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INSS Policy Brief: A Palestinian Unity Government

INSS Policy Brief – Editor Shlomo Brom
No. 3 February 21, 2007

A Palestinian Unity Government:
To Recognize or Not to Recognize, is that the Question?

Amir Kulick

The Mecca agreement signed by Fatah and Hamas on February 9 was met with much enthusiasm on the Palestinian street. For its part, the Quartet expressed support for the accord, designed to stop the internal violence, but also required that the new government to be established satisfy three demands (stop terror, honor agreements signed by the PLO, and recognize Israel). The response of the Israeli government fluctuates between confusion and rejection of the accord. Various speakers in the Israeli media were even keen to note that the agreement adds nothing new, in fact is only an internal Palestinian accord that does not meet the three aforesaid fundamental conditions of the international community, and should therefore be rejected. This paper aims to highlight the positive potential offered by the Mecca agreement and the establishment of a Palestinian unity government.

Contents of the Agreement

The Mecca agreement includes four main points: ending the internal violence; establishing a national unity government; taking measures to activate the PLO and reform its institutions; and highlighting “the principle of political partnership” between the sides. [1]

With regard to the composition of the government the following agreements were reached:

1. Ismail Haniyeh will continue serving as prime minister and his deputy will be a member of the Fatah organization, to be appointed by Abu Mazen.

2. The three main ministerial positions will be filled by independents: minister of foreign affairs (to be nominated by Fatah), minister of finance (this post will be filled by Salam Fayyad, who served as minister of finance from 2002 to 2005) and minister of the interior (to be nominated by Hamas, with Abu Mazen’s consent).

3. The other government portfolios will be assigned evenly based on the following division: eleven to Hamas [2](nine ministers and two additional independents, whom Hamas will nominate); eight to Fatah [3](six ministers and two additional independents, whom Fatah will nominate); four positions to other factions within the Palestinian Legislative Council. [4]

In the deliberations the sides also agreed on the wording of the letter of appointment that Abu Mazen will give to Ismail Haniyeh. This document will serve as the basis for forming the new government. The main point in this framework is Abu Mazen’s calling on the prime minister-elect “to respect legitimate Arab and international resolutions and agreements signed by the PLO.” [5]

Implications for Israel

The agreement includes neither an explicit recognition of the State of Israel nor an explicit commitment to honor the agreements signed by the PLO. Moreover, the wording of the agreement and the letter of appointment of the new prime minister do not contain a clear condemnation of terror. It is thus easy to claim that the agreement does not satisfy the prerequisites defined by the international community and, as such, there is no need to recognize the new government or engage it. In addition, based on that logic, action should be taken to prevent the lifting of the international siege on the Palestinian Authority (PA). On the other hand, the expression “to respect legitimate Arab and international resolutions and agreements signed by the PLO” indirectly accommodates the three demands. This wording can be interpreted as constituting a start toward compliance with the three demands. Moreover, placing the agreement in its wider context and examining the internal processes in Palestinian society in recent years may indicate a number of considerable advantages that can ensue from the creation of a national unity government:

1. Reinforcing the ceasefire and distancing Hamas further from the cycle of armed struggle. Since the declaration of the tahdiya (“relaxation”) in 2005, the volume of Hamas’ terror activities has declined significantly. Israeli efforts to foil terror activity have certainly contributed to this, but an internal decision by the heads of the movement is no less responsible. In this regard Hamas’ foreign leadership plays an important role as it seems that it controls the movement’s operational mechanism in the territories. [6] The formation of a national unity government may reinforce the current ceasefire and push Hamas (even if not officially) out of the cycle of armed struggle to embrace the consensus on the need for a political solution with Israel.

2. A chance of blocking or at least slowing down Hamas’ assuming control of government bureaucracy (civil and defense) and turning it into another powerbase for the movement. Since the Hamas government was sworn in (March 2006) Hamas has gradually taken over public administration in the Palestinian Authority. Hamas’ waiving of important ministerial positions – foreign affairs, interior, and, in particular, finance – may very well stop the entire bureaucratic system from becoming a power center for the Islamic movement in the territories. This complements a halt to the development of Hamas’ “operational force” – the government militia that the movement established within the Ministry of the Interior.

3. Possible lever for renewing the political process. Paradoxically, it is precisely the political partnership between Fatah and Hamas that may allow more suitable grounds for renewing the political process. To a great extent, both Fatah and Hamas have been drawn into agreeing on unity out of concerns that they may lose control of their constituencies and fear that internal strife may ensue that they would be unable to stop. In this context, it seems that Hamas’ foreign leadership was forced to yield to internal dynamics in the territories. Against this backdrop it is reasonable to assume that the movement will not hurry to breach the internal consensus created at Mecca. This situation provides Abu Mazen with room to maneuver to start political negotiations toward a permanent settlement. Generating positive dynamics in the field – fewer restrictions on movement in the territories, the release of prisoners, improvements in the economic situation – may boost this process and make it difficult for Hamas to disrupt the momentum. Furthermore, the participation of Fatah and other factions in the government and the presentation to the public as a government of the Palestinian people reduces the ideological dilemma that Hamas may face with regard to renewing the political process with Israel. In addition, the actual negotiations may offer numerous benefits, including enhancing the legitimacy of Abu Mazen’s rule, strengthening the nationalist movement in the territories, and so on.

4. Above all and in the long term, the creation of a more pragmatic and responsible political entity alongside the State of Israel. Continued anarchy in the territories will ultimately lead to the final disintegration of the Palestinian Authority, and the loss of any possibility of negotiations with a responsible central body. Internal calm in the PA, supported by an improvement in the economic situation and political negotiations, may lead to a renewal of the process of building institutions for a Palestinian state and increase the future chance of a state entity emerging alongside Israel, an entity with a greater interest in maintaining the status quo and preventing a violent confrontation. This entity would be based on wide national consensus as to the need for a solution based on the principle of two states for two peoples.

5. Working toward the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Releasing Palestinian prisoners before the unity government is established may be viewed on the Palestinian and Israeli streets as an achievement for Hamas. Currently, the release of prisoners can be presented as part of an Israeli gesture towards the new government, and as an achievement by Abu Mazen, the main patron in the territories.

At the same time, the argument here is not that the Palestinian unity government is a panacea whose creation will lead to a solution for the entire range of complex and difficult issues that exist between Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, it should be noted that this process contains a considerable number of risks that may eventually harm Israeli interests. For example, on an international level, such a government may serve as a means of “condoning” Hamas and turning it into a legitimate partner for dialogue without its decrying terror and recognizing the State of Israel. This situation will make it hard in the future to rebuild an international front and apply pressure on the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, reforms in the PLO may strengthen Hamas in its institutions and accordingly neutralize the organization as a moderate political partner. In addition, a Palestinian unity government may be viewed by the international community as an asset and eventually lead to constraints being placed on Israel’s anti-terror measures. Ultimately, there is no answer to the question “is it really possible to achieve genuine moderation of Hamas’ stance towards Israel?” and the suggestion is to address the challenge based on the assumption (which has yet to be proven) that there is a chance of bringing about change in Hamas’ positions through a gradual process.

In view of all this the recommended approach for the Israeli side is to formulate a plan, in cooperation with the United States and the European Union, for conditional recognition of the new government and the gradual removal of the political and economic siege on the PA. This will be contingent on positive measures taken by the Palestinian government on a number of levels:

1. Prisoners: concluding a deal for releasing Gilad Shalit.

2. Ceasefire: reinforcing the ceasefire and stopping the Qassam rocket fire.

3. Smuggling: achieving a significant reduction in smuggling across the border between Israel and Egypt (based on the formula of “100 percent effort”).

4. The political process: renewing and progressing along the political track. In this context the trilateral summit between Abu Mazen, Olmert, and Condoleezza Rice may provide a convenient platform.

5. The financial level: creating a mechanism that will guarantee transparency in all matters relating to the government’s use of funds transferred to the Authority. The appointment of Salam Fayyad, who was one of the driving forces behind financial reform in the PA, as the designated minister of finance may ensure realization of this condition.

6. Actual progress towards meeting the three fundamental conditions of the International Quartet.

Progress on these levels, based on time frameworks to be determined in advance (for example, a few weeks each) will lead to the realization of positive measures by Israel and the international community: channeling more generous financial resources, releasing prisoners, providing work permits in Israel, lifting roadblocks, regular operation of border crossings, and so on.

When the Palestinian unity government is established, it will undoubtedly be fragile. Even without Israeli political efforts to disrupt it, the very fact of a partnership between Hamas and Fatah, the tension between the two organizations, and the lack of clarity over the political direction of the new government are enough to end the Mecca agreement and topple the unity government.

On the other hand, it seems that a Palestinian unity government may be a catalyst for a range of processes with potential for positive change. Moreover, in the current state of affairs in the Palestinian arena – the weakness of Abu Mazen and Fatah and the rise of the Islamic movement headed by Hamas alongside the internal anarchy in the territories – a unity government is currently the only option for galvanizing the Israeli-Palestinian system towards a more positive direction. Against this backdrop, the Israeli government would do best to adopt a more active and proactive stance in the Palestinian arena and not leave the developing process to chance.

1. Al-Quds, February 9, 2007.
2. Education; "Awkaf"; labor; local government; sport and youth; justice; communications; economy; and a minister without portfolio; and it will nominate two independent ministers: minister of public works and a second minister without portfolio.
3. Health; social affairs; public works; transport; agriculture; and prisoners; and it will nominate an independent candidates, as minister of foreign affairs and another minister without portfolio.
4. Information; women; tourism; and culture.
5. Al-Quds, February 9, 2007.
6. This was made clear, for example, by the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit one day before Haniyeh and Abu Mazen were to sign an accord on a national unity government. This demonstrated a successful effort by the "outside" to thwart the unity process, which was spearheaded by Hamas "inside."


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