Will the Palestinian unity government actually happen?

Fatah and Hamas can’t agree on key ministerial posts. And plenty more obstacles await en route to elections, the key reason for setting up the gov’t

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Hamas and Fatah leaders meeting in Gaza for talks on Palestinian reconciliation on April 22, 2014. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Hamas and Fatah leaders meeting in Gaza for talks on Palestinian reconciliation on April 22, 2014. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday appointed Rami Hamdallah to serve as head of a “national consensus government” — the supposed “unity government” agreed by Fatah and Hamas.

However, an official announcement on the composition of the entire government, which had also been expected Thursday, was delayed again, and it is currently unclear when it might be finalized.

According to several different Palestinian sources, the PA is planning to announce the identities of the new ministers on Monday. We shall see. There are three key ministerial positions that are causing a logjam in discussions between Hamas and Fatah.

The first of these is the foreign minister’s post. Abbas is insisting that the incumbent, Riyad al-Maliki, be reappointed, a move opposed by Hamas.

There is no agreement on an interior minister, either. Both the rival Palestinian factions thought that the new prime minister himself, Hamdallah, would agree to take on the sensitive position. (The PA Interior Ministry is responsible for all the Palestinian security forces, including — in theory — those in the Gaza Strip.) But Hamdallah, according to the same sources, rejected the appointment.

According to Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuheri, the two sides are also divided on the Prisoners’ Affairs Ministry. Abbas is demanding that the ministry be dismantled, and an independent body be set up to deal with prisoners’ issues, but Hamas is interested in keeping the ministry as it is.

The ministers in the new government are meant to be technocrats, independent individuals who are members of neither Fatah nor Hamas. But some of them will be at the very least “associated” with one of the organizations.

All these divisions and squabbles, though, are negligible compared to what awaits the two organizations on the day after the national unity government is established, if it is.

For a start, Abbas and Hamas have pushed off a difficult, sensitive and critical discussion on the fate of the Hamas security forces operating in Gaza. Under whose authority will they operate? Who will pay their salaries?

Hamas has already made clear that the forces won’t take orders from Abbas or Hamdallah, but it expects the new government to pay their salaries. This means that Hamas would continue to control the Strip without being in the government. That is to say: only rights, no obligations.

Hamas would greatly benefit from such a situation: its people will have their salaries paid from the PA’s coffers, but will be under the exclusive authority of Hamas. Will Abbas agree to such a problematic deal? It is unclear.

A second major point of contention is related to the platform of the new government. Will it really recognize Israel, accept previous agreements signed with Israel, and renounce terrorism, as the Middle East Quartet demands? Hamas has hinted that it cannot accept such a step.

A third point of disagreement concerns the central purpose of the new government: preparing for general elections for the presidency and the Palestinian legislative assembly. It can be assumed that, for elections to go ahead, both Hamas and Fatah will insist on a presence in the West Bank, in Gaza and in East Jerusalem. It can also be assumed that the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will not agree to any scenario in which Hamas participates in elections held in East Jerusalem. The lessons of 2006 — when the US urged Israel to consent to Hamas participation in parliamentary elections, including in East Jerusalem, and Hamas won — has been thoroughly internalized.

This could be a useful pretext for the Palestinian rivals to cancel elections altogether, especially since both sides are far from certain of their chances.

The election stakes are high, indeed. The party that loses would be forced to give up its exclusive control of the West Bank (if Fatah loses) or Gaza (if Hamas is defeated). As things stand, that’s a scenario very hard to visualize.

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