The Palestinian Unity Government: an Overdue Consensual Strategy?

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The tormented birth of the Palestinian national unity government could mark a truly new phase in the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

Hamas, the mainstream Palestinian Islamist movement that was established in 1987 and won the January 2006 elections will share power with Fatah, the main Palestinian secular national force who had led the Palestinians from the late 1950s until Hama's surprise election victory this year. The main parameters of the agreement include the formation of a cabinet with almost twice as many posts going to Hamas as to Fateh. Ministers are to be only sympathisers of either movement or technocrats drawn from their second ranks. Prominent and outspoken figures from both sides, including Ismail Hanyyeh, the current Prime Minister from Hamas, will be avoided. The National Consensus Document, the political platform of this government, reaffirms principal Palestinian rights without making clear concessions to Israel. The Document implicitly calls for a two-state solution but deliberately leaves the question of recognising Israel open to various interpretations. Negotiations with Israel, according to the agreement, should be the responsibility of a 'reformed' PLO not the government; because the former represents Palestinians throughout the world including Palestine unlike the latter which represents only those within the homeland territory.

Even keeping in mind all possible setbacks, agreement on a government such as this is significant on two levels: the immediate and the long term. The direct impact of the formation of this type of government will be the dismantling of the hypocritical international blockade imposed upon the Palestinians as a measure of punishment for electing Hamas in January's elections. By creating distance between Hamas as a movement and Hamas as a power-sharing government, this re-organisation renders the government a measure of flexibility that it desperately needs to talk to the outside world. Removal of the Israeli/American/European blockade against the original Hamas-led government was tendered on three conditions: that the government should recognise Israel; renounce violence, and adhere to previous Fatah-made agreements signed with Israel. Hamas would not yield to any of those conditions and the US/EU decided to cut off all manner of aid to the Palestinians including the salaries of tens of thousands of government employees hoping that Hamas would lose its popular support and eventually give in. After eight months of isolation Hamas neither surrendered nor did its popularity drastically diminish. Of course ordinary Palestinians were to bear the highest cost of this international 'starvation policy' which was meant to weaken Hamas. Nevertheless, in the end, the blockade failed and it turned into a stain on the face of the 'international community'. The new national unity government, therefore, offers a sigh of relief for the EU and the US, and of course for many Arab countries who colluded with the Western powers against the legitimate Hamas-led Palestinian government. Palestinian suffering and the general rise in poverty left all parties wanting a face-saving exit from the blockade policy. Even Israeli officials have recently said that they would deal with the new Palestinian coalition government if Hamas's leaders were not at the head.

In the long term, this unprecedented Palestinian concord and joint leadership between the two major forces in Palestinian politics, Hamas and Fateh, could be seen as the turning point in re-shaping Palestinian legitimacy and leadership as a whole. It is a significant no-return juncture marking the end of the monopoly over the leadership of the Palestinians by the secular Fateh movement which has lasted for almost half a century. If the January elections marked the demarcating point, November's national unity government marks Fateh's public admission of the new reality.

When Hamas won the elections and formed an exclusive Hamas government in March it failed to attract Fateh or any other Palestinian organisation to join its cabinet. Hamas's major fault in the 'political programme' that it had offered to these other parties as a basis for a unity government stemmed from its refusal to unequivocally recognise the PLO as the umbrella organization which embraces Palestinian representation both inside and outside of Palestine. It took Hamas eight months to budge even slightly on this position and focus on other issues, which mainly consisted of ongoing justification of its policy of non-recognition of Israel. Equally importantly, it also took Fateh eight months to absorb and acknowledge the resounding defeat that it had suffered at the hands of Hamas and recognise the new political reality.

The national unity government, and the National Consensus Document that underpins it, could end the polar dichotomy between 'Hamas's resistance project' and 'Fateh's peace process project'; a dichotomy that has consumed much of the Palestinian national effort over the past two decades. The PLO (led by Fateh) recognised Israel in 1988 and embarked on a strategy of reaching the two-state solution through peace talks. Hamas refused to do so and instead had adopted a 'resistance' strategy that was based on forcing Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank through military resistance. With the signing of the Oslo Agreements in1993/4 and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in parts of the occupied territories the gulf between the two movements became wider and their relationship plummeted badly. According to Oslo, the hard issues of refugees, sovereignty over Jerusalem, the dismantling of Israeli settlements and control over borders along with the establishment of a Palestinian state should have been accomplished by or around the year 1999, which of course did not happen. Israel has been responsible for the major part of that failure (for example the settlements in the West Bank that were to have been dismantled have doubled instead). Yet, Hamas has also been partly responsible for that failure because of the suicide attack tactics that it adopted. Israel was able to succeed in marketing itself as a victim of yet another organisation of the 'global network of terror', playing on the hysteria of the post- 9/11 American 'war on terror'. In a nutshell, the dysfunctional double-headed Palestinian political strategies of 'resistance' and 'peace process', with each head pulling in opposite directions, has continually eliminated even the most minimal achievements on the ground. The 'resistance' with its chaotic suicide attacks eroded anything that the 'peace process' ever promised to offer, while the 'peace process' with its continuous concessions to Israel eroded anything that the 'resistance' hoped to achieve.

This duality may have finally come to an end with the formation of the national unity government. Any advancement on the front toward realising Palestinian national rights and self-determination should be based on a clear and unified strategy pursued by just such a collective leadership. This leadership should recognize that it cannot continue to look at itself in terms of whether it is 'resistance' or 'peace process' but reassess these polar opposites and reinvent the best strategy for the Palestinians. Or at least adopt one unified strategy, either resistance or peace talks but rallying all the Palestinian effort behind it.


Khaled Hroub is the author of Hamas: A Beginner's Guide, published by Pluto Press and reviewed in this issue.