Detente in Doha?

The composition of the Palestinian unity government is supposed to be announced on February 18, following discussions between all parties.

PA President Abbas meets Hamas chief Mashaal in Qatar 390 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Thaer Ghanaim/PPO/Handout)
PA President Abbas meets Hamas chief Mashaal in Qatar 390 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Thaer Ghanaim/PPO/Handout)
Recently Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal affixed their signatures to a document naming Abbas head of the future joint transitional Palestinian government.
The move was intended to do away with the obstacles which had prevented the implementation of the Cairo accord, concluded in May last year. The accord was to cement the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. The problem is that both agreements are incompatible with the nature and objectives of the two movements.
Ever since Hamas won the 2006 general Palestinian elections, these two groups have not been able to find a common ground in spite of a succession of agreements accompanied by solemn declarations on the need for unity.
The Fatah movement, established in 1965, holds a comfortable margin of control in all Palestinian institutions and is dominant in the Palestine Liberation Organization, recognized by all Arab states as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
However, Abbas, who is also chairman of the PLO, is finding it harder and harder to fight Hamas encroachments.
Hamas, for its part, dreams of taking over the Palestinian Authority before implementing its main objective: destroying the State of Israel and establishing an Islamic regime on the ruins of what it calls “the Zionist entity.” Its military takeover of Gaza in 2007 and the expulsion of the representatives of Fatah and of the Palestinian Authority was a first step.
The organization then launched a clandestine operation in the West Bank with a view to set up local cells. Now it hopes to win the next elections to the parliament and to the presidency, which has led it to tone down its attacks and wait to get the upper hand through the electoral process.
The Cairo accord was silent on two key issues: relations with Israel, and the return of Gaza and the placement of its Hamas security forces under the authority of the central government in Ramallah. Likewise, the Doha document has nothing to say on these subjects and will not lead to Palestinian unity or to negotiations with Israel.
Gaza remains a separate entity. Israel will not enter negotiations with a Palestinian government containing an organization which proclaims openly its intention to destroy it.
Theoretically the Doha document does offer a solution to the problem which had blocked the implementation of the Cairo accord. Abbas wanted Salam Fayyad, who has done wonders for the economy and is popular among Western countries which donate huge sums of money to the Palestinian authority, to lead the joint government.
Hamas objected strenuously, since Fayyad had been instrumental in fighting its clandestine attempts to infiltrate the West Bank. Abbas is now supposed to lead the temporary joint government until the elections, which shall be postponed, probably until the end of the year.
According to the agreement the PLO will be changed in a way which will make it possible for Hamas delegates to be part of its leadership; it is however doubtful that this can be done before the elections to the Palestinian National Convention. That suits Fatah well enough, since it is not really keen to see its arch-enemy entering its stronghold.
Not that Hamas is wholeheartedly behind the agreement either. According to Palestinian media, Hamas leaders in Gaza – who were not present in Doha – oppose the deal, which would make the president of the Palestinian Authority, who already heads Fatah and the PLO, the head of the new government – thus giving him extraordinary powers. They claim that the nomination of Abbas as head of government would violate the Fundamental Law of the Palestinian Authority. Which is true enough, but Hamas’s rule in Gaza is a greater violation of that law. On the other hand.
Abbas’ mandate as president expired in January 2009 but, having lost control of Gaza, he prudently postponed the elections. The parliament’s mandate expired in February 2010 and elections have been postponed because of the conflict between Ramallah and Gaza.
How then to explain why Fatah and Hamas signed at Doha? Hamas in Gaza is satisfied with an agreement which leaves it in charge of the Gaza Strip and of its security forces while letting it infiltrate the PLO and help it take over the West Bank. It did not bother trying to hide its real objective, and Ismail Haniyeh, who heads the Hamas regime in Gaza, hastened to pay a visit to Tehran where he reiterated his intent to destroy Israel.
What does Abbas gain? It is not clear.
It could be that he hopes that the European Union and perhaps the United States will accept the fiction that a true Palestinian unity is being achieved and will put pressure on Israel to make concessions.
So far reactions have been muted. The European Union in Brussels declared that it was a purely Palestinian affair, but added that the EU saw in the agreement an important step toward the creation of a Palestinian State. A US State Department spokesman also said that it was an internal affair, but added that the American administration expected that any Palestinian government would respect first and foremost the recognition of Israel.
Technically, the American government cannot transfer assistance to Hamas, which is a terrorist organization, and it is hard to see how Abbas can circumvent this problem. One possible explanation is that the Palestinian leader was unable to withstand the pressure of the Emir of Qatar, whose prestige was as stake – and who is one of the biggest contributors to the Palestinian Authority.
The composition of the new government is supposed to be announced on February 18, following discussions between all parties. Abbas has already declared that he would not be a candidate for the presidency. This could be the end of the road for a leader who knows that he has failed to establish a Palestinian state by turning to the United Nations and bypassing Israel.
It has to be remembered that he had turned down the very fair proposals made by Ehud Olmert’s government: establishment of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital (As Ehud Barak had offered some years before) and an exchange of territories.
His refusal to compromise then and the hardening of his position in negotiating with the Netanyahu government may have put an end to all hopes of fruitful negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel in the foreseeable future.
He will leave his successor a poisonous legacy: the risk of financial ruin, a dubious agreement with Hamas which if implemented will deal a fatal blow to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority and no hope of a breakthrough with Israel and.
The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.