Despite the positive tone of the Abbas-Meshaal meetings in Cairo, it is safe to say that the long-awaited breakthrough in the Hamas-Fatah talks has not yet materialized. Maybe the best evidence for that failure lies in the fact that the two Palestinian leaders were not invited by the Egyptian president for a tripartite meeting.
Observers of the flow of the talks can look for three key areas that reflect whether the talks have produced the desired outcome of full Palestinian unity, and the return of a single governmental/security command structure for both the partially-liberated Gaza and the still-occupied West Bank.
The most important demonstration of genuine reconciliation has to be the approval of a mechanism to end the two-headed monster represented by a Ramallah-based government and prime minister (Salam Fayyad) and the Gaza government and prime minister (Ismail Haniyeh).
The agreed-upon mechanism to end this dual governmental structure is to hold the overdue presidential and parliamentary elections in both Gaza and the West Bank. The West Bank held municipal elections last November, but the government in Gaza objected to any elections until all issues were resolved.
Agreeing on elections would require that the powers that be in Gaza allow the Central Elections Commission — and thank God there is only one of those — headed by former Bir Zeit Univerity president Hanna Naser to work in Gaza. The commission was allowed to start work last summer, but was soon asked to close shop by the Hamas government. The election commission estimates that it needs three months to prepare for any national elections.
Granting permission to the commission’s Gaza offices and staff to operate freely would be a clear litmus test that the warring Palestinian factions are moving in the right direction.
Hamas’ approval to allow the restart of election offices in Gaza has been linked to a number of conditions. While political prisoners have been released on both sides and each government allowed the other side to hold public events on their respective anniversaries, apparently another condition has surfaced.
The Hamas leadership is demanding that the Ramallah-headquartered Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) be allowed to reconvene, carrying out regular legislative practices, giving confidence to a single government and approving the state of Palestine’s annual budget.
The pro-Hamas Reform and Change bloc headed by Haniyeh won the majority of seats in the 2006 elections. Pro-Hamas Hebron-based lawmaker Aziz Dweik was elected speaker and Haniyeh’s government won the vote of confidence. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, however, fired Haniyeh after Hamas militants routed the Fatah forces out of Gaza in 2007, and the PLC was suspended.
The Israelis added oil to the fire by arresting most pro-Hamas (as well as a few pro-Fatah) lawmakers last year, including the speaker. Dweik and many of the Reform and Change MPs have since been released, but the PLC has not been allowed to reconvene.
Any movement on this front will also send a clear message that reconciliation efforts are moving in the right direction, irrespective of the fact that the mandate of the current PLC — as well as the presidency — has long expired.
Perhaps the third most important litmus test to convince skeptics that Hamas and Fatah have buried the hatchet will be seen in attempts to revive the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Hamas has long opposed the PLO and refused to be a member, even though the Palestinian National Council — the Palestinian parliament in exile — automatically includes those elected as part of the Oslo-mandated Legislative Council.
The slightly more pragmatic leadership of Hamas under Khaled Meshaal has conceded the importance of the PLO locally, regionally and internationally, and has agreed to join it on the condition that it is totally revamped to reflect Palestinians around the world.
Naturally, Hamas feels that its 2006 electoral victory entitles it to run the PLO, but this leading position has been hindered somewhat by a number of facts, including most polls, which do not show Hamas as having majority support in any one location where Palestinians live.
Instead of reaching a deal showing what percentage of seats Hamas should have, an agreement was made to hold elections for delegates to the PNC everywhere Palestinians live. The expected legislative elections in the West Bank and Gaza will fill a major portion of these seats, but it remains unclear how the rest of the delegates will be chosen. A deal was reached to hold elections in various external locations where Palestinians live, but both Fatah and Hamas agreed to exclude Jordan, where Palestinians have citizenship.
Details will need to be worked out on how to appoint delegates from Jordan and any other country that will not allow for elections. While agreement on all of the above issues has been reached in writing, the real test will be in implementation. Once implementation begins on these three areas, it will become clear if the present reconciliation effort is serious.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region.