You can skip ten episodes without losing the plot, so monotonous have the endless meetings between Fateh and Hamas become. Yet suddenly, and without prior meetings between the two warring factions, or even between himself and Hamas' Politburo Chief Khalid Mish’al, President Abbas announced last week that he began consultations on forming a new government.
The announcement caught Hamas off guard, its leaders split between some who considered Abbas' step to be unilateral and others who welcomed it cautiously, insisting on the implementation of all the terms of the Cairo agreement in parallel rather than piecemeal. Palestinian opinion meanwhile was skeptical, not believing that the long nightmare is about to end.
By making his announcement (which came after the lapse of the period in which the president must constitutionally ask a politician to form a government), Abbas sent out several messages.
The first was directed to those eager to replace outgoing PM Salam Fayyad as prime minister. There are those within Fateh jockeying to fill the empty position, hoping to use it as a launch pad for the presidency, in addition to independents. Several names have been mentioned as possible candidates, including Mohammad Mustafa, Rami Abdullah, Ziad abu-Amr, Nabil Qassis, Munib al-Masri, and, of course, Fayyad himself.
By announcing that consultations have begun to form a new government, Abbas effectively prevented the Obama administration from vetoing the next prime minister (unless it was Abbas himself). Washington is extremely skeptical of a Fateh politician leading the next government, fearing financial mismanagement. Congress meanwhile still trusts Fayyad more than any other potential candidate.
The second message was directed at the Obama administration - Secretary of State John Kerry in particular – saying that the Abbas was determined to form a government despite American objections should Kerry's efforts to restart peace talks fail. In fact, these efforts are bound to fail, since he has not made any progress so far on the political front (freezing settlements, persuading Israeli to commit to a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967, and releasing Palestinian prisoners, especially those incarcerated since before Oslo), and has concentrated instead on economic issues in an attempt to prove that his efforts are still alive. Abbas is trying to lean on Kerry in order to get him to pressure Israel. But this attempt will is unlikely to be successful.
Abbas' third message was meant for Hamas. By making his announcement in public, he put the Islamist movement in a tight spot. Should Hamas reject Abbas' move, then its commitment to reconciliation would be questioned, since it refuses to implement what has already been agreed. If it accepts Abbas' step on the other hand, it would forego all other outstanding issues, such as the timetable for holding presidential and legislative elections. Hamas wants the election date postponed until conditions are right for holding free and fair elections. This would have to include releasing all [Hamas] prisoners and stopping political detentions. Hamas also wants to ensure that it can exercise power if it wins, since the Israelis refuse to countenance a Hamas administration in the West Bank that rejects the unjust conditions of the International Quartet.
Other points of difference are setting the date for Palestinian National Council elections, what the relationship between the [PLO’s] PNC (Palestine National Council) and the [PA’s] PLC (Palestinian Legislative Council) should be like, completing talks on outstanding issues in the election law, forming an interim leadership, merging security forces, and agreeing on a political program.
Here are some scenarios of what could happen after consultations on forming a new government begin.
--The consultation period could drag on for longer than the mandated timeframe of the caretaker government (while waiting for the results of Kerry's efforts, the outcome of the Arab Spring, especially as far as Egypt and Syria are concerned, and what is going to happen with Iran). This scenario is extremely likely, especially as any change in government would exacerbate the dilemma of the PA, which has already lost its political and legal legitimacy and is suffering from a severe financial crisis.
--Consultations could fail for a number of reasons, such as ministerial posts, disagreements about the election date, or lack of consensus about the timing of PLC and PNC elections. This could be the outcome if Kerry's efforts make progress. Should this scenario become reality, rivalry over the post of prime minister will return, whether the next PM should come from Fateh, or whether he should be an independent, or whether Fayyad should be reappointed. Abbas could form a unity government without Hamas' approval, set a date for elections, and then invite Hamas to take part in the government. Hamas would most likely refuse, which would further exacerbate the spilt. Alternatively, Abbas could form a government in the West Bank under his leadership or under that of an independent or a Fateh apparatchik.
--Abbas could succeed in forming a government, announcing that it is his government with his political program in order to make it palatable to the Americans, Israelis, and the international community. Hamas could agree to such an arrangement because the government would be transitional.
Should such a government survive Hamas' objections, it would still have to deal with a number of serious obstacles:
(a) How to merge ministries, departments, and security forces, and how to cope with the added financial burdens of adding tens of thousands of Hamas employees to its payroll, not to mention reemploying sacked employees. This major problem could well cause the government to collapse. Alternatively, if the government decides to put off dealing with this issue, the situation would remain the same, i.e. the split would continue despite the existence of a single government.
(b) How to deal with the issue of peace talks, whether to go forward with efforts to gain UN membership, and how to deal with the question of resistance – especially as Israel has threatened to launch an even more extensive onslaught on Gaza.
For all these reasons, it is clear that forming a government of national unity before agreeing on a political program that stresses common grounds would be a dangerous enterprise. Such a government would be liable to fall at the first obstacle.
Unless the Palestinians draw lessons from their experiences, unless they are prepared to follow a new and different path, and unless all parties are prepared to uphold the national interest at the expense of their own factional interests, national unity will prove to be impossible.