Middle East

What are the chances for a Palestinian unity government? – analysis

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday renewed his call for the formation of a Palestinian unity government consisting of representatives of various groups, including Hamas.

Abbas made the call in a speech marking the 17th anniversary of the death of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

The appeal came amid reports that the US administration, Egypt and other parties have been pressuring the Palestinians to end the dispute between Abbas’s ruling Fatah faction in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip by forming a unity government.

Abbas emphasized, however, that any group that is willing to join the proposed unity government must commit to all United Nations resolutions pertaining to the Israeli-Arab conflict, as well as agreements signed between the Palestinians and Israel.

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“On this painful anniversary, the anniversary of the death of the martyr leader Yasser Arafat, we renew our adherence to the unity of our people, and the call to form a government of national unity, in which all participating forces are committed to the international legitimacy recognized by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” Abbas said.

US PRESIDENT Bill Clinton watches prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat shake hands after signing the Oslo I Accord, at the White House in Washington on September 13, 1993. (credit: GARY HERSHORN/REUTERS)

The commitment to “the international legitimacy recognized” by the PLO refers to the acceptance of the two-state solution and recognition of Israel, in addition to the Oslo Accords that were signed between the two parties in 1993.

Abbas, in other words, is demanding that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist and accept the Oslo Accords as a prerequisite for joining a Palestinian unity government. He insists that Hamas endorse the policies of the current PA leadership towards Israel.

Hamas, whose charter states that “Israel will exist and continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it,” does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and rejects the Olso Accords and any form of cooperation with Israel.

The London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported on Thursday that the US and some Arab states were making efforts to reach a deal that would allow Hamas to join a Palestinian unity government. According to the report, the unity government idea is part of a larger effort to achieve a long-term truce deal between Israel and Hamas.

The idea of forming a unity government surfaced shortly after Abbas’s decision in April to call off the general elections. The parliamentary election was supposed to take place on May 22, while a vote for the PA presidency was scheduled for late July. Abbas said he decided to delay the elections until further notice because of Israel’s alleged refusal to allow the vote to take place in Jerusalem.

“This is not the first time that President Abbas proposes a unity government with all the Palestinian factions, including Hamas,” said Abdullah Abdullah, member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, the faction’s parliamentary body. “Any group that wants to join the unity government must accept international resolutions on the basis of which the Palestinian Authority functions.”

Abdullah warned that failure to accept Abbas’s condition would result in an international boycott of the Palestinian unity government, mainly because of Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist and “international legitimacy.”

In 2007, a Palestinian national unity government headed by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh lasted for only three months. The government did not meet the three conditions set by the Quartet members – the US, European Union, Russia and United Nations: Recognizing Israel, abiding by previous diplomatic agreements and renouncing violence.

In 2014, the Palestinians again formed a unity government following yet another reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. The ministers were mostly Abbas loyalists or independents, leaving Hamas with no official representation. The government dissolved a year later after Abbas accused Hamas of obstructing its work in the Gaza Strip. 

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Another senior Fatah official in Ramallah said that he did not expect Hamas to accept Abbas’s recurring invitations to join a unity government. “Hamas is not interested in unity,” the official told The Jerusalem Post. “Hamas wants to maintain its control over the Gaza Strip and is even hoping that one day it will take over the West Bank.”

Hamas leaders and officials have reacted to the unity government proposal by expressing readiness to end the dispute with Fatah and work towards the formation of a new Palestinian “national leadership” but without specifically accepting Abbas’s condition.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was quoted last week as saying that his group seeks the “reconstruction of the Palestinian leadership according to new foundations and political program.”

Haniyeh also expressed readiness to join the PLO, which consists of 11 factions, the largest being Abbas’s Fatah. Hamas has refused to join the PLO unless it undergoes major changes and reforms and sees an end to Fatah’s “hegemony.”

Haniyeh said that the new leadership Hamas is seeking should endorse the “popular resistance” against Israel and work towards developing it into an uprising in the West Bank.

Signaling Hamas’s rejection of signed agreements between the Palestinians and Israel, the Hamas leader said that the Palestinian “national enterprise” has declined since the signing of the Oslo Accords.

The national project, Haniyeh added, significantly deteriorated after the Oslo Accords, leaving the Palestinians with very limited options to confront Israel.

Senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya told the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera network earlier this week that the PA is “no longer accepted” by the Palestinians. “The Palestinian Authority has become a burden on the Palestinian cause,” he argued. “Its duties need to be redefined in accordance with a comprehensive national vision. The Palestinian leadership needs to be revamped on the basis of a political program representing all the Palestinians and a mechanism for confronting the occupation.”

Hayya condemned the continued security coordination between the PA security forces and Israel in the West Bank. He held Abbas responsible for the ongoing split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “We believe in partnership,” he stated. “That’s why Hamas will not form its own government.”

A Palestinian political analyst told the Post that he does not believe that the US or any Arab country would be capable of persuading Fatah and Hamas to sit together in a unity government.

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“President Abbas and Fatah are afraid of losing financial aid from the West if they strike a deal with Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organization by many countries,” the analyst explained. “I’m not even sure that Abbas really wants Hamas in his government. He does not trust Hamas and sees them as liars, hypocrites and terrorists whose only goal is to take over the Palestinian Authority.”

Another analyst said that Hamas feels emboldened by the last war with Israel in May, and that’s one reason why it is not prepared to make any concessions to Abbas in order to join a unity government. Hamas, he noted, also sees public opinion polls that show that more than 70% of the Palestinians want Abbas to step down or are dissatisfied with the performance of the Palestinian Authority.

“As far as Hamas is concerned, the Palestinian Authority is a sinking ship,” the analyst added. “Hamas would be foolish to join a ship that is headed towards the bottom of the sea. They prefer to sit and wait patiently until the ship and its captain disappear.”

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