à-vis developments in the three following files: the request for full UN membership for a Palestinian state, the reconciliation’s deadlines, and the repercussions of the prisoner exchange operation. The positions taken by the two parties are manifested as follows:
1. The current in favor of the peace process dealt with the terms of the reconciliation signed in May of 2011 in a way that would bolster the UN membership request, and would place further pressure on both the Israeli and American sides.
2. Hamas continued to be keen on expanding the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and opening up its leadership positions, developing a comprehensive national strategy, forming a consensus government, and taking appropriate measures to insure equitable and fair elections.
3. At this time, Mahmud ‘Abbas is seeking to set aside the option of armed resistance in order to avoid its negative effects on the track of gaining UN membership. While Hamas asserts that armed resistance is a strategic national option and that popular resistance is not a substitute for it.
That is why these stances are expected to push the Palestinian position in one of the following three directions: postponing reconciliation and freezing the membership request, partial implementation of the reconciliation while securing some of the membership requirements, or launching a popular/peaceful Intifadah (uprising).
Having a State Needs Consensus
Developments in the internal Palestinian situation interplay according to changes in the following three files: the first, the PLO’s pursuit of a permanent membership in the UN General Assembly for a Palestinian state. The second is related to developments in the reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas following the signing of the May 2011 agreement. As for the third file, it concerns the prisoner exchange operation between Hamas and Israel. These files, the interactions between them, and their repercussions constitute a roadmap for the current Palestinian internal situation.
This assessment is concerned with the stances taken by the interested parties, Hamas on the one hand, and Fatah, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA) on the other. It attempts to find an answer to the following questions: what are the positions of these parties? What will be the outcome of the interaction between these positions? What are the Palestinians’ expectations?
According to the current favoring the peace process, the Palestinian state is to be based on three pillars: the first, a complete end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank (WB) including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip (GS); the second, territorial unity between the WB and GS; and the third, democratic legitimacy for the PA, being the core of the state.
With respect to the first pillar, which is ending the occupation, the PLO’s leadership has failed to force Israel through negotiations to implement an expeditious and final withdrawal from the WB and GS. It sought to overcome this fact by going to the UN to obtain permanent membership as a step toward improving its legal status. This would enable it to force Israel’s withdrawal from the territories of the Palestinian state. In its turn, this endeavor faced two obstacles: the threat of an American veto; which made it clear to the PA that Palestinian statehood can only be achieved through direct negotiations with Israel. In the PLO’s experience, such matter is futile and doomed to failure. The second obstacle is absence of unity of authority ruling the WB and GS; particularly, as this obstacle is a condition imposed by the United Nations (UN) Security Council membership committee.
The above has forced the PLO leadership to reconsider its calculations on the national level and go back to the reconciliation that was signed between Fatah and Hamas in May 2011, which perhaps will be a way to guarantee for it unity of authority.
As for the second and third pillars, i.e., territorial unity and the PA’s democratic legitimacy, these are also related to the Palestinian internal affairs, in particular to Hamas, which controls GS and runs the government there.
These facts bring the PLO back to square one; for in order to take into consideration Hamas’ conditions and priorities, it must implement the reconciliation’s terms. This means that implementing the reconciliation in the consensual manner stated in the terms of last May’s agreement is a mandatory path that would help the PLO leadership to build the pillars of establishing a Palestinian state and securing its UN membership.
Since the current favoring the peace process wants from the reconciliation that which would help it in its endeavor to gain UN membership for a Palestinian state, this means that Fatah will now concentrate solely on achieving unity and legitimacy.
And since Hamas wants from the reconciliation that which would allow it to participate actively in national affairs and their public authorities, to influence and guide them, this means that Hamas will give priority to expanding, activating and consolidating the PLO’s presence in government institutions.
The differences between the two had an effect on the reconciliation’s deadlines, and took the following form:
1. PLO: Hamas is seeking to expand the PLO in order to be able to join it along with the other resistance factions that concur with it on its stances vis-à-vis the peace settlement, negotiations, resistance and other related matters. This is aimed at restoring to the PLO its standing as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people; which will impart national legitimacy to the strategies of resistance and liberation, will accord unity to the Palestinian people inside Israel and in the Palestinian Diaspora, and will allow Hamas to be a reference to the Authority and not its follower.
However, the issue of expanding and activating the PLO was not of interest to the other party, because, in principle, this contradicts with its view of it. This view can be summed up as follows: the national struggle has moved to the stage of statehood; and that requires moving the center of gravity from the PLO to the PA. Thus, this trend’s tolerance for the proposition of expanding and activating the PLO could be merely a maneuver that would help it contain Hamas and its allies, provided that the peace settlement obligations and the negotiations’ conditions would not be negatively affected.
2. The government: proceeding from the fact that the government is the official executive institution, and that it is the symbol of democracy and legitimacy, its policies, stances and measures are exclusively described as legal. Furthermore, in view of the fact that Hamas seeks to participate in the national decision-making, it adheres to the limit that keeps it present inside the government and all its posts and institutions, such as the security forces, ministries, etc, and allows it to participate in supervising elections and the reconstruction of the GS.
On the other hand, and in the opposite direction, Fatah strives not to let the participation of Hamas in the government makes the PS seems to be violating the conditions of the Quartet and Palestinian commitments to the peace settlement. This may lead to expanding the siege to the WB, cutting western aid, and withholding tax revenues collected by Israel. Fatah is also trying to avoid American veto and Israeli threats, and avert any possible obstacles in the way of the membership request. This is a difficult formula to achieve, because it tries to please Hamas, while simultaneously ensure Israeli and American silence.
The sharp contrast between the PLO leadership’s views and those of Hamas is a manifestation of the nature of the relationship between the two. This is once again evident in the disagreement between them vis-à-vis the UN membership bid and the Faithfulness of Freemen Deal. Perhaps this encounter between the two has allowed the special strategy as well as the strengths and weaknesses in the vision of each to come to light.
1. The September deadline: the PLO leadership wanted to use this deadline to convey that it is still able to come up with solutions to all the issues in the Palestinian arena. And that it has the support and alternatives that would enable it to overcome the obstacles caused by the internal Palestinian schism. That it can dispense with and bypass negotiations with Israel by going directly to the UN and gain a UN permanent membership for Palestine.
Owing to this step, the PLO has realized a temporary, popular and diplomatic success. However, all of this could not turn the dream of membership into a reality. A direct cause of this failure is the American position that opposes this step if taken outside the framework of direct negotiations with Israel. The American administration has threatened to foil the PLO’s declaration of statehood, either by making sure that this bid does not get the needed support of nine members in the UN Security Council—which was realized, or by using its veto power, which it tried not to do, to avoid provoking at this stage the Arab and Palestinian street.
As a consequence of not getting enough votes, the membership committee was unable to reach a unanimous decision on submitting the request to the UN Security Council. They justified their stance by saying that there is no single executive authority (government) in control of the WB and GS, on whose territories this state is supposed to stand. By analogy, there may later be talk about challenging the constitutional legitimacy of the president, and so on…
What is important is that the PLO’s leadership has come to the conclusion that the path to membership passes exclusively through one of these routes, the first: direct/impossible negotiations, and the second: difficult/programmed reconciliation.
2. The prisoner exchange deal: the Faithfulness of Freemen Deal is considered a great national achievement; in spite of the fact that it did not fulfill all of Hamas’ demands and conditions. However, it succeeded in raising Hamas’ popularity in that it is considered once again a central party in the Palestinian arena; and as such it is important to deal with it as a strong player that has influence on determining the general path of the Palestinian issue.
In spite of the importance of the above, the direct merit of the deal is that it owes its success to armed resistance. The prisoner exchange was an offspring of the resistance and a product of its sacrifices. Therefore, the Palestinian people who came out in the middle of March 2011 and said: ‘the people want to liberate the prisoners’ were as if placing their ballot papers in the armed resistance boxes. They considered the resistance their only credible path, able to achieve the task of freeing the prisoners and detainees, especially those serving long sentences and are the Palestinian factions’ leaders and cadres, the elite of the Palestinian people.
Proceeding from this fact, we can say that the option of armed resistance is once again strongly at the forefront; this time people are rallying around it because it has adopted a nationalistic strategy. What enhanced this outcome is the failure of the peace settlement talks to free the prisoners and detainees, specifically the leaders and cadres serving long sentences.
In short: the exchange deal has once again asserted two important matters concerning Hamas: first, that it is pivotal in influencing events in the political arena and in guiding the national path; and second, the legitimacy of armed resistance in any upcoming national working program.
Based on the above, the ‘Abbas–Mish’al meeting was a practical translation of current events in the Palestinian arena and their implications. It brought into light the outcome of the interaction between the two sides’ stances and drew the general direction toward which developments in the Palestinian internal situation are heading. It went as follows:
1. Appeasing the Palestinian street by projecting a positive air of optimism, by implementing an agreement to release, “at once”, all political prisoners in the WB and GS.
2. Appeasing Hamas by agreeing to begin authoritative leadership functions toward the end of December 2011; while taking into account that this step does not necessarily mean that this framework will be capable of carrying out its tasks in the ideal manner desired by Hamas. And it does not mean spontaneously expanding and activating the PLO, because this matter is related to elections to the Palestine National Council (PNC), and thus will be delayed until the election results are announced.
3. Reasserting concurrence on a Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967 lines, with Jerusalem as its capital. It is worth mentioning that this step comes in response to skepticism about the legitimacy of the organization’s effort to gain UN membership for Palestinian statehood; and to consolidate the legitimacy of this state within the 1967 borders. This is critically needed for the diplomatic battle that the organization is facing in the UN Security Council.
4. Agreement on a one-sided truce that includes the WB and GS, which indicates a freeze on armed resistance till further notice, with the earliest date being the end of the coming elections. This could be interpreted as flexibility on the part of Hamas. It could also be considered a step forward by the PA president, aimed at putting aside armed resistance at this time and avoiding its negative effects on the membership endeavor.
5. Agreement on popular/peaceful resistance to the occupation and settlements, as a clear expression of the national strategy adopted for the next phase.
6. Call to agreement on naming the prime minister of the consensus government. Meanwhile, there is talk of the possibility that the governments of Haniyyah and Fayyad would remain until the end of the coming elections, and forming a civilian police force to oversee the electoral process.
7. All of the above means that, until now, the contentious core issues have not been resolved (the political agenda, the government and security agencies). The coming elections, if they take place, may determine the future of a government/the authority’s two governments, the territorial unity of the Palestinian state, the national agenda, and the national legitimacy of the president, the government, and the PLO.
Matters may take any of the following three directions:
1. Postponing the Reconciliation and Freezing the Membership Bid
In spite of the fact that the two parties are keen on fostering a spirit of optimism in the general climate, in practice, each continues to insist on its terms and commitments. This situation may lead the reconciliation to a standstill.
Deferring action on the government’s file increases the likelihood of this hypothesis; which would indicate failure to resolve the problem of the prime minister’s name, as well as deferring action on the security agencies’ matter.
The above indicates that the Palestinian arena may witness a positive climate due to freeing the political prisoners and being busy with preparations for elections. This state allows the PLO’s leadership to continue to act diplomatically in a relaxed internal Palestinian atmosphere; without this having a positive effect on the schism between the WB and GS and on the security and governmental levels, and consequently on the membership bid.
2. Partial Implementation of the Reconciliation and Fulfillment of Some of the Membership Conditions
The fact that ‘Abbas showed flexibility regarding the prime minister’s name lets us consider this prospect. In this case, coming closer to the scenario of partial implementation of the reconciliation will materialize. For it will include, in addition to forming a government, launching the leadership authority’s functions, reconstructing the GS, preparing for elections, and addressing the aftermath of the split.
The success of such a prospect can materialize by keeping the political agenda in the hands of the PA’s president, and on the leadership authority’s table, and by forming a civilian police force whose sole task is to oversee the electoral process in place of the security forces (the source of contention.)
In this case, the PLO’s leadership would have secured Palestinian territorial unity as well as the unity of authority, even if within a consensus formula. These are the conditions it needs to push the UN membership file additional steps forward.
3. The Launch of a Popular/Peaceful Uprising
The consensus on a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, in addition to a popular/peaceful resistance to the occupation and settlement building, form the principle political basis of this prospect. Its chances of becoming a reality increase with Israel’s refusal to let the elections take place in Jerusalem, and with the escalation of its military attacks on the WB and GS, aimed at hindering and blocking the electoral process.
Furthermore, such a prospect is considered a Palestinian point of convergence, which leads to “ending the occupation” and “the establishment of a Palestinian state” within nationally agreed-upon borders and in accordance with a globally acceptable formula.
1. Forming a consensus government that undertakes the implementation of the reconciliation’s terms, and makes the necessary preparations to guarantee equal and fair elections.
2. Launching the leadership authority effectively, so it will assume its role in correcting the course of the Palestinian issue and in preparing for a national partnership.
3. Hastening to activate the PLO by placing it in charge of the welfare of the national plan, while embracing all the factions and groups of the Palestinian people.
4. Placing the priorities of the national plan and the requirements for ending the schism and realizing national unity before American and Israeli conditions and pressures.
5. Expediting the release of all political detainees from Palestinian jails; and refraining from classifying the cadres and members of the resistance as outlaws and security violators.
6. Launching plans to equally rebuild what the Israeli war machine had destroyed in the WB and GS, while giving priority to damages incurred during Operation Cast Lead.
Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Moueen Manna’ for authoring the original text on which this Strategic Assessment was based.