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Performance of the Palestinian Governments 2003–2013

Feras Abu Helal


On 13/9/1993, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel signed the Oslo Accords, which provided for gradual transfer of local government administration in the West Bank (WB) and Gaza Strip (GS) to a Palestinian authority.

Based on this agreement, the Palestinian Central Council (PCC) agreed, at its conference held in Tunisia on 10–12/10/1993, to form the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PCC tasked the PLO Executive Committee with forming a transitional council of the PA headed by Yasir ‘Arafat and including a number of members from the Executive Committee and Palestinians from home and abroad.

The PA interim council passed two election laws for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and the presidency according to the requirements stipulated in the Oslo Accords concerning the transitional period. Based on these laws the first PLC and presidential elections were held on 20/1/1996.

In the context of building state institutions, the elected PLC passed the Palestinian Basic Law, which determined the form of the executive authority as well as its competencies and tasks.

Based on the Basic Law, which was effective from 1996 to 2003, the premiership would be attributed to the head of the PA. Article 50 of Draft Basic Law, which was approved in 2002, stipulated:

The Executive Authority is the highest executive and administrative tool, which shoulders the responsibility of developing a program that will be approved by the Legislative Authority for implementation. The President of the National Authority and the Council of Ministers shall assume the responsibility of the Executive Authority in the manner prescribed in this Basic Law.

Based on this law, President ‘Arafat formed five governments between 19/5/1994 and 18/3/2003. 

However, international, regional and local conditions led to changes to the articles pertaining to the government in the Basic Law of 2003. Three years after the halt of negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis at Camp David, the United States (US) announced the “Road Map” plan to resume the negotiations in line with intense pressure on ‘Arafat to pursue internal political reform, most notably the creation of the Prime Minister Office and appointing the then PLO secretary Mahmud ‘Abbas as the first prime minister.

Although ‘Arafat initially resisted these pressures knowing that they were meant to reduce his powers, he soon succumbed to international demands. On 18/3/2003, the PLC amended the Basic Law stipulating the creation of the Prime Minister Office of the PA. 

First: The Government in the Palestinian Basic Law

The government, according to the Palestinian Basic Law, is the supreme executive and administrative tool responsible for enacting the program set by the legislative authority. The government has all executive and administrative powers in the PA, except those powers granted by the Basic Law to the head of the PA.

According to the law, the cabinet comprises a maximum of 24 ministers, and it has to pass a vote of confidence in the PLC. The ministers are responsible to the prime minister who is in turn responsible, with his cabinet, to the PLC. The latter has the right to interrogate members of the government and withdraw confidence according to measures stipulated in the Basic Law. The prime minister follows up on the work of his ministers through a weekly meeting whereby every minister presents a report according to his jurisdiction and functions entrusted to him.

Second: Sixth Government: Mahmud ‘Abbas’ Government

‘Abbas faced a difficult mission from the moment he was tasked with forming the government until his resignation. ‘Arafat saw international pressure to task ‘Abbas with heading the government as an attempt by international forces to marginalize his political role and deal with ‘Abbas instead of him. 

Although President ‘Arafat finally gave in to international and local pressure and created the Prime Ministerial Office, conflict was the main characteristic of his relationship with the prime minister-designate. Indeed, the conflict started with the appointment of ‘Abbas as head of the government and lasted until his resignation four months after its formation.

The conflict between the two foiled the formation of the government until the end of the additional deadline granted by the PLC for the prime minister-designate due to differences on naming the interior minister. Thus, while ‘Abbas insisted on the appointment of Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan for this portfolio, ‘Arafat continued to refuse the appointment until ‘Abbas threatened to decline the task of forming a government.  Ultimately, ‘Arafat succumbed to international pressure and complied with the initiative launched by ‘Omar Suleiman, then-director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Services (EGIS), and ‘Abbas maintained the interior ministry and appointed Dahlan as state minister for internal affairs. 

However, although the conflict appeared to be related to the naming of the interior minister, it was in reality a deep conflict regarding powers and jurisdiction, especially in the security field,  which ‘Arafat believed would maintain his control of the PA. This was demonstrated in the ongoing conflict between ‘Arafat and ‘Abbas until the latter’s resignation on 6/9/2003.

1. The Government Functions 

Mahmud ‘Abbas presented his ministerial statement before the PLC to obtain its confidence on 29/4/2003. The statement included the functions of the government, namely:

• Ending lawlessness, containing the spread of arms and the phenomenon of “illegal weapons,” in addition to the rearrangement of security forces.

• Emphasizing the freedom to express political differences and opposition.

• Revival of political life and enhancement of the role of the opposition, while ensuring that power rotates through the encouragement of participation in elections at different levels.

• Reconstruction of infrastructure destroyed by Israel during al-Aqsa Intifadah.

• Reforming the economic sector, and providing Palestinians with health, education, media, cultural and agricultural services.

• Fighting corruption and job exploitation, protecting public money and referring those accused of corruption and exploitation of public money to the public prosecutor.

• Commitment to peace and negotiations as a way to achieve Palestinian national rights.

• Stressing that the government would assist President ‘Arafat in meeting national interests and it would seek to lift the siege imposed on the Palestinian people through diplomatic efforts.
2. A Reading into the Line-Up of Mahmud ‘Abbas’ Government

Mahmud ‘Abbas’ government won the PLC vote of confidence on 29/4/2003 with a majority of 51 votes to 18 against and three abstentions.

The government line-up was characterized by the following:

• This was the first government of the PA, since its establishment, whose head was other than the head of the PA due to international pressures which forced President ‘Arafat to amend the Palestinian Basic Law.

• Prime Minister Mahmud ‘Abbas maintained the interior portfolio.

• The government included one minister only from the Executive Committee, in addition to 16 ministers who were members of the PLC.

• The cabinet included 18 ministers from Fatah, one minister from Palestinian Democratic Union Party (Fida), one minister from Palestine People’s Party (PPP) and five independent ministers.

• Fatah movement held the majority in the government, as Hamas, Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (PIJ) and the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP and DFLP) abstained from participation.
3. The Performance of Mahmud ‘Abbas’ Government

Since the formation of the government, Mahmud ‘Abbas worked in the context of covert, and sometimes overt, conflict with President Yasir ‘Arafat, as the latter feared losing his powers to the prime minister.

Besides the conflict over powers between the two men, ‘Abbas’ pursuit of resolving the issue of military forces to pave the way for the peace process as stipulated for in the Road Map was, according to many observers, an explosive factor between ‘Abbas and ‘Arafat. This was so as President ‘Arafat believed that the plan to “dissolve the military forces” might lead the Palestinians to civil war, and he pushed to keep the dissolution of these forces, especially al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades affiliated with Fatah, in the hands of the Fatah Central Committee,  to prevent Palestinian internal conflict.

According to some Israeli security analysis, ‘Arafat sought to mobilize al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to launch military operations against the occupation forces in order to thwart ‘Abbas’ efforts and make him appear unable to implement his program seeking to resume the peace process. 

In one of the most dangerous demonstrations of the power conflict between ‘Arafat and ‘Abbas, the former accused the latter of delivering a speech in Middle East Peace Summit at Aqaba, Jordan, in early June 2003, without consulting him.

‘Abbas, however, affirmed that he had consulted ‘Arafat ahead of the speech he gave at the summit, which was held in presence of George W. Bush and the presidents of Israel, Egypt and Jordan.  Ultimately, ‘Abbas was accused of compromising Palestinian rights in this speech, which led to mass demonstrations denouncing his “concessions.” 

The conflict between ‘Arafat and ‘Abbas reached its peak when groups affiliated with Fatah took to the streets in demonstrations accusing ‘Abbas of treason and collaboration with Israel. Some Fatah activists tried to break into the PLC building in concurrence with a parliamentary move to withdraw confidence from ‘Abbas, and they sprayed slogans attacking the prime minister.  In fact, many observers saw that these demonstrations and measures would not have taken place without ‘Arafat’s prior knowledge, or even his management.

Mahmud ‘Abbas failed in executing his governmental program aimed at ending lawlessness. He also failed to achieve any breakthrough in the peace process, which lay at the heart of this program. Consequently, he tendered his resignation on 6/9/2003, four months after his government had formed.

‘Abbas based his resignation on his inability to execute his governmental program whether at internal or external levels. He blamed Israel and the US for his failure as they did not support any genuine accomplishments regarding negotiations or improving Palestinians’ lives. The then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to execute any of the Road Map commitments and continued an assassination policy targeting Palestinians.  Other policies included expediting the construction of the Separation Wall, refusal to free Palestinian prisoners, and Washington’s abstention from exercising any pressure on Tel Aviv to implement its obligations.

On the internal level, ‘Abbas blamed ‘Arafat for his failure to make any achievements, especially in the security file. He also saw the demonstrations opposing him in front of the PLC headquarters as a personal insult. 

Apparently, ‘Abbas refused all American and regional mediations to hold him back from his resignation,  convinced that he could not work without cover from ‘Arafat. This was stressed by Information Minister Nabil Amr, who was close to ‘Abbas at that time, and who said that “any infringement on the status of ‘Arafat or attempt to distance him would necessarily lead to dangerous, ominous consequences” given that he was the elected president of the Palestinian people…

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