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Shikaki: PA President Abbas Would Benefit From National Unity Government With Hamas

Interviewee: Khalil Shikaki, Director, Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), Ramallah
Author: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 7, 2006

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Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, the leading Palestinian polling organization, says he believes that Fatah, though ousted from power in the recent legislative elections by Hamas, may yet agree to join a national unity government to keep President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in office.

"Fatah so far has said it is not interested [in a national unity government]. I don't buy it. I think Fatah recognizes that for Abu Mazen, the president, to stay in office for the next four years, he must be satisfied that his program, the one on which he was elected—he received 63 percent of the popular vote when he was elected as president—has a chance for success," says Shikaki. "Hamas now rejects that program. Hamas received only 44 percent of the popular vote on the day of elections, and therefore Fatah says Abu Mazen should stay as president and implement his program."

Shikaki, who also is a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Crown Center for Middle East Studies, says exit polls that showed Fatah winning the election were flawed because Hamas urged its supporters not to talk to exit interviewers in order to prevent Fatah supporters from possibly destroying ballots if they thought Hamas was winning.

Let's start with the recent elections. Your exit polls showed Fatah ahead with Hamas gaining, but of course in the end Hamas won with a large majority. An article suggested this was due to interference by Hamas with the poll-taking. Could you elaborate?

That is true. It is very clear Hamas was concerned about an announcement that might [lead to] the closing of the polling centers. The concern for Hamas was that Fatah armed groups and such would burn ballot boxes, as they have done in some cases in previous local elections. They therefore didn't want an early announcement, before ballots were actually counted, that would indicate a strong showing by Hamas. And so they took steps on the scene that made it impossible for us to be able to interview voters in a random fashion; they essentially asked their supporters not to take part in the exit poll. This was deliberate, and as a result about 3,700 people refused to be interviewed. Most of those, we believe, were Hamas supporters. However, this information was unavailable to us immediately. So after the closing of the polling centers, our results were inaccurate.

Have you had a chance to do any polling since the elections on why people voted for Hamas?

To a large extent, we have found that people who believed corruption is the most important issue of the day voted overwhelmingly for Hamas. The exact figures [in the latest opinion survey] are 70 percent for Hamas and 19 percent for Fatah. For those who believed the peace process is the issue of the day, the picture is the exact opposite, with 69 percent voting for Fatah and 19 percent voting for Hamas. Now, the difficulty Fatah confronted on election day is most people believed corruption was the issue of the day, and not the peace process. Most people believed the peace process was over, was dead, was not moving, and it wasn't really, therefore, the issue.

They fully recognized that it is Fatah that can bring about a successful peace process, but they didn't believe there was a peace process to be pursued. So in addition to corruption, those who felt that they were insecure voted overwhelmingly for Hamas, and those who felt secure voted overwhelmingly for Fatah.

A third issue that was clearly important is the level of optimism. Of those who were optimistic, almost two-thirds of them voted for Fatah, and only one quarter voted for Hamas. Those who were pessimistic about what will happen tomorrow voted about 60 percent for Hamas, and only one quarter of those pessimists voted for Fatah.

A majority of those who identified themselves as being religious voted for Hamas -- 52 percent -- while only 40 percent voted for Fatah. Those who identified themselves as being nonreligious voted mostly for Fatah, and only 19 percent voted for Hamas. So clearly, religiosity was an important issue as well.

What is the type of corruption that people see as so tangible they vote against it?

Most people see the most obvious, which is that the public sector is overwhelmingly staffed by Fatah, and by supporters of Fatah, and by family and friends of Fatah. And essentially this is true: definitely in the security services, but also in health and education, where most people are employed, and almost everywhere else. In a nutshell, it's misuse of public office for the service of the political party and the family. Most people believe Fatah is [abusing public office], and most people believe Hamas is incorruptible.

Is there money involved, or just jobs?

It is misuse of power. It is certainly money, and it's not [just] about bribery, although for some, yes, of course, it does involve bribery. Bu this is not about people stealing public money. It is about people using or misusing their power in their public office to benefit a small group or a political group or a family and friends.

Was the vote influenced by the impression that neither Israel nor the United States was actively engaged in diplomacy with the Palestinian Authority?

Well, not only were they not active, but they pursued unilateralism. I think the unilateral disengagement from Gaza only confirmed in people's minds that you don't need negotiations, and that in fact armed struggle is the way to go—even though this was not a vote for violence, by the way. Let me just emphasize this point.

Those who considered return to violence as a top priority for the Palestinians did not exceed five percent of all the voters on the day of elections. It is true that most of those who considered violence to be a priority voted for Hamas and less than 30 percent voted for Fatah, but this was not a vote on the question of violence, because as I said, only five percent viewed this as an issue of elections. Moreover, if we look at the issues related to the peace process—collection of arms; implementation of the road map; the two state solution, one Jewish, one for Palestinians—you can clearly see that even among those who supported Hamas, somewhere between 33 to 40 percent actually took very moderate views.

They supported the implementation of the road map, they supported the collection of arms, they supported a two state solution, and they supported and considered themselves supporters of the peace process. So it isn't like those who were opposed to the peace process wanted Hamas in. As I said, anywhere between one third to 40 percent of those who wanted the peace process to move forward, in fact voted for Hamas.

Are the Hamas leaders well-known in Palestinian areas? I'm talking about Ismail Haniyeh [who headed Hamas' national list of candidates], Mahmoud Zahar [Hamas cofounder]. Are they well-known to all people?

Most of Hamas leaders are not known to most Palestinians. People like Zahar and Ismail Haniyeh have some name recognition among Palestinians, but of course it's not as widespread as it [is] for Fatah leaders, who have been in power and seen more often on television and quoted in newspapers. People didn't need at the national level to know these individuals because the system at the national level was proportional representation, with people voting for factions, not individuals. For the districts, of course, people had to choose individuals, and these people were known in their districts. They did not have national stature, but they were locally known in their electoral districts.

Is there likely to be a Hamas prime minister, or an independent prime minister, as I've read in some places?

I think at the moment there are several options the Palestinian Authority can take. And Hamas, I think, will be essentially in the driver's seat. One would be a national unity government that would include both Fatah and Hamas, the largest two factions in the parliament, who together received about 86 percent of the vote. They can form a national unity government, and Hamas considers this to be its most preferred option.

Hamas has been calling for it even though it certainly doesn't need it, because it has a clear majority in the parliament in terms of distribution of seats. But of course Fatah clearly rejects this option, and has publicly announced it will not take part in a national unity government. I don't think this is final, but at the moment this is what Fatah is declaring.

The second option is for a Hamas government, or Hamas-dominated government that would be led by one of Hamas' leaders, like al-Zahar, or Haniyeh, or somebody else from within the movement. This government, I believe, is the least preferred by Hamas. And the reason that Hamas doesn't like it is because it knows if such a government is to be established, it will find itself almost immediately taking a course of action that would lead it into direct conflict with President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who insists the Palestinian Authority and the government should respect previous Palestinian obligations in the peace process. Hamas has publicly said it does not want to do that. So there will be an immediate conflict with the president over this, and the president would have to either resign or dismiss the cabinet.

If he dismisses the cabinet, he really doesn't have any alternative, because the next government will do the exact same thing. And so he might eventually have to resign in this case.

A third type of government is one that Hamas has been talking about as a fallback in case there is no national unity government. This is the second preferred option for Hamas. It would be a government of experts, where Hamas would appoint an independent prime minister, or would, in cooperation with the president, propose an independent prime minister who might not be a politician at all, who might be an expert in some area. And he might form a cabinet with Hamas' support in the parliament, but not one that would actually fully implement Hamas' program.

Hamas can dismiss this cabinet by a vote of no confidence in the parliament any time it wishes, but the government of experts would actually work with both Hamas in the parliament as well as the president. And in this case, Hamas hopes to avoid the inevitable conflict with the president over policy. It is not clear at the moment which way things will go because they haven't even started to negotiate and Hamas has not yet officially been asked to form the next government. And I think this matter will take perhaps a month or two before it is settled.

A significant issue is foreign aid to Palestine. Both the United States and the European Union have taken strong positions, asking Hamas to renounce its position on Israel. Do you think there's a likelihood of any change in Hamas' position?

No, I don't believe so. I don't think we should expect moderation on Hamas' position with regard to issues of principle. Hamas' position on Israel and rejection of recognition of the state of Israel, I believe, are matters of principle for Hamas. It is the area where it most distinguished itself from Fatah, and in my view Hamas will not make significant changes in its position vis-à-vis Israel or in any other principle anytime soon. I don't think we should expect to see that happening. Where I believe Hamas will probably show moderation is on matters of process. I think Hamas will show significant flexibility. And the national unity government, for Hamas, represents, I believe, the best environment for the movement to show that kind of flexibility without having to sacrifice principles.

But Fatah is not interested.

Fatah so far has said it is not interested. I don't buy it. I think Fatah recognizes that for Abu Mazen, the president, to stay in office for the next four years, he must be satisfied that his program, the one on which he was elected -- he received 63 percent of the popular vote when he was elected as president -- has a chance for success. Hamas now rejects that program. Hamas received only 44 percent of the popular vote on the day of elections, and therefore Fatah says Abu Mazen should stay as president and implement his program.

Abbas needs to have Fatah in the cabinet as a partner to Hamas, because he does not have any operational capacity to implement his program without Fatah being in the cabinet. So I don't believe this is the final word for Fatah in terms of whether it will or will not accept being a member or a partner in a coalition government.

I think what Fatah wants is to negotiate basically the terms of reference, where it is able to continue to implement its program in the peace process, foreign policy negotiations, issues of security, etc. and would have the capacity to do so from within the cabinet. [That way] it would have continued control over portfolios needed for the president to be able to negotiate with Israel and the international community, and be able to implement commitments he would be making in these negotiations. I think this is where the crux of the matter is.

Another key question is who controls the various armed groups in Palestine. You have the PA's own security force, you have Hamas' force, you have the jihadists, you have the al-Aqsa brigade. Can Hamas put these all under its control?

If it is a national unity government, I believe Fatah will insist that the interior minister who would be in control of most of the official security services would come from Fatah, and therefore would be able to work in harmony with the president. An interior minister from Hamas would certainly not be able to work in harmony with the president, and we will see immediate conflict between the two sides. Now, if [it] is a national unity government, Fatah will most likely ask all the factions to disarm and to join the security forces if they wish, or just go back to their civilian jobs if they don't want to be part of the security services.

This, I believe, is what Abu Mazen was hoping to do if Fatah had a majority. And I think if Fatah joins the national unity government, this is what Abu Mazen will probably ask Fatah to do in that government. If it is not a national unity government and if it is a Hamas government, then of course it becomes a real tough challenge. First of all Hamas must formulate a policy on what to do about militias and what to do about the security services, and Hamas hasn't even started to look at this issue at all.

Will [Fatah and Hamas] agree to merge into one army if that army is controlled by Hamas? That's an open question. The answer on that, I believe, at the moment is most likely no. Fatah most likely will not agree to merge its militias and armed groups under the control of Hamas.

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