Palestinian Presidential Follies

Despite all appearances, the United States only has one president at a time. Come Jan. 9, however, the enigmatic entity known as the Palestinian Authority could have two rival presidents -- one in the besieged non-state of Gaza, the other in the fragmented Israeli protectorate in the West Bank. Each will claim to be the sole legitimate leader of the Palestinians. The mutually destructive rift between the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-governed territory in the West Bank will deepen and be harder to bridge.

If Barack Obama entertains the notion of pushing for Palestinian-Israeli peace -- as I hope he does -- he'll find that the challenge has become even more daunting. George W. Bush, the fading presence still in the White House, won't do anything to solve the latest Palestinian political crisis. To the extent that the United States has an influence, Obama will need to act -- shall we say, pre-presidentially.

The reasons for the deepening Palestinian split can be found in poorly written legislation. When the Palestinian Authority was established under the Oslo Accord in 1994, it was intended to govern pieces of Gaza and the West Bank until Israel and the Palestinians reached a final-status agreement. The process was supposed to take five years. Elections were held for president and Parliament in 1996 under a quasi-constitution that had no provision for re-elections. Palestinians assumed that the next time they voted, it would be for the leadership of an independent state.

So much for dreams. The Oslo negotiations failed. The chaos of the second intifada made a new vote impossible. Yasser Arafat remained president until his death in 2004. Finally, in January 2005, a presidential election was held, and Mahmud Abbas of Fatah was chosen as Arafat's successor. Afterward, the parliament amended the constitution, setting a four-year term of office for both the president and legislature.

It also passed a law to enable the parliamentary elections of early 2006. That law said the president and Parliament would serve concurrent terms -- arguably meaning that Abbas should stay in office an extra year, until 2010, when the current Parliament's four years are up. That would bring the two branches into sync. Perhaps the law contradicts the constitution; perhaps it's meant to explain the constitution. Abbas' term could be over next month or a year later. In a fact-sheet describing the problem, George Washington University political scientist Nathan J. Brown asks, "Can the drafting of the law really have been so careless and sloppy?" and answers succinctly, "Yes."

The constitutional dispute is weakening an already reduced and divided Palestinian Authority. During the intifada, the goal of the Israeli government led by Ariel Sharon was "to destroy the Palestinian Authority," says Menachem Klein, a Bar-Ilan University expert on Palestinian-Israeli relations. Palestinian police were targeted; Palestinian Authority police stations were bombed. Civilian ministries were left in shambles when Israeli reconquered West Bank cities.

Post-uprising, Klein says, the Palestinian Authority functions in the West Bank as a protectorate within Israeli-ruled territory. It provides schools and health services and little more. Its recently rebuilt police forces are deployed only where Israel allows. Bereft of a functioning economy, the Palestinian Authority subsists on international aid.

Meanwhile, Hamas' surprise victory in the 2006 parliamentary election led to an international boycott, intended to force the Islamic Party to recognize Israel and renounce violence. The boycott had the full backing of the Bush administration, following its consistent policy of pressure without dialogue. After a brief attempt at a unity government last year, Hamas seized full control of Gaza. The tiny strip of land is under an Israeli siege. A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is mostly honored in the breach.

On the surface, the Hamas-Fatah split has served both Abbas and Israel. In the West Bank, Abbas formed a government based on his own nationalist Fatah movement, which supports a two-state solution. His government has regained international support. Israel has resumed negotiations on final status with Abbas. Even if the talks are leading nowhere, Abbas has been a comfortable (some would say pliant) partner in ruling the West Bank.

But contrary to Israeli and U.S. expectations, the siege of Gaza has not provoked popular rebellion against Hamas. Instead, Hamas has solidified its rule amid worsening humanitarian conditions.

Because of the split, neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian public takes the negotiating process seriously. Palestinians want a state that includes the Gaza Strip, which Abbas can't achieve. Israelis see little point in concessions when Abbas can't sign for all Palestinians and can't bring peace on the Gaza front.

Until now, Hamas and Fatah have avoided a complete political divorce. The West Bank and Gaza have remained two countries divided by a common constitution. The government in Ramallah still pays salaries to civil servants in Gaza. The two organizations continue on-again, mostly off-again contacts aimed at national reconciliation and a new unity government. The on-again part is pragmatic. Hamas, as Klein notes, "wants public legitimacy among the Palestinians" and in the Arab world. Abbas does not want to lose Gaza permanently. The political differences can be finessed. Despite its refusal to recognize Israel, Hamas is willing to stand aside and let Abbas negotiate on final status -- as long as the public gets to vote on any agreement, via a referendum or elections. But the distrust between the sides is immense.

Now, apparently as a means of applying pressure for unity on its terms, Hamas has seized on the constitutional issue. Come Jan. 9, it says, Abbas will no longer be president. Instead, the speaker of parliament -- Hamas' Abdelazziz Dweik -- will be acting president for 60 days, until elections are held. Since Dweik is in an Israeli prison, the job would actually go to his deputy, Ahmed Bahr, who is in Gaza, explains Amman-based analyst Mouin Rabbani. A Hamas-administered election in early 2009 would take place only in Gaza. "So far, Hamas has been making some attempt to respect the constitutional order," Rabbani says. But "when you have a new person who they say is the legitimate, constitutional president, this person will exercise presidential prerogatives, such as appointing governors in Gaza … [and] new heads of security services."

In turn, Abbas has also threatened to hold early elections, with parliament elected by pure proportional system. All of the West Bank and Gaza would be one constituency, with seats given out based on a percentage of the vote. In reality, there would be no votes from Gaza. The result would be two presidents, two parliaments, two movements staring at each other across Israeli territory and their own deeply entrenched positions.

"I don't think Hamas needs this," says Ziad Abu-Amr, a political independent from Gaza who served as foreign minister in the short-lived unity government of 2007. "If common sense prevails, Hamas should … find a way to go back with [Abbas] to the table of dialogue." In crises, however, common sense does not always prevail. Brinkmanship can lead to a triumphant rush over the brink. Rabbani suggests that "Hamas has backed itself into a corner," and will fear losing credibility if it doesn't carry out its threats.

The United States can't erase the bitterness between the two movements. But it can make returning to one political framework more attractive and give each side a motive to let Jan. 9 pass. As Rabbani notes, Fatah doesn't want to make concessions only to face a renewed sanctions against a unity government. And Hamas, he says, asks, "Why should we relinquish control of Gaza if all we're going to get in return is an international boycott?"

It would be smart for Obama to provide the motive to seek unity, and he can't wait until the inauguration to do so. He needs to make clear that the new administration will judge a new unity government by the official positions of that government, not by the positions of each party within it. Obama, or Hillary Clinton, or another spokesperson for the new team, should find a well-covered opportunity for saying such words as, "The United States recognizes the need for the Palestinians to surmount their differences and speak with one voice." In other words, you should stick with one president until we swear in our next president.

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