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22
Jan
2017

A Palestinian National Unity Government?


This week representatives of all the Palestinian factions concluded a three-day meeting hosted by a Russian research center in Moscow. The meeting explored ways to end the disputes and the rift between the West Bank and Gaza and reach a national reconciliation.

Also taking part in the conference was Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. According to Palestinian sources, he told the participants that the ongoing rift damages the Palestinian issue and that the international community exploits the situation to pressure and extort the Palestinians.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) greets Hamas’ Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook. In the middle is Fatah’s Azzam al-Ahmad

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) greets Mussa Abu Marzuk of Hamas. Fatah member Azzam al-Ahmed stands in the middle. (Getty)

In the concluding press conference, senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad, who is in charge of the reconciliation talks with Hamas, announced that all the factions had reached an agreement to begin consulting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas within 48 days on setting up a national unity government.

A senior Hamas official, Dr. Mousa Abu Marzouk, said that a national unity government would be the mechanism to resolve all the issues that have emerged in the years of the rift between the West Bank and Gaza.

The meeting of the Palestinian factions in Moscow is another in a series of such meetings aimed at reaching a national reconciliation. A few weeks ago a similar gathering was held in Switzerland.

Russia, however, plays an important role in the international arena. It can influence the new U.S. president, Donald Trump, and it can also influence Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because of its military control of parts of Syria and of its airspace. Russia believes that without a Palestinian national reconciliation it will be impossible to progress toward any sort of political settlement with Israel. President Putin recently offered to host direct talks in Moscow between Netanyahu and Abbas.

The Palestinians in the territories, however, are not getting excited about the statement that the Palestinian factions issued in Moscow. Palestinians have already witnessed 12 years of meetings, statements, and press conferences of the Palestinian factions on a national reconciliation, but nothing has happened on the ground.

Indeed the Fatah movement has signed three reconciliation pacts with Hamas – in Cairo, Mecca, and at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza.

The Shati agreement, too, established a national unity government, this one headed by Rami Hamdallah. It continues to operate, but Hamas prevents it from operating in Gaza.  

Hamas, for its part, has set up a shadow government in Gaza. It runs this government and looks out for Hamas’ interests.

The Palestinian factions’ “Moscow statement” constitutes a recommendation and passes the hot potato to Abbas.

If he wants to, Abbas can launch talks on setting up a national unity government. If he does not want to, he is under no obligation to do so.

The “Moscow statement” transfers the responsibility from the Palestinian factions to the PA chairman. It also recommends that the national unity government be established before the convening of the national committee of the PLO – that is, the Palestinian National Council. 

The factions are thereby signaling to the PA chairman that he will not be able to convene the Palestinian National Council unless all the Palestinian factions agree to it.

The fact that the official PA media has ignored the “Moscow statement” indicates that the PA chairman is not overly impressed with it.

PA sources assess that the statement was mainly intended to please the Russian foreign minister and enable him to portray the Moscow meeting as an “achievement.”

All the Palestinian factions want good relations with Russia; hence they expressed flexibility in the talks and were willing to issue the statement. That does not necessarily mean, however, that any real progress was made toward a national reconciliation.

Sources in Fatah point out that the electricity crisis in Gaza is a good example of the deep discord between Hamas and Fatah. The crisis was temporarily resolved after Turkey and Qatar funneled aid to Hamas in Gaza, but not as a result of understandings between Hamas and the PA.

As a condition for ending the electricity shortage, Abbas demands that Hamas publicly admit to the mistakes it has made since it forcefully conquered Gaza in 2007. This is a condition Hamas cannot accept, and one can reasonably assume that after some time the electricity crisis will again erupt.

Agreement on a Palestinian national unity government was actually already reached last year in the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation talks in Doha. The dispute, however, centered on the unity government’s platform. 

The bone of contention was Hamas’ refusal to accept Fatah’s political platform as the platform of a unity government because it recognizes Israel. A dispute that is no less difficult concerns the payment of the salaries of 40,000 bureaucrats in Gaza whom Hamas added to the ranks of the government after it took Gaza by force in 2007.

The PA regards these bureaucrats as belonging to Hamas and refuses to pay their salaries.

Hence the “Moscow statement” should be taken with a grain of salt. Even though it is a positive statement from the standpoint of all the Palestinian factions, the road to a true Palestinian national reconciliation is long and it is doubtful whether the goal can be reached.

Only this week the Shabak (Israel Security Agency) announced it had arrested a large network of Hamas operatives in Ramallah that was working to undermine the PA’s rule and overthrow it. That is the real goal of Hamas, not a national reconciliation with the PA.

About Yoni Ben Menachem

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
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