The resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad did not come as a surprise to anyone in Palestine. The resignation was timed with the start of the national reconciliation dialogue in Cairo that, among other things, seeks to agree on a national unity government to replace the current one.
By resigning in advance of this dialogue, Fayyad has put himself in a win-win position: if the dialogue succeeds he will be among those who contributed by paving the way for the new government; if the talks fail, then President Mahmoud Abbas will have to come back to him to form a new government. This will enable him to improve his terms, especially as far concerns the ongoing pressure from Fatah, resulting from the movement being left out of Fayyad’s current government.
At the same time, however, Fayyad’s resignation reveals the depth of the Palestinian political crisis, and the Cairo reconciliation dialogue illustrates how difficult this crisis will be to resolve.
The detailed and frank discussions of the four working committees in Cairo, which include representatives of all factions, have until now succeeded mainly in enabling the parties and the Egyptians to identify areas of agreement and disagreement.
The parties have disagreed strongly on the nature of a new unity government and its political program. While Fatah wants a non-factional cabinet and prime minister, Hamas insists on repeating, more or less, the experience of the 2007 national unity government. This government included representatives of the different factions including Fatah and Hamas, in addition to independent personalities. But that government failed to comply with international requirements or even be consistent with international legality or the Arab initiative.
The discussions in Cairo, which are the first direct exchanges of views on disputed issues between the factions since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, show that it will be difficult for Palestinian factions to reconcile without changes in the surrounding political environment. There are five underlying obstacles.
One is the fact that Hamas has been running two other negotiation processes at the same time: one on an exchange of prisoners and another on a ceasefire, both with Israel. Hamas appears to want to finish these processes before there is intra-Palestinian agreement. The Islamist movement believes that declaring and implementing a deal for a prisoner exchange and a ceasefire that includes the opening of crossings into Gaza will further improve its bargaining position vis-à-vis other factions. That’s why the talks have witnessed certain delaying tactics.
Another obstacle results from the very large difference in the realities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The fact that the West Bank is essentially under Israeli security control reduces any incentive for Hamas to strike a deal that will allow Fatah to share security control in Gaza, since there will be no quid pro quo in the West Bank. Moreover, Hamas has little interest in weakening its control over Gaza for as long as it still has no ceasefire agreement with Israel.
The third underlying obstacle is the continued failure of the peace process and the victory of the right wing in Israeli elections. This will further reinforce the radical argument in Palestinian society and weaken the argument of moderates who will have nothing to promise their publics from any future political process. Thus Hamas believes that time is in its favor.
A fourth obstacle emanates from the regional environment. Although Arab-Arab reconciliation has reflected positively on domestic Palestinian politics, especially the change in political attitudes in Damascus and Doha, Iran is still a source of financial and political support for Hamas. And nothing has yet changed with regards to this Iranian role. It will take serious progress in the American-Iranian struggle for hegemony in the region before we can expect any positive role from Iran on internal Palestinian reconciliation.
Finally, the geographic separation, exacerbated by Israeli closures and intransigence, between Gaza and the West Bank is also a major obstacle to unity since the separation allows the two areas more easily to develop independently of each other. This no doubts suits Israel’s short-term interests, but poses a significant obstacle in the way of cultivating mutual interests between the two areas of occupied Palestinian territory.
These five underlying obstacles will continue to hinder potential reconciliation. They allow for very little hope that the Cairo process will succeed. This will most probably cause Abbas to ask Fayyad to form another government that will control only the West Bank. Such a scenario will further deepen divisions in Palestinian politics and may cause tensions between the two rival factions to further rise, bringing with them the threat of renewed confrontations.
Ghassan Khatibis coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.