Once upon a time, progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace was thought to require reform of Palestinian political institutions. Creation of the post of Palestinian Authority (PA) prime minister, separate from that of PA president, was viewed as a milestone. On March 14, 2003, President Bush marked creation of the prime minister post in a press conference:
the Palestinian Authority has created the new position of Prime Minister. Israeli and Palestinian leaders and other governments in the region now have a chance to move forward with determination and with good faith. To be a credible and responsible partner, the new Palestinian Prime Minister must hold a position of real authority. We expect that such a Palestinian Prime Minister will be confirmed soon. Immediately upon confirmation, the road map for peace will be given to the Palestinians and the Israelis…
This week Hamas and Fatah negotiated some sort of "unity" or "reconciliation" agreement, and the PA/Fatah negotiator was none other than the prime minister of whom Bush was speaking nine years ago: Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas became president of the PA after the death of Arafat, and is now in the seventh year of his four year term. Times have changed, as my CFR colleague Rob Danin has noted:
In an innovation that apparently violates the Palestinian Basic Law, the two sides agreed that Mahmoud Abbas would serve as both president and prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Recall, the PA’s prime minister position was established in 2003 and Abbas was appointed to that post to reduce the absolute powers of the presidency, then in Yassir Arafat’s hands. Ironically, it is now Abbas as president who is seeking to claim back what he once tried to take away.
Nicely put. And Rob is right: Article 45 of the Basic Law says “The President of the National Authority shall appoint the Prime Minister and authorize the latter to constitute his government. The President shall have the right to dismiss the Prime Minister or to accept his resignation and to request him to convene the Council of Ministers.”
But of course, Abbas will not hold absolute power in his hands, for when it comes to Gaza he will have no power at all. It is rumored that under the deal there will be a deputy prime minister for the West Bank and one for Gaza, so in essence Hamas will still rule Gaza while Fatah rules the West Bank. Why then go through the contortions of this “reconciliation” agreement? For one thing the Amir of Qatar brought Abbas and the Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to Doha, and the Amir has many means of persuasion, particularly for folks whose bank accounts are thin. For another, no Palestinian leader likes to be cast as “against reconciliation,” so it is usually easier to go along. And anyway, just as the previous “reconciliation” efforts failed, this one can be allowed to fail as well if it becomes troublesome for the participants.
But there is a price to pay for these theatrics, for no one can seriously expect Israel to negotiate peace with a combined Fatah-Hamas team when Hamas is dedicated to Israel’s destruction. It is not the PA but the PLO that formally negotiates with Israel, and one of the most damaging aspects of the “reconciliation” agreement is that Hamas is supposed to join the PLO. Once it does, all but the most ardent peace-processors will have to admit the negotiations track is truly frozen. Yes, perhaps Hamas will magically take that occasion to abandon its previous hatred of Jews and Israel, abandon terrorism, and declare itself ready for peace with Israel. If so, let’s all go back to Camp David or Annapolis for another round. If not, if Hamas is admitted into the PA government and the PLO as the terrorist group it is today, let’s acknowledge that the Palestinian leadership has turned away from any genuine effort to negotiate peace.