The Palestinian unity government has finally been assembled, and with it comes an interesting set of opportunities.
I have to admit I was mistaken a year ago. I was quite convinced that the Hamas government would not be able to sustain itself against the massive opposition it faced. With the EU, UN, and most of the Arab world joining Israel and the US in boycotting the Hamas government, and with Fatah working hard to both confront Hamas on the ground and undermine them in the government, I believed and predicted that the Hamas government would not survive the summer.
In fact, they did, and the unity government just assembled marks a major victory for them. Immediately after their election last year, Hamas called for a unity government with Fatah, an offer Fatah considered and refused. Fatah’s acceptance of it now shows they have given up trying to regain power by undermining Hamas or confronting it militarily, at least for the time being.
Fatah missed a golden opportunity in the past year. They had a real chance to position themselves to take control of the Palestinian government in the next elections, if only they would have actually addressed the issues of corruption and weakness that led to their defeat in 2006. But they did not reform their way of doing things, and so have done little to restore their once-dominant popularity.
According to an International Crisis Group report last month, Hamas has actually suffered in the public eye during their time in office. The obvious negative, of course, is the simple fact of international isolation. People may not blame Hamas for the response of the world to their election, but they still understand that the international community would be much friendlier to them if Hamas were not in power.
But more important, according to the ICG report, is the increasing favoritism Hamas has been showing to its own members in terms of distribution of goods and pay. And although Hamas has not embarked on a major campaign of Islamicization of Palestinian society (traditionally one of the most secular in the Arab world), there has been some move in that direction. Examples include a trend among restaurants away from serving alcohol, discouraging of belly dancers and a marked increase in women wearing head coverings (the recent attempt to ban a book from schools for perceived, but very light, sexual implications is another example).
Fatah completely failed to capitalize on these opportunities. If they continue to try to move forward without reforms to restore popular confidence in them, other secular parties will emerge to supplant them further, while Hamas and other Islamic parties will continue to grow in strength.
The significance of the unity government extends well beyond the Fatah-Hamas competition, of course. Israel’s response has been consistent and swift: the Olmert government has rejected any contact with the Palestinian cabinet or Legislative Council, although it is willing to continue to deal with Mahmoud Abbas.
But even this stance is going to be difficult for Israel to maintain. The international consensus on the ban of aid to the Palestinians is already cracking in significant ways. Norway immediately announced it was restoring normal relations with the PA and France called for an easing of the sanctions. While the rest of the European Union has indicated it is not about to follow suit, they have all welcomed the unity government and are considering ways to resume aid to the Palestinians. Even Britain has stated it will resume contacts with “some ministers.”
The Arab world, naturally, is united in support of the unity government. Brokered by Saudi Arabia, the call for support for this government and a lifting of the sanctions, is being led by Egypt, meaning the two closest Arab allies of the US are spearheading this attempt to end the PA’s international isolation.
The US is not even following the Israeli line completely on this one. Although it is standing firm on the ban on aid, the Bush Administration has indicated that it is considering resuming contacts with non-Hamas ministers in the government. The early attempts by Israel to paint the unity government as “Fatah joining Hamas,” implying that Fatah was adopting the Hamas ideology and therefore Israel would not even talk with Mahmoud Abbas have clearly failed.
But this is not the end of the challenge to Israeli intransigence on this issue. In fact, it’s only the beginning.
At the end of this month, the Arab League will meet in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. They are expected to re-issue the 2002 Saudi Peace Plan at that meeting. The plan is expected to be essentially unchanged from its 2002 version, and numerous voices within the Israeli mainstream have supported exploring talks on the basis of that plan. There will be a full analysis of the plan in this space once it is re-issued.
The new unity government represents a real opportunity for the Olmert government. As part of the unity platform, Hamas has agreed to let Abbas manage negotiations with Israel and abide by the decision of a referendum of the Palestinian people regarding any deal Abbas strikes.
The Olmert government has characterized this as a Hamas “veto power,” something it quite clearly is not. Instead, it means that Israel can negotiate a deal and know right away whether or not it has popular Palestinian support. An agreement which does not have such support is doomed to failure. Moreover, an attempt to push through a deal which is not popularly supported on either side runs the risk of igniting violence rather than stopping it.
Israel has always expressed a fear that a peace agreement would only lead to their dropping their guard and being more vulnerable to attack. But a peace agreement approved by the Palestinian masses could not possibly be such a smokescreen (even if we allow that such a concern is credible). Thus, this arrangement should be exactly what Israel wants.
Despite maintaining a strong coalition at the moment, Ehud Olmert is as unpopular right now as any Israeli leader has ever been. His time in office has been marked by blunders and popular despair and hopelessness. An easing of the restrictions on the Palestinians, the commencement of negotiations and an acceptance of a truce that Hamas has proposed as a challenge to both sides to maintain quiet could boost his popularity. With his already declining support facing further erosion as more judgment is being passed on his handling of the Lebanon war last summer, Olmert has few other options to boost his popularity.
Olmert would be wise to take this opportunity, one it seems he is going to let pass by.