Despite all efforts for rapprochement and the climate of optimism surrounding the statements of Fatah and Hamas officials, the divergence between the goals of each side with respect to the formation of a consensus cabinet is still extant.
While Fatah insists that this government should be formed in line with the terms of the Quartet and ‘Abbas’s plan, and to be a bridge for staging the presidential and legislative elections, Hamas is adamant that the consensus government must not have a political ceiling that conflicts with its political vision, and that it must at the same time be a conduit for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip (GS) and a ticket to entering the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Amid this divergence, the new Egyptian stance takes on a positive form, expressed by President Muhammad Mursi, in a manner that would push the forming of a consensus government forward – albeit under direct guarantees from Cairo.
By contrast, the American vetoed “the negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians” unless “all Palestinians are committed to seeking a political resolution and renouncing violence, and that the Palestinians “have to determine whether they are committed to a negotiation that will result in a state which they deserve” or not.
As regards the Israeli position, it is the de facto obstacle that can obstruct the work of the government and the elections, as well as any reforms of the Palestinian Authority (PA) institutions. This means that, in light of the current path of reconciliation, the government is compelled to obtain Israeli consent first.
According to the current path of reconciliation, the consensus government is considered the linchpin of Palestinian reconciliation. Fatah sees such a government, as long as it is not dominated by factions and is under ‘Abbas’s leadership, a good opportunity to unify “the two wings of the country” and the PA institutions, and also as the only way forward towards holding presidential and legislative elections. Meanwhile, Hamas sees it as a possible means to overcome the burdensome legacy of internal division and its repercussions, and restore its activity and vitality. Hamas also considers the consensus government a stepping stone towards ending the political and economic blockade imposed on it, amid favorable Arab developments.
Fatah is seeking to establish a national consensus government with Hamas under four key prerequisites, namely:
1. International acceptance of this government, especially the United States and the Quartet.
2. Non-objection by Israel, especially that direct occupation continues in the West Bank (WB), where the occupation controls many aspects of public life.
3. The formation of this government must not hinder the continuation of financial support of donor countries for the PA.
4. This government must be able to hold elections in the WB, the GS and Jerusalem simultaneously.
On the other hand, Hamas’ stance regarding the formation of a consensus government, too, involves four main prerequisites, namely:
1. Removing all restrictions on public freedoms in the WB, and promoting a climate of mutual trust in the Palestinian arena. The readiness of Hamas’ institutions and cadres in the WB to participate in the electoral process would be an indication that the above has been achieved.
2. Holding the PA’s presidential and legislative elections simultaneously with the elections of the PLO’s Palestinian National Council (PNC), and making the necessary preparations for both processes.
3. Completing the preparations and necessary groundwork, and providing adequate safeguards, for holding free and transparent elections, in a manner that can be seen and confirmed by everyone, especially Hamas and its cadres in the WB.
4. Launching the reconstruction process of what was destroyed by the Israeli war on the GS.
Given the prerequisites of both Fatah and Hamas, establishing a consensus government remains hostage to their dispute over a number of issues, most notably the distribution of sovereign portfolios in the cabinet. While Hamas is clinging to the reconciliation agreement which states that the ministers are chosen by consensus, Fatah believes that there would be no point in choosing ministers for the sovereign portfolios—especially foreign affairs and finance—unless they can win the confidence of donors and the acceptance of the Quartet members. Thus, it believes that ‘Abbas must choose these two ministers in order to guarantee the inflow of foreign aid to the PA and to launch the reconstruction of GS.
In addition, Fatah stresses that it must approve the minister of interior, in order to guarantee that the security forces in the WB will comply and cooperate. Otherwise, Fatah fears that the minister would remain isolated. For its part, Hamas follows the same logic in refusing to let Fatah alone name the minister of interior. For this reason, it is reiterating the call that the ministers are chosen by consensus.
This is while bearing in mind that the Dialogue Committee had reached a partial solution to this obstacle, where the government formed after the elections forms a higher committee tasked with reforming and unifying the security forces. Furthermore, it was agreed that the police and civil defense apparatuses would be unified, to oversee the electoral process.
Since the formation of the consensus government is directly linked to the extent at which it satisfies international requirements and its ability to deliver on the tasks entrusted to it, specifically holding elections and rebuilding the GS, then this also means that there are other external influences on this government, namely:
1. Developments in Egypt
It is no secret that current developments in Egypt have had a major impact on the course of events in the Palestinian arena in general and on the future of the consensus government in particular, on account of many considerations, including the fact that Egypt is the sponsor of reconciliation and it was behind the call for a consensus government.
The positions of the new Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi, wherein he stated that Palestinian reconciliation is an Egyptian priority, have contributed to promoting a positive atmosphere among both sides of the reconciliation. Furthermore, President Mursi has reasserted the policy of equilibrium in dealing with all Palestinian sides and factions, and has also respected protocol in Egyptian-Palestinian relations. Indeed, the Egyptian president made sure to first receive the head of the PA, and then the head of Hamas’s politburo. All this has helped reinforce the conviction and confidence among the Palestinians regarding the positive and prudent role Egypt will play under Mursi vis-à-vis the Palestinian arena.
In this context, Fatah, through the member of its Central Committee Mahmud al-‘Aloul, said that the policy of President Mursi will reinforce Egypt’s traditional policy on the Palestinian issue.
For its part, Hamas may be in a position where it does not need such reassurances. For one thing, the GS caretaker government led by Isma‘il Haniyyah, following Mursi’s victory, began to deal with developments as though things in GS would soon be returning to the normal state that existed prior to the blockade. Hamas was further reassured by this conclusion, after the head of the PA stated that he would like Egypt to take measures to ease the blockade and open border crossings with the GS, citing the fact that Cairo is not party to the agreement on the crossings signed between the PA and Israel.
2. The US Veto
The US position based on the conditions of the Quartet remains ever relevant to the thinking and decisions of the Fatah movement, especially when the Obama administration and Congress had previously threatened to stop financial and logistical assistance to the PA, should the latter fail to comply with international demands concerning reconciliation with Hamas.
Washington has recently started to deal with some caution and diplomacy with developments on the Palestinian scene, because of the aversion of the Arab and Palestinian publics to US interference in Arab affairs, and the perpetual US bias towards Israel. This perhaps may explain the absence or scarcity of US statements regarding the planned consensus government – but which remain short of ignoring the issue, altering the US stance on it or even refraining from vetoing it.
Nevertheless, during the a recent tour of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region, Clinton spoke in general about her country’s support for the peace treaty between the Palestinians and Israel, and added that “it can only happen if there is a negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and that can only happen if all Palestinians are committed to seeking a political resolution and renouncing violence. So reconciliation is up to the Palestinians… But at the end of the day, the factions of the Palestinians themselves have to determine whether they are committed to a negotiation that will result in a state which they deserve and which the Palestinian people have every reason to expect, or whether there will be diversions and other actions that do not promote that.”
The above means that the formation of the consensus government and holding the elections, as stipulated in the reconciliation agreement continue to be rejected by the American side and are subject to its veto.
3. The Israeli position:
The position expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wherein he said that the “Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. There is no possibility for peace with both,” is the basis of the political position of Israel and its stance on the ground, and the manner in which it deals with Fatah and the PA in terms of the reconciliation and its consequences.
To be sure, the Israeli government initiated harsh measures against the PA, particularly whenever Fatah attempts to cross red lines. This includes withholding the transfer of tax revenues from the PA, VIP privileges given to senior Palestinian figures, and the reactivation of the ‘civil administration’ in the West Bank; not to mention Israel’s ability to obstruct the electoral process in the WB and thwart it in Jerusalem.
True, ‘Abbas had responded to Netanyahu by choosing Hamas, which he said is part of the Palestinian people. But this does not negate the fact that the threats made by the Israeli government and the pressures it has exerted can both influence the thinking and decision-making process of Mahmud ‘Abbas. This means that the latter’s approval of the consensus government is still governed by Israeli terms, or at least by what Israel does not object to.
This Israeli stance puts ‘Abbas in constant search for a formula that satisfies Hamas yet that does not anger Israel, as long as he is adamant on the elections as an important priority that justifies the formation of the consensus government, and as an entry point for reconciliation. It appears that ‘Abbas has not yet arrived at this formula, which may explain the repeated talk about reconciliation and the consensus government being around the corner, but short of seeing any white smoke that signals this is going to happen any time soon.
Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Moueen Manna’ for authoring the original text on which this Strategic Assessment was based.