The longstanding question of whether Hamas and Fatah will finally reconcile received at least a partial answer this week. If it’s up to Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and president of the Palestinian National Authority, the issue isn’t on the agenda right now.
Many have declared that the time has come and the conditions are right. Hamas wants change, it wants reconciliation and as proof: The “reconciliation camp” won a major victory in the elections for the Shura Council (highest governing body), and Hamas Political Bureau Chairman Khaled Meshaal, who is considered the leading advocate of this policy, was elected head of the movement.
But in the end, it was Abu Mazen who decided what will ultimately happen. He did this by appointing Rami Hamdallah, president of An-Najah University in Nablus, as the new prime minister. Observers claim that Hamdallah will put a hold on the discussions between Hamas and Fatah to form a reconciliation government.
It is only natural that Hamas was surprised by Abu Mazen’s move. Sami Abu Zuhri, the movement’s senior spokesman, was quick to condemn both the appointment and the person behind it: “The new government in Ramallah does not represent the Palestinian people, and the appointment is illegal.” It is also interesting to note the particular term that Abu Zuhri chose to describe Abu Mazen’s government. He called it the “government in Ramallah,” as if he were referring to the management of a City Hall.
What caused Abu Mazen to take this step?
On the face of things, it looks like Abu Mazen is trying to appease US Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry believes that the diplomatic process in the Middle East can still be moved forward. On the other hand, reconciliation with Hamas could give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just the excuse he is looking for to keep on claiming that there is no partner and that there is no one to talk to.
The truth is that Fatah sources have told Al-Monitor that Abu Mazen never believed that reconciliation was possible. This was not just because of the international opposition that such a move would muster (Hamas is considered a terrorist organization as long as it does not accept the Quartet conditions, which include full recognition of Israel), but also because of the internal struggle taking place within the Fatah movement. The wounds from the Hamas coup in 2007 have yet to heal, and it is highly doubtful whether Palestinian security forces could consist of armed members of Hamas and Fatah working in tandem at any time in the near future. The two factions loathe each other, and that precludes cooperation, not to mention being comrades-in-arms.
Actually, Abu Mazen used reconciliation as a bargaining chip. Meshaal was the rais’ [Arabic for "leader"] joker in a game of poker that he played against Israel and the United States. He made it quite clear: “If you leave me no choice, and there is no progress in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, I will team up with them and form a new unity government,” with all that this implies.
But none of that fully explains why Abu Mazen picked Hamdallah, of all people, to be the next prime minister. Hamdallah, a professor of English language, linguistics and literature, who completed his doctorate at Lancaster University in England, is thought to have a clear pro-European orientation, as opposed to his predecessor Salam Fayyad, whose orientation was decidedly pro-American. Senior Palestinian officials say that this was the main reason why Abu Mazen showed the “darling of America” the door. The primary cause of the tension between them was Kerry’s efforts to keep Fayyad in his position. That “set off Abu Mazen’s fuse” and resulted in the resignation of the man who did so much to rehabilitate the Palestinian Authority.
Nor was that the only time that the Palestinian president responded so furiously to the US secretary of state. An article by Akiva Eldar, which was published on this very site, describes how insulted Abu Mazen was by Kerry’s speech to the World Economic Forum [on May 26], when he proposed granting a $4 billion incentive to the Palestinians in exchange for them showing their willingness to return to the negotiating table.
This year, the head of the Palestinian Authority will mark nine years since he assumed office. In that time, the Americans have let him down on more than one occasion. US President Barack Obama’s tenacious opposition to Abu Mazen’s move in the United Nations left him with a feeling that it isn’t just Israel that will not change. The Americans won’t change either.
That is why Abu Mazen is making gestures to the European community. He wants them to be more involved in the diplomatic process with Israel. Even with the crisis facing the European Union, the nations of Europe have sharper teeth and a greater desire to propel a process leading to the resolution of the conflict, at least as far as Abu Mazen is concerned. He believes that Europeans are far more objective than the Americans and have no clear interest in maintaining Israel’s status and strength. The Europeans treat Israel differently. They act out of suspicion and anger. They threaten a boycott and impose sanctions on products produced in the settlements. That is exactly what Abu Mazen wants.
Abu Mazen hopes that Rami Hamdallah, who speaks English with a heavy British accent, will inject fresh European blood into the frustratingly sluggish pace of the Middle East [peace process]. Abu Mazen’s political future depends on his success or, in other words, Abu Mazen’s last chance lies with the Europeans, whom he is trying so hard to recruit.
Kerry will continue skipping and sweating as he makes his rounds across the region, trying to convince the feuding parties to start talking. But it is the keys held by the “British” Hamdallah, who will open the main door, allowing the nations of Europe to enter the negotiations, after Israel barred them access.
Was it a smart move? Will Hamdallah succeed in overcoming all the obstacles that Fatah has placed before him? The answer can be found in an interview that Fayyad granted to The New York Times in early May:
“This much poison is bound to cause something catastrophic. The system is not taking, the country is suffering. They [Fatah] are not going to change their ways and therefore I must go. … It is incredible that the fate of the Palestinian people has been in the hands of leaders so entirely casual, so guided by spur-of-the-moment decisions, without seriousness. We don’t strategize, we cut deals in a tactical way and we hold ourselves hostage to our own rhetoric.”
It remains to be seen what the new rhetoric of the Palestinian Authority and a government headed by Hamdallah will be. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that it will be said in an Oxford accent, and not an American one.
Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.