Leave the Tough Problems to the End

When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) talks about Hamas, his face slightly pales and his rhetoric heats up like molten rock. So it was in his recent address to the Palestinian National Council, when he announced his decision to hold general elections on June 24, 2010. Not an armed conflict, not street clashes, but general elections that would shore up his administration's legitimacy - which Hamas says expired almost a year ago.

If elections are held on the day Abbas decreed, the efforts to achieve an intra-Palestinian reconciliation would come to an end and the split between Fatah and Hamas would become permanent. In his declaration, Abu Mazen indeed tried to tell Hamas that it had better hurry up and sign the reconciliation agreement reached through Egyptian mediation. Hamas has not accepted this demand and if the two major Palestinian movements reach Election Day without having arrived at an agreement, there won't be elections in the Gaza Strip and Abbas will continue to rule over only 11 of the 16 PA districts. Such a move, in any case, will strengthen the legitimacy of Hamas' rule over Gaza.

Abbas' decision to hold elections has been condemned by Hamas. Its spokesmen this week leaked warnings that they intend to appoint the Palestinian Legislative Council's speaker, Aziz al-Dweik, as president instead of Abbas. According to the current laws, when a president's term of office expires and it is impossible to appoint another president in his place, the parliament's speaker stands in for him.

Egypt, Jordan and Syria also believe that such a unilateral move will not solve anything and that, moreover, it might saddle them with continued responsibility for Gaza, force Egypt to open the border crossings so it won't be accused (again) of strangling the Palestinians, and perpetuate a situation whereby the Palestinians have two states with two regimes requiring separate relations with each of them. This is also the reason why Egypt this week announced that it is not ceasing its efforts to procure a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, despite Hamas' refusal thusfar to sign a reconciliation agreement. A Hamas delegation will likely go to Cairo in the coming days for further discussions. The Egyptians have stated publicly that after the long and tedious months of negotiations, they do not intend to change the content of the document drafted very carefully - though it seems that Hamas, nevertheless, will win a few more concessions.

"One must remember that Abbas is known for making a decision first and regretting it later on," says a PA official close to the him. "Look at what happened with the Goldstone report and the [president's] unfortunate [initial] decision not to ask that it be brought to the United Nations Human Rights Council. In the past he was about to announce his resignation and retracted; he accepted Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's resignation and then changed his mind. And with regard to the elections, I would not hold my breath. We have no choice, we need reconciliation..." The same goes for the threat Abbas issued this week - not to run in the elections he himself has called.

It's important to examine what is contained in the Egyptian reconciliation agreement. According to that document, general elections are to be held at the end of June 2010. During the eight months until then, Fatah and Hamas should lay the groundwork for future cooperation, establish unified security systems, launch a campaign for Palestinian unity, cease reciprocal incitement, establish a committee to assess the damage that the split and violent struggle has caused the citizens, compensate those who've been hurt, and allow thousands of Gazan clerks and security personnel to return to the positions they'd held until their eviction during the June 2007 coup d'etat.

The most important element is, however, the planned change in the Palestinian Liberation Organization's structure. The PLO is still the Palestinian movement's umbrella organization, but the new PLO will no longer be the organization that signed an agreement with Israel. The structural changes are designed to provide Hamas with equitable representation in its institutions, commensurate with the support it has among the people. An examination of the Egyptian-proposed agreement shows that nowhere does it stipulate that Hamas, or the new PLO, must adopt past political decisions. Nor is the new organization required to recognize Israel or cease the violent struggle against it. Moreover, one clause reads: "The security apparatuses will respect the Palestinian people's right to resist and defend the nation and the citizen." What does this "resistance" mean? Is violence against Israel acceptable? And what does the word "respect" mean? Would the PA then refrain from reacting to militants' independent strikes?

Palestinian commentators say this clause is designed to calm Hamas, which claims the agreement annuls the right of resistance, provides for the security apparatuses' subordination to the PLC, and that the General Intelligence services will fall under the authority of the PA president. They point to another important clause that has not attracted public attention, which says "Whoever lives on the authority's land - citizens and foreigners - has a right to live securely regardless of race, color and religion."

This is a particularly interesting clause because it means that even the armed struggle against settlers is forbidden and that they would enjoy Palestinian protection if they decide to continue living in Palestinian territories. A far-reaching interpretation of this article shows that the Palestinian Authority would not oppose such a development. Abbas, one must remember, has already signed the agreement, which means he accepts these principles.

Hamas, however, does not endorse this clause and its criticism of the document is not limited to concerns regarding the armed struggle and opposition to Israel. (Israel, by the way, is never mentioned by name; the document says that whoever provides the enemy with information will be accused of grave treason, although it does not state who that enemy is.)

The agreement is very detailed when it comes to the construction of joint security apparatuses, the police and the military ("A national army whose aim is to defend against an external attack"), but does not delve into the policies of the government that would be established following the elections. There is no commitment that the future Palestinian government would uphold the refugees' right of return or set Jerusalem as the Palestinian state's capital.

The text follows a tactic similar to the one that guided the Oslo accords' signatories: Leave the tough problems to the end. Egypt has learned the lessons from past agreements signed by the factions, which soon crashed and burned: One was signed in Cairo in 2005, another in Mecca in 2007. The conclusion from these failures is that all-encompassing agreements become an impenetrable barrier.

One important element is missing throughout this entire set of agreements: Israel. Would it cooperate with a unified Palestinian government? Would it accept the establishment of a joint army made up of Hamas, Fatah and other organizations? And mainly, could it prevent Arab and international recognition of such a government if it is established? In 2006, Israel could count on an anti-Hamas international coalition. Today, with its weak standing, it seems many states would gladly set up representation with the new Palestinian government.