A Shaky Unity Government

What could topple the Palestinian government within a short time is a different issue: the negotiations between Fatah and Hamas on participation in the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The meetings between Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal that took place this past weekend in Cairo engendered soothing statements. Accompanied by their advisors and enjoying Egyptian sponsorship, the two agreed on coordination of their positions and the establishment of a committee to examine the partnership between them. General statements of this sort are typical of meetings at which nothing is achieved.

And indeed, despite the Mecca agreement and despite their partnership in the national unity government, the Fatah movement under the leadership of Abu Mazen and Hamas under Meshal rarely agree about anything at all: not about the diplomatic approach ("At Mecca we agreed to honor the previous agreements, but we did not explicitly agree to accept them," was the cunning formulation of the former foreign minister on behalf of Hamas, Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar, who is now leading the more extreme line in the movement); not about the distribution of funds, which are not yet flowing in as expected; and not about how to delegate authority on security issues. In this context Palestinian Interior Minister Hani Al-Qawasmi tendered his resignation (which was not accepted) and argued that Abu Mazen had in effect granted security control in the PA to Rashid Abu Shabak - a loyal supporter of Mohammed Dahlan in the Gaza Strip.

Abu Mazen's status is very shaky. Azzam al-Ahmed, the deputy prime minister on behalf of the Fatah, who is supposed to defend Abu Mazen, ridiculed him publicly for his worthless meetings with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Also, last week after Abu Mazen called for a renewal of the cease-fire because of the firing of Qassams after the killing of nine Palestinians, throughout the territories people were joking that the chairman had become the spokesman for the United Nations instead of acting like a true Palestinian leader - that is, instead of threatening and sharply condemning Israel.

Within the Hamas, too, the rift between the moderate stream, which supports the unity government, and the extremists headed by people affiliated with the movement's military wing, is growing wider. But what could topple the Palestinian unity government within a short time is a different issue: the negotiations between Fatah and Hamas on participation in the Palestine Liberation Organization. All of the Palestinian commentators agree that there is no chance that the sides will succeed in reaching a compromise on this issue.

The PLO is the organization that represents the entire Palestinian people (as opposed to the government of the PA, which represents only the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza): On its behalf Abu Mazen is supposed to reach agreements with Israel, and it is the PLO institutions that are supposed to ratify them. Hamas is not represented in the PLO, which has become an antiquated body in which there is considerable representation, for example, of the Marxist leftist fronts.

The most important body in the PLO is the Palestinian National Council (PNC), a kind of parliament in which there are hundreds of representatives from the entire Palestinian diaspora. Most of them were never elected, but rather were designated according to a key criterion agreed upon among the organizations. The second most important body is the PLO steering committee. In the Mecca agreement, and even prior to it, it was agreed between Fatah and Hamas that a reform would be carried out in the PLO in order to bring Hamas into it. The problem, of course, is the weight that Hamas representatives will have in the PLO institutions, in light of the fact that Fatah does not want to relinquish its control of the organization.

All of this very much affects Israeli policy, because a failure of the negotiations could easily topple the Palestinian unity government in the very near future. Hamas spokesmen know this, and for some time now they have been publicizing reports concerning the preparations that Fatah is making for renewing the bloody battles between the organizations. Insofar as is known, Dahlan is getting a lot of money from the United States and is training thousands of recruits. Will he succeed in defeating Hamas? This is doubtful. It is more likely that the fall of the unity government will lead to the general collapse of the PA, and then there will be no avoiding Israeli intervention.