- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Some people think that if some kind of deal was struck between Hamas and the government in the West Bank headed by Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen], the leader of Fatah and former president of the Palestinian Authority, there could be some kind of peace arrangement worked out. Is this at all feasible?
It’s not impossible. But this strikes me as unlikely in the extreme. It’s not clear the extent to which Mahmoud Abbas really controls the West Bank. He claims to be not simply the president of the West Bank but president of the entire Palestinian Authority, including Gaza. But it’s not clear to me how he can ever reassert his control over Gazaas long as Hamas is there. Most observers of the Palestinian scene ultimately expect Hamas and Fatah to have to deal with each other again, rather than for Hamas to simply go away.
In February, Saudi Arabia put together what they called the Mecca Agreement. They called in both sides and they worked out an agreement to put together a Palestinian cabinet of Fatah and Hamas members along with some independents. What happened to that government?
That government, as far as Hamas is concerned, is still the Palestinian government. That government was put together, and it was governing until last month when it essentially fell apart during the Hamas-Fatah fighting in Gaza. Hamas claims that government is still in office and Abbas claims to have fired its members as a result of what he refers to as an attempted coup by Hamas.
In this parliamentary system, can Abbas actually fire the government and pick a new one?
He can fire it, but he can’t pick a new one. The Palestinian constitution is actually much clearer on these sorts of things for some odd historical reasons than most people think or expect. The historical reasons really have to do with an attempt by reformers and by outsiders to constrain [the late Palestinian president] Yasir Arafat at every possible turn. The president does have the authority to fire the cabinet or fire the prime minister, and the problem for Abbas is that if he does so, no new government can take office until it’s been approved by the parliament. Until that happens, the existing cabinet stays in office as a caretaker. So Hamas’ constitutional presence here is actually fairly strong and Abu Mazen is extremely weak, if you think about it from a strictly legal rather than a political standpoint.
And in reality, what’s going on? In the West Bank, Abbas appointed a new prime minister, finance minister, and foreign minister all in one: Salam Fayad.
And in Gaza, the government is still run by Hamas with Ismail Haniyeh as the prime minister right?
Haniyeh, the prime minister in the National Unity Government, claims he’s still prime minister, and Abbas says no; he’s appointed a different one and an entire cabinet that is full of technocratic and independent figures for the most part, although there are a few party people.
Is there much communication between the two sides?
It’s very difficult to tell exactly what’s going on, although there does seem to be continued low-level fighting, especially in the West Bank with Fatah basically trying to eliminate any public face of Hamas, and perhaps a little bit in Gaza as well. But what really seems to be happening—again both governments claim not to be a government of only part of the Palestinian territories, but of all of them—is that both claim to be the legitimate government, and so there’s a war for control of public opinion. Abbas and Fayad’s big trump card seems to be that they are now getting money, so they can pay salaries, whereas Hamas is much more limited in its ability to pay salaries to those employees it considers loyal.
Is any of this money Fatah is getting—it’s the tax revenue Israel had delayed passing on—finding its way into the Gaza Strip as well?
Yes. Essentially the Palestinians’ primary source of revenue has been taxes that are collected on goods destined for Palestinian markets that pass through Israeli ports, so the Israelis collect the taxes and send them on to the Palestinian Authority. When Hamas formed a government, the Israelis stopped that. In addition, there is some level of international assistance. The international assistance is now coming through, and the Israelis have started to release some—not all—of the Palestinian taxes that they’ve collected. Recently the Palestinian government in Ramallah headed by Salam Fayad has been able to place that money directly in the bank accounts of employees who were hired before the Hamas government came into power, which means that if you were hired since Hamas came into power, you’re not collecting any money.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to go out to the Middle East next week and the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers are supposed to visit Israel on July 25 to promote the Arab League’s peace proposals. There’s a lot of activity, but are the Arab states themselves focusing on the Palestinians very much?
There’s so much going on in the Arab world, much of it not very good, that the Palestinian issue hasn’t been their priority. There’s considerable worry about a possible American-Iranian confrontation; Iraq is a perennial concern. Most of these countries have severe domestic challenges they’re worried about, but the fighting in Gaza last month really did get people’s attention. So it’s now probably more of a priority than it had been last year or earlier this year.
What do you think will happen in a month or two? You started out by saying Hamas and Fatah will have to get together somehow.
Most people think that. There’s a very strong ethos of national unity. Even though Palestinian fighting is much more polarized than it ever has been between Fatah and Hamas, there doesn’t seem to be much of a prospect of one side vanquishing the other. But I don’t think any attempt to bring them back together is going to succeed anytime soon.
Right now Abbas and most but not all of the leadership in Fatah is just extremely bitter and in no mood to talk. They have very strong international support especially from the Americans but also from the Europeans, so they’re just not interested right now. I don’t think they will have any way of wresting Gaza from Hamas, and they’re not going to have any way really of eliminating Hamas from the West Bank. Somewhere down the line they will probably come to the conclusion that negotiating some kind of separate peace between Fatah and Israel is not going to be successful. They can’t negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians; they’re unlikely to get what they want from Israel , and so in the end after considerable time, they’ll probably go back to something that looks like the Mecca Agreement. But an awful lot can happen in the meantime. They’re talking about reforming their parliament, they’re talking about using military courts, they’re talking about new elections, a new election law, and the sort of things that will harden positions a lot in the short term.
In an ideal situation, if Abu Mazen could get everything he wanted, what would he get from Israel?
He would get an agreement to construct the Palestinian state in West Bank and Gaza with some claim to Jerusalem or parts of Jerusalem as its capital. That’s what he would like to negotiate and be able to perhaps go back to Palestinian public opinion and say, “Here’s the path I represent, Hamas is just offering you nothing but continuing resistance, violence, and international isolation.”
But you don’t think Israel will deal do you?
I don’t think so. There’s a couple of problems. Number one, if that’s the deal, a considerable portion of the Israeli population would vehemently oppose it. Second, you’ve got an extremely weak Israeli government. Even if they wanted to move in that direction it’s far from clear they would be able to do it. And third, you’ve got short-term Israeli concern as well. What is the point of negotiating an agreement with somebody who cannot even control his own side? And so if Israelis are going to make concessions like that—and it’s not at all clear they would—it would be only done with the knowledge that this somehow resolves the conflict or is with some authoritative party on the Palestinian side that can say when they sign, “We are now signing for all Palestinians.” Abu Mazen simply cannot do that right now.