Palestinians Scoring Own Goals

RAMALLAH – While the U.S. appears to be optimistic about Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, inter-Palestinian rivalry, a recalcitrant Israeli government, and an international community with its own agenda could well scuttle a settlement.

For the first time in decades the U.S., under President Barack Obama’s new administration, appears to be putting pressure on Israel through Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new hard-line and far-Right government.

Netanyahu has effectively started a crisis in further negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA), which controls the West Bank.

Abbas has stated categorically that he will not continue peace negotiations with Israel if it refuses to concede to a two-state solution and to freeze illegal settlement construction in the West Bank. Netanyahu has refused to do either, despite this being endorsed by both the administration in Washington and the international community at large.

But Israel’s intransigence might be overshadowed by the inability of the two major Palestinian factions, the PA-affiliated Fatah, and the Islamic resistance organization Hamas, which controls Gaza, to reach agreement on a unity government.

The fourth round of unity talks in Cairo last week ground unsuccessfully to a halt, as predicted by political pundits and analysts. Both major Palestinian factions appeared more keen on jockeying for power and prestige than on putting the Palestinian cause first.

The final nail in the unity coffin was hammered in last Tuesday when Abbas swore in a new government in Ramallah. The new government was not only rejected by Hamas, as expected, but by many in Abbas’ own Fatah faction, and by several other Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) factions, who have decided to boycott the government.

Abbas’ new cabinet grew from 16 ministers to a more representative total of 20. But two Fatah members turned down Abbas’ invitation to join the new government. Fatah is the largest faction of the PLO.

Another PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), refused to join, as did the Palestinian People’s Party (PPP). Three major Palestinian unions slammed the new government.

Their rejection was based on accusations of nepotism, cronyism, and lack of accountability or transparency, as the old Fatah guard ensured its seats at the expense of younger members.

Hamas’ rejection of the government, reiterated during the Cairo talks, was based on what it termed its "illegitimacy." The resistance group (which is not part of the PLO) won free and fair democratic elections in January 2006.

Abbas formed a new emergency government shortly after Hamas ousted the PA in Gaza in a coup in June 2007. Under Palestinian law an emergency government is legitimate only for 30 days. Thereafter a new government has to be democratically formed. This never happened.

There is also a vast chasm between Hamas and PA ideology. The less compromising Hamas leaders will only agree to a 10-year tadhiya, or long-term cease-fire with Israel but will not recognize it as a legitimate state.

Less hard-line factions within Hamas have agreed to a Palestinian state given the internationally recognized borders of 1967, implicitly accepting the existence of Israel, though within its old borders. The Six-Day War launched by Israel in 1967 led to capture of huge tracts of Palestinian and other Arab territory.

Hamas delegates in Cairo refused an Egyptian proposal to form a Gaza security force jointly with its PA rivals, according to PA intelligence chief Majed Faraj. The Gaza leadership also rejected the return of PA officials to monitor the Rafah-Egypt border as outlined in a PA-Israel agreement in 2005.

Another disagreement was on electoral reform. Fatah wanted 85 percent proportional representation, and 15 percent individual constituency, while Hamas wanted 60-40 respectively.

Critics argue that the PA has been far too compromising with Israel. It has continued to negotiate with the Jewish state despite Israel’s abrogation of basic Palestinian rights.

These have included accelerated settlement building and expropriation of Palestinian natural resources in the Palestinian territories in flagrant violation of UN Security Council Resolutions and international law.

So why did Abbas proceed with forming such an unpopular government when it appeared doomed before its conception? The failure of the latest round of unity talks in Cairo was a contributing factor. But international pressure and the need to appear legitimate are probably the major reasons behind the PA leader’s decision.

Abbas is due to meet Obama in Washington shortly, and needed to show a government with more legitimacy than his previous emergency government which resigned twice during the first rounds of unity talks.

The caretaker government led by Abbas never had the support of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), which is dominated by Hamas. But it is the Fatah bloc of the PLC, which has now turned on Abbas.

The PA is dependent on international donors, without which it would collapse economically. And most of this international community, especially the U.S. and Israel, do not support a unity government which includes Hamas, further minimizing PA incentives for unity.

The chances of Abbas’ new government winning support from the Palestinian public appear slim even if Israel and its U.S. supporters are pleased. But if it can stand up to Netanyahu by stopping expansion of the settlements, ensuring financial stability, and working toward unity with Gaza, there is a small window of opportunity.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Mel Frykberg

Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.