By Gong Shaopeng
In Palestine's Legislative Council elections on January 26 this year, Hamas took 76 seats of the total 132. A new cabinet with Ismail Haniyeh as the prime minister was assembled at the end of March. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headed by Mahmoud Abbas won only 43 seats and, therefore, became a party in the political wilderness.
Israel refused to turn over to Hamas the US$50-million tariff levied by Israel for Palestine and the United States and the European Union also suspended economic aid to Palestine because Hamas refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel's existence as a nation, refuses to commit itself to implementing the peace accords reached between the PLO and Israel, and refuses to make the commitment of giving up armed struggle.
Consequently, the Hamas cabinet soon found itself mired in serious financial troubles. Unable to get paid in time, thousands upon thousands of civil servants and security troops, most of whom are Fatah members, staged demonstrations.
Leaders of Fatah and Hamas, who were jailed in Israeli prisons, reached an 18-point agreement on May 11.
The agreement suggested that Hamas and Jihad be incorporated into the PLO to reinforce the unity among Palestinian factions; that a national solidarity government be established to consolidate the Palestinian Authority; that the security forces be re-organized to take in part of the Hamas and Jihad armed forces and use of arms and resorting to violence be banned in internal conflicts. And that it is up to Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, to conduct peace negotiations with Israel so that the goals of founding a Palestinian state and enabling Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland eventually can be achieved.
Thanks to this agreement reached in jails, establishment of a national solidarity government became the agenda, which was accepted by both Hamas and Fatah in August.
The negotiations on setting up a national solidarity government, however, have been caught in an impasse and a clearly defined framework is not yet in sight.
A number of factors explain this.
First, here comes the question: Who should head this solidarity government?
It sounds plausible that Haniyeh, whose Hamas won the majority in the Legislative Council elections, take the post of prime minister and a number of Fatah people be included in the cabinet. This offers an easy way to bring about a national solidarity government.
But there is another side of the coin. Taking into account that Haniyeh insists on the "three-refusal policy," a solidarity government built up in such a way would not be able to overcome the financial straits now confronting Palestine.
As a matter of fact, no agreement has yet been reached between Hamas and Fatah, despite rounds of negotiations.
Things did not take a turn for the better until November 10, when Haniyeh stated that he would choose seeking to lift the economic blockade over becoming the prime minister.
The next day, Abbas announced that a coalition government was to be formed before November was out. It is widely believed that the cabinet-to-be would be one dominated by technocrats. The names of the candidates for the premiership appeared in the newspapers. At the fore was Mohamed Shubair, who, a holder of an American doctoral degree, was the president of the Islamic University of Gaza for 15 years.
The 60-year-old Shubair was close to the late PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and knows the current PLO Chairman Abbas well. Though he is not a Hamas member, he must have close connections to Haniyeh, who long headed the office of the president of the Islamic University of Gaza.
However, many Palestinian politicians are opposed to having a technocrat cabinet. Fatah Chairman Farouk Kadoumy, for one, argued that the crux of resolving the financial crisis lies in absorbing Hamas and Jihad into the PLO. Mohamoud Zahar, foreign minister of the Haniyeh cabinet, made it crystal clear that Hamas would never accept a technocrat cabinet.
Second, the problem of power sharing between the PLO and Hamas is not expected to be resolved even if Shubair were really made prime minister. To which fractions the portfolios of the finance minister and internal affairs minister will go poses a particularly thorny question.
Over a long period, countries have been remitting their aid to Palestine into the accounts of the PLO, even after the formation of the Palestinian Authority, because the PLO means the Palestinian Authority in their eyes.
Now that the PLO is in the political wilderness, the Hamas cabinet not only hopes that the aid from outside will be remitted to Hamas accounts but also urges the PLO to transfer the money already in the PLO accounts to Hamas.
In addition, the post of the internal affairs minister is also vitally important to Hamas, knowingly or unknowingly dictated by the principle that "power grows out of the barrel of the gun." Naturally Hamas wants very much to occupy the internal affairs portfolio in the future technocrat cabinet and turn its own armed forces into legitimate security troops.
However, the two posts are also of paramount importance to Abbas. Without money, Abbas would be unable to maintain the Palestinian security forces with Fatah members as the backbone. And if he lost control over the security forces, Abbas would lose all his power and, in the worse scenario, his life. No wonder, Abbas made it clear that he, as the Palestinian president, was the supreme commander of the security forces and enjoyed ultimate power over the actions of this contingent.
In view of all this, the negotiations on the two key posts will drag on.
Finally, installation of a coalition government requires a favorable exterior climate. But the current relations between Palestine and Israel are fraught with uncertainties, though the armed conflicts are showing signs of easing up.
On the evening of November 23, Haniyeh and Jihad reached a consensus with Fatah that military operations in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank be halted and a limited truce put in place, stopping firing of rockets at Israeli targets, effective from 6 PM, November 25.
Israel accepted this offer after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert talked with Abbas over the phone at midnight on November 25. At virtually the same time, however, Khaled Mashaal, a hard-line Hamas leader living in Lebanon, fired the warning shots, saying he would launch a third intifada if Israel fails to complete the negotiations with the Palestinians on the founding of the Palestinian state in six months.
All in all, the talks on organizing a Palestinian coalition government are a process in which various contradictions are interwoven with each other and conflicting interests are tangled together.
(China Daily November 29, 2006)