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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Efforts to Establish a Palestinian Unity Government

Filed under: Israeli Security, Palestinians, The Middle East

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has imposed on the current Ramallah prime minister, Rami al-Hamdallah, the mission of forming the new “unity accord government,” in a step that looked like progress in forming the government, but actually was a failure since  the Palestinians were supposed to form the government by May 29. They will probably declare a government within the next two weeks. However, an analysis of the reasons why they failed to establish the government before the first deadline may provide a tool to judge the chances for its success once it is established.

Firstly, why do we believe a government will be established despite the difficulties? Because both Fatah and Hamas have no choice now but to succeed. Another failure will establish the final fact that Gaza and the West Bank are separated forever. But of no less importance are the Western powers: the U.S. and Europe are interested in the establishment of this government.

Yet a number of disagreements remain, including over the identity of several ministers in key positions: Interior Ministry – security; Foreign Ministry – foreign policy, the identity of ambassadors, and the Waqf Ministry which controls the mosques.

At the Interior Ministry the issue at stake is twofold: paying salaries to Hamas’ military wing – the Qassam Brigades – and halting IDF-Palestinian security cooperation (or, as Hamas defines it, collaboration. Hamas supported the nomination of Hamdallah as prime minister because he also stands against IDF-Palestinian security cooperation. Palestinian sources say that in the meeting that took place in London between British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Abbas, Cameron expressed reservations about Hamdallah because the British are deeply invested in the security cooperation. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed similar concerns, but it seems that Kerry is eager to have this government come to life and is ready to remove obstacles in order for it to materialize.

Regarding the Foreign Ministry, Hamas objects to the current minister, Riyadh al-Malki, because he belongs to anti-Hamas secular circles in Ramallah and they want somebody that will not instigate against them in regional and international diplomatic quarters. They prefer either the current deputy prime minister, Ziyad Abu Amru, or a Christian woman like Hanan Ashrawi.  Their strategy is to insert their personnel into the Palestinian diplomatic corps. They assess that Malki will not permit it, unlike Abu Amru who is closer to them, or a Christian figure who might be too weak to quarrel with them on the issue.

The Waqf Ministry is of no less importance because it controls the mosques. The current minister, Mahmud al-Habbash, who left Hamas (but did not join Fatah), was very tough on Hamas in the West Bank mosques. He removed their preachers from the mosques and controlled the Friday preaching that prevented them spreading their message. In addition he controlled the Mecca pilgrimage administration that triggered endless quarrels with Hamas in Gaza over the lists of pilgrims and their travel accommodations.

The patron of the entire process is Qatar and thus it became part of the intra-Arab quarrels. Saudi Arabia sought to compel Qatar to stop its financial aid to the Muslim Brotherhood. But Qatar did not stop, so the money to Hamas is scheduled to arrive via Qatari aid to the new government. This made the Saudis indifferent – if not hostile – to the unity government process. They already told the Palestinian Authority that their aid is at risk because the two parties do not mention the Mecca accords in their unity agreement.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s prime ally in the region, is also indifferent to the matter, although they enabled Musa Abu Marzuq to enter Gaza in order to facilitate an agreement. As far as we know, up until now there is no Egyptian agreement to regulate the Rafah crossing, despite the fact that the EU is deeply involved in efforts to regulate it.

Why is the West supporting the move? There are two main reasons. Kerry did not give up his peace initiative and he is waiting for the proper moment to put his comprehensive peace proposal on the table. Even a façade of unity may provide him a kind of “window of opportunity.”  As for President Obama, this is another effort to advance his “outreach to Islam” vision, as it may be regarded as a step towards “politicizing Hamas.”  The EU is encouraged by the policy of the current U.S. administration and perceives it as a last chance to establish a Palestinian state.

This complicates the regional political scenery further, as the U.S. appears to back the main rivals of Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the region: Qatar and Turkey. In addition, there is the Western dialogue with Iran over its nuclear program.

In summary, we can expect a new Palestinian government to be announced mainly because the U.S. and the EU are involved in efforts to end this odyssey successfully.