Hani al-Masri
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
February 13, 2012 - 1:00am

The signing of last May's reconciliation agreement would likely not have been possible without the shifting of various Arab, regional and international factors that were hampering reconciliation. The fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was committed to Israeli and United States conditions on Palestinian reconciliation for fear of strengthening Hamas' ally, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (the main threat to his rule), as well as the active opposition in Syria have positively influenced efforts to end Palestinian division and restore unity.

The Doha declaration should be seen in this context, i.e., in view of regional variables such as events in Egypt and the struggle in Syria, where the future remains unclear and could see civil war, sectarianism and partition, the reaching of a compromise, or the fall of the regime.

The obvious relationship of the Doha declaration to the conflict in Syria is that Qatar is leading Arab and international efforts to pressure the Syrian regime. Qatar sponsored the Doha talks and eclipsed Egypt in its long support of Palestinian dialogue that successfully culminated in the signing of the Egyptian paper on May 4 last year. The only way to understand the Doha declaration is that it is part of Arab and international efforts to resolve the situation in Syria, drawing Hamas away from the rejectionist axis--Iran in particular--and including it in the axis of moderation.

The declaration includes Hamas head Khaled Meshaal's agreement that President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) lead an interim government of national reconciliation, a change from the previous Egyptian paper that provides for the formation of a government of independent technocrats. If the dispute inside Hamas that resulted from the agreement is resolved, then Abu Mazen, who is accepted by the Arabs, the international community and Israel and who declares day and night his commitment to bilateral negotiations and by inference the Quartet conditions, will head the next government.

Supposedly, opponents of the Doha declaration in Hamas are bothered most by this decision because it defies the Palestinian Basic Law (which, we might add, is already being ignored on every front). This problem can be resolved easily, however, by calling the legislature into session and changing the terms of the Basic Law to allow for the joining of the posts of Palestinian Authority president and prime minister. The supreme national interest should be more important than laws that have already been discarded by the factional division of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But this means that the head of Fateh, Hamas' rival for the leadership of Palestinian people, would lead a government of reconciliation. It is clear that the dispute within Hamas is not over giving a green light to the Palestine Liberation Organization's political program, but rather over Abu Mazen's continued leadership at this time of Islamist political ascendency in the region. Hamas does not want to pay dearly for reconciliation, as it did after its success in the 2006 elections, and would rather invest in breaking the Arab and international boycott against it and gaining the legitimacy that would qualify it to lead the Palestinian people at a later stage.

Disagreements within Hamas are not really over the political program, but rather over the special circumstances and needs of the leadership inside the occupied territories and in exile, between the West Bank and Gaza, and competition between various individuals and how they impact the leadership and its decisions. Based on this, we note how the controversy over the Doha declaration has focused ultimately on legal issues, and not on politics, despite Hamas' stubborn opposition to the PLO's political program since the Islamist movement's inception. The dispute is really over access to leadership and the importance of retaining what Hamas has gained in Gaza, which is why Khaled Meshaal was "grabbed by the ear" by the Gaza leadership for signing the Doha declaration without prior consultation with the movement's institutions.

The installment of Abu Mazen at the head of the government is not the only divergence from the Egyptian paper, however.

The failure to set a date for presidential and legislative elections, which had been agreed on for May this year, means that this issue is left open. Its resolution appears to be linked to developments in the Arab world and the region, especially the outcome of the struggle over Syria and the prospects for a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. This, even though everyone knows that the latter track will see no breakthrough, especially this year. Moreover, Israel's Yitzhak Molcho told negotiator Saeb Erekat that the Israeli government will not allow elections to be held that might threaten its security.

It is also remarkable that the Doha declaration replaces the previous agreement that elections for the PLO's parliament, the Palestinian National Council, would be held simultaneously with the presidential and legislative elections. Now, the PNC is to be "restructured". This seems to be a sign that the leaders are prepared to abandon the reference of the Palestinian people, and respond instead to the international community and Israel, which will not allow elections to the PNC, and (as we noted above) will find it difficult to agree to elections that it will not benefit from.

It is dangerous, therefore, to combine the posts of president and prime minister, in addition to all the other positions assumed by Abbas, as this will monopolize all powers in the hands of one person, in the season of the "Arab spring" and its democratic transformations. This is especially true given the signs that the breeze is not blowing as Palestinians wish and that elections might not be held soon, but instead far in the future.

The differences within Hamas over the Doha declaration appear to have receded and might end with a change in roles that guarantees certain parties only need give up their control of Gaza after ensuring full participation in power and the organization. That there is this movement in Hamas reflects Arab, regional and international variables and the rise of political Islam in more than one Arab country. Hamas feels the need to change from being an ideological resistance organization that does not believe in pluralism to a pluralistic organization able to manage disputes internally and within a national public framework, transforming its governance as others are throughout the region.

The question that remains is not for Palestinians, including Hamas, but for Israel. Will it respond with moderation to the Palestinian collective and allow progress that can lead to a resumption of negotiations and a resolution? Or will it continue its intransigence and extremism and add the moderation of Hamas to its numerous demands for more Palestinian concessions, including the resumption of negotiations under Israeli conditions, a state with provisional borders, and Israel as a Jewish state. This is the most probable scenario. What, we ask, will be more likely than this to increase the nagging need to crystallize a Palestinian strategy able to frustrate Israel's project of fragmenting the path towards achieving Palestinian goals?


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