: “To know whether the recent meeting on revitalizing the PLO was a success or otherwise, we need to know where we were before and where we are now,” writes leading Palestinian commentator Hani al-Masri on the independent Palestinian website www.masarat.ps
Before the meeting was convened, agreement was reached about a timetable for passing a law on elections for the Palestinian National Council (PNC) voter registration, forming a government (by the end of last month), and activation of the committees on freedoms and societal reconciliation. There was optimism that the meeting would succeed, at least as far as the formation of a new government and setting a date for elections were concerned.
Yet the meeting ended without agreement on any of the issues discussed. Disagreements continued on the election law, what relationship the PNC should have with the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the Palestinian parliament, constituency boundaries (in the PNC elections), and what relationship should there be between the election commissions for the PLC and PNC elections.
The crucial issues of agreeing on dates for forming a new government and holding elections were put off until the end of March, mainly because of President Abbas' insistence that the new government would only survive for three months – a condition rejected by Hamas, which demanded that a government should be formed first that would prepare for holding elections.
In the light of these results, it could be said that the meeting failed spectacularly. No statements about progress being made can change that. Such statements only revealed the need of both parties to be seen to be pursuing the 'process of reconciliation.' But a reconciliation process is one thing, actually achieving reconciliation (ending the split, restoring national unity, and genuine partnership) is something else altogether. It is obvious that these goals are beyond reach, so long as the parties with interests in the perpetuation of the split still allow those interests to take precedence over the national interest.
Both Fateh and Hamas want to be seen to be taking part in a 'reconciliation process,' so as not to bear responsibility before the Palestinian people for the continuation of the split, and for each to try to fulfil their tactical goals; Fateh by gaining the backing of all other factions for its political program and its leadership of the PA and PLO, and Hamas by using the reconciliation as a means to gain Arab and international recognition and legitimacy.
Even if the meeting had succeeded in forming a government and setting a date for elections, the government would have been one formed from above, unable to deal with most outstanding issues. In short, it would be able to manage the split rather than end it. Managing the split is by no means the best that can be achieved, quite the contrary, because it papers over the split and helps perpetuate it and even make it worse.
Hamas held President Abbas responsible for the failure (or the 'limited progress that did not rise to the aspirations of our people,' as several participants put it). American objection to reconciliation was blamed, as was Abbas' gamble on President Obama's upcoming visit to the region, which is due to take place in late March (to coincide with the deadline for the formation of a government and setting an election date).
For its part, Fateh blamed Hamas for the meeting's failure, citing differences within the Hamas leadership, the movement's determination to maintain its grip on Gaza, and its reluctance to have the people decide through elections. Hamas would only agree to hold elections if its victory is guaranteed. Moreover, it wants to ensure that such a victory could not be overturned, as happened in the last election.
It would be wrong – if not plain ignorant – to discount the influence of external factors (Israel, the U.S. the International Quartet, and influential regional actors). Israel, as the occupying power, can control the process of forming a new government as well as its efficacy when formed. Israel can also decide whether elections are held at all, when they are held, and whether the results are upheld. The Israelis also control security. In other words, Israel is a major player without whose compliance reconciliation is impossible to achieve.
The Israelis would never allow reconciliation to proceed without the parties first committing themselves to agreements signed in the past – i.e. without reconciliation being part of a political process that benefits Israel, whether by coming in tandem with an agreement to resume peace talks according to its conditions, or that reconciliation becomes a springboard for holding elections without national consensus being reached on points of reference, objectives, and what path the struggle should take. This would be a leap into darkness, which would only institutionalize the split – just as the last election hastened its occurrence.
Holding elections is not an objective per se, nor is it a magic wand that could end the split. Holding elections is not the 'key to reconciliation.' In fact, holding elections without first restoring unity, achieving national consensus on 'the foundations of the higher national interest,' and without changing the political course that the Palestinians embarked upon in Oslo, would only mean a continuation of the vicious circle they have been trapped in since the beginning of the so-called 'peace process' – a circle that only resulted in intensifying the occupation, expanding settlements, fragmenting the homeland, marginalizing the cause, and undermining unity.
As a matter of fact, the influence exercised by external factors is very clear. Both Fateh and Hamas – with the support and blessing of other factions and independent politicians – submitted to that influence, otherwise they would not have agreed to continue on the same failed political path.
The fact that they agreed to form a government of independents – not a government of national unity with independent participation – under Abbas (although he also heads the PLO, the PA, and the state) means that the parties submitted to the diktats of the International Quartet in an attempt to avoid international sanctions and an Israeli veto on Hamas' participation.
This proves that reconciliation is not possible unless it were part of a package that also includes reviving the peace process and resuming negotiations with Israel. In this context, postponing the formation of a new government and setting a date for elections until after President Obama's visit could only be understood as a delusional belief that the Obama administration would pressure Israel. Forming a new Palestinian government now on the eve of Obama's visit could be seen by the White House as a negative step designed to undermine the President's visit.
Should Obama succeed in kick-starting peace talks, Palestinian reconciliation could then be used to lend legitimacy to the revived peace process, especially as Hamas is seeking Arab and international legitimacy and recognition, and needs to become part of the PLO and PA in order to achieve that. Should Obama's visit fail, the issue of forming a new government would lose much of its importance.
It is also true that Abbas and Fateh fear that forming a new government without setting a close date for elections could lead to the government remaining in power indefinitely – which would mean in turn that the Prime Minister (Abbas) would shoulder responsibility indefinitely without having authority over Gaza. It was because of these fears that the important issues of formulating a new political program, the security file, and reforming the PLO under an interim leadership until PNC elections are held, were put off. The same goes for the parties' failure to agree on how to deal with armed resistance brigades, the return of dismissed employees to their jobs, and on how to hold PNC elections.
While Hamas is right to fear the formation of a new government and the postponement of elections with no guarantees that they would be free and fair or that their results would be upheld, Fateh is also right to fear the scenario of forming a government and indefinite postponement of elections. Yet neither is right to put off the restoration of national unity because of their banking either on the Arab spring and the rise of political Islam (Hamas) or on the success of efforts designed to resume peace talks with Israel (Fateh).
What this means is that Hamas wants unity on its own terms, unity that enables it to participate first and take over later. It also means that Fateh wants to maintain its hold over the PLO and PA. True unity can only come about as a response to the higher national interest, and not to the interests of this or that faction.
“And it cannot be thus unless it were part of a process that includes redemption of the national project, revival of the Palestinian cause, and rebuilding inclusive institutions and leadership – a leadership that represents the entire Palestinian people wherever they happen to live, and one that does not marginalize the Palestinian cause by dealing with it as one solely concerned with setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, while ignoring its other dimensions as a cause of national liberation that cannot be fulfilled other than by enabling the Palestinian people to exercise their rights of freedom, independence, self-determination, return, equality, and dignity”, concludes Masri.