Palestinian Affairs: Two heads are better than one?

A dispute between Haniyeh and Abbas underscores both men's attempts to portray themselves as the legitimate leaders of the PA.

Abbas Haniyeh 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Abbas Haniyeh 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The Palestinians, the only one people in the world with two separate governments, may soon also find themselves with two presidents. Mahmoud Abbas's four-year term in office is expected to expire in January, but the Palestinian Authority president and his aides argue that the PA's Basic Law, the forerunner for a constitution, allows him to stay in his job for an additional year. Hamas, on the other hand, maintains that Abbas must leave office by the end of January. The movement says that the deputy speaker of the parliament, Ahmed Bahar, who is a top Hamas official, will then serve as interim president for 60 days, during which time he will call new elections. Abbas was elected in the January 2005 presidential election that was held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the death of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. Exactly one year later, Hamas won in the first parliamentary election in the post-Arafat era. According to the PA's Basic Law, the parliament too is elected to a four-year term. Before the parliamentary elections in January 2006, the Fatah-dominated parliament passed a law stipulating that future presidential and parliamentary elections be held simultaneously. But the new Hamas-controlled government never amended the Basic Law to include this bill. That's why Fatah is now arguing that Abbas is entitled to stay in power until January 2010. Although Abbas has in recent months repeatedly threatened to resign, it became evident over the past few weeks that he's not only planning to stay until January 2010, but that he also has plans to run in the next presidential election. According to a senior PA official in Ramallah, Abbas "sees no reason why he should not seek another term as president." The official pointed out that the 73-year-old remains in good health and is capable of leading Fatah to victory in the next election. Abbas's visit to Damascus this week is seen by PA officials in the context of his efforts to win backing for his desire to stay in power beyond January 2009. With the exception of Hamas, the PA president held talks with leaders of almost all the Damascus-based Palestinian groups and sought their support for his plans. Abbas knows that in January Hamas will openly challenge his right to stay in office and will do almost anything to depict him as an "illegitimate" president. Abbas went to the Syrian capital carrying a fatwa issued by legal experts who support his argument that his term expires in January 2010. Hamas said in response that the fatwa was issued by a committee whose members are all known to be affiliated with Fatah. "This fatwa is meaningless and carries no legal weight," said Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. "Abbas's term ends next January and there's no question about this." In a move that is clearly linked to the latest dispute between Hamas and Fatah over Abbas's term in office, the Islamic movement decided to transform the PA president's headquarters in Gaza City into a security installation for its members. Also this week, Hamas announced that it was planning to demolish the main headquarters of the former PA security forces in the Gaza City. The building previously served the Egyptians and Israelis when they were in control of the Gaza Strip. Its planned demolition is seen as an attempt by Hamas to eliminate all signs of Abbas's former regime. In other words, Hamas is saying that the Gaza Strip will never be the same as it was before the movement took full control of the area in June 2007. Hamas is actually telling Abbas that even if he returns to the Gaza Strip one day, he won't even find an office or a security base to stay in. The Hamas moves have been interpreted by Abbas's aides as a message of warning that Hamas would not recognize his status as president after January. Until now, Hamas has never challenged Abbas's position as the elected president of the PA. Abbas's plans are also likely to alienate many members of his own Fatah party, especially those who belong to the "young guard." These members have long been hoping that January would mark the end of the "hegemony" of the Fatah "old guard" regime over Palestinian affairs. "If Abbas decides to extend his term or run in a new election, it would be a disaster," said a Fatah leader representing the young guard. He said that when Fatah lost the parliamentary election in 2006, "it was because the Palestinians were sick and tired of seeing the same old faces again and again." Hamas representatives say they would like to see Abbas disappear from the political scene at the same time as US President George W. Bush walks out of the White House. For Hamas, there is something symbolic about the simultaneous departure of two of the movement's sworn enemies. Even if Abbas manages to hold onto power after January, it's obvious that the political turmoil on the Palestinian arena will escalate. Not only will tensions between Hamas and Fatah escalate, but Fatah will most likely witness an intifada by the young guard against Abbas and his cohorts.