Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has announced a unity government between Fatah and Hamas. Still, nothing of substance has been resolved, except that new elections will be held.
The new Palestinian Authority (PA) “Unity” government will consist of some 17 ministers led by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, an academic educated in the UK who is a loyal to Abbas. The very fact of unity poses several challenges to the government. Specifically, that Israel, if not the international community, will withhold PA funds.
Many significant problems persist in the Palestinian governed regions (Areas A and B of the West Bank–Judah and Samaria–and the Gaza Strip), including the lack of freedom of speech, religion, and the press; economic stagnation and the lack of opportunity; and the presence of small armed terror groups, such as Islamic Jihad and the PFLP, to name but two.
Canon to the Left of Them…
Hamas is desperate and that is the real reason this unity government exists at all. The organization fears an internal uprising from the Gaza Tamarod movement and possible Egyptian intervention (see: Is Egypt the Solution to Gaza?). They want access to the PA budget and financial resources both to strengthen their standing with Gazans and to prevent foreign intervention. There is no concern for improving living conditions for ordinary Palestinians.
Ismail Haniyah, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and former PA Prime Minister, said the unity government would address the challenges of rebuilding the Gaza Strip and lifting the blockade. When I visited Gaza City, the mall, with its five star restaurants, showed no signs of needing any rebuilding. There are many nice, new buildings and homes in the Strip. It seems that Hamas is actually what needs to be rebuilt.
The blockade has prevented, or at least reduced, the smuggling of weapons into the Strip and terrorists into Israeli civilian populations. Israel will not lift the blockade so long as Gaza is ruled by a well-armed, militant organization bent on Israel’s destruction. Hamas is isolated, weakened by Israeli action, and the organization’s financial resources are depleted. It is also facing increasing opposition from Gazans who are tired of Hamas’ tyrannical rule.
The real challenges that face the PA are unlikely to receive the attention they deserve. The peace process is on hold; the question of the return of Fatah-led PA police forces to the Gaza Strip is a matter of serious contention, as this would weaken Hamas’ standing there; and Hamas has also called for the PA to place some 40,000 of its members on the PA payroll, which would consume a significant amount of the PA budget (a budget of approx. $4 billion). Already, over 25% of this budget is spent on bloated and overreaching security forces and intelligence agencies. Almost nothing is invested in capital projects or economic development. The Palestinian economy is a disaster with nearly 1/3rd of the workforce unemployed. Neither Fattah nor Hamas seem to hold the solution to this problem, look for them to blame it on Israel instead.
Israel will be also be withholding significant tax revenues that it collects for the PA. These revenues are withheld from Palestinians who work in Israel, in Israeli communities in the West Bank, and in Jerusalem.
Unable to confront these real problems, it seems the only question that the unity government has resolved is that of new elections. Elections that will prove fruitless and largely irrelevant, as the meaningful results are already known. Fatah and Hamas will go at it again, as they did in 2006. Smaller independent parties will run at a serious disadvantage in name recognition. The main challenge to these independent parties is that the media is largely controlled by Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian Authority Legislative Council already has several smaller parties that show promise for breaking the status quo: Al-Mustaqbal (The Future) is a small splinter of Fatah that is opposed to the undemocratic and highly corrupt nature of that party. It is led by Marwan Barghouti, who is serving a life term in an Israeli prison for murder, and includes the famed moderate Muhammad Dahlan among its members. This party may reunite with Fatah or run separately, this remains to be seen.
The Palestinian National Initiative is a center-left party led by Dr. Mustafa Barghouti with the goal of greater democracy and the creation of a Palestinian State in a “just peace.” This party has gained the support of many Palestinians living abroad but has little support in PA governed territories.
The Third Way, led by former PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, opposes the Fatah-Hamas two party system. Unfortunately, this party won only 2.4% of the vote in the 2006 elections, earning just 2 seats in the 132 member PA Legislative Council. While Fayyad served as PM in the wake of Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip, this party has been largely irrelevant since his resignation.
These parties, among others, hold great promise for the Palestinian people, but are totally suppressed by the unfree and undemocratic conditions that prevail in the PA’s jurisdiction. The election results will likely see a major win for either Fatah or Hamas. In a Fatah win there will be pressure to restore PA jurisdiction in the Gaza Strip and probably a return of the “old days” of corruption and patronage. A Hamas win will mean a total end to peace negotiations and more violence. If one of the smaller parties could gain enough votes to force a coalition, small and promising changes might be forthcoming.
Unfortunately, as is the case in many Arab democracies, the parliament is largely powerless in the face of a strong leader. The presidential election will be the one that matters, and the result is a forgone conclusion.
The Palestinian Authority chose to adopt a semi-presidential form of government like those of France and Russia that combines the presidential and parliamentary forms of government. This was largely due to the circumstances that prevailed at the government’s founding: Yassir Arafat dominated the political circle in the Palestinian Authority and many hoped to sap his power by setting up Mahmoud Abbas as a powerful Prime Minister. In practice such systems tend to be dominated by their Presidents and are much more presidential than parliamentary.
Arafat’s death in 2005 flipped this notion on its head. Now Mahmoud Abbas dominates the political circle as President, holding all of the real power and the parliament and cabinet have been largely marginalized. In 2006 Hamas won the parliamentary elections. Ismail Haniyah, a Hamas operative, became the Prime Minister. Abbas asserted the presidency’s control over security forces and effectively disempowered the cabinet. Shortly thereafter came the 2006 conflict and Hamas seized the Gaza Strip while Fatah asserted itself over the West Bank, and the Palestinian Authority.
Abbas is very likely to be reelected as President, and given the presidency’s overwhelming power, the parliamentary elections are a mere afterthought. Irrelevant elections, corrupt and self-interested parties, and a political system with no concern for the people it governs? How would a voter confront such a circumstance in the West? Probably with apathy and later protests. Yet, protesting can be dangerous in any Palestinian territory.
US Urges Patience
In the United States the Obama Administration has said they are willing to work with the PA to see if the new unity government chooses a path of nonviolence. In other words: wait and see. Most of the international community seems to be taking their cue from America.
The problem is there has been a statement of conditional support, but no indications of what such conditions or benchmarks might be. What expectations does the US, and the international community, have for this government? If conditions in the PA’s jurisdiction continue to deteriorate, what is to be done? Thus the US and its allies start from a position of weakness. They hold the purse strings but do not seem to care how the money is to be spent.
President Obama and his administration are, however, just one branch of the US government. The US Congress is already discussing withholding $400 million in US Foreign Aid to the Palestinian Authority. Perhaps Congress might be willing to take a more mature approach to the situation and make a clear statement that if ordinary Palestinians do not see increased freedom and improved economic conditions, posthaste, US funding will be withheld. Congress holds the purse strings of the United States, and has every right to tug on them.
US aid to the Palestinians is spent on humanitarian aid (through NGOs), for economic development, and in fighting terrorism. The last of these comes in the form of providing US military training and equipment to PA police forces.