A Hamas leadership delegation led by political bureau head Ismail Haniyeh visited Egypt Feb. 9- 28. The trip's goals and results have remained vague, with no word from participants Khalil al-Hayya, Fathi Hammad, Rawhi Mushtaha, Izzat al-Rishq, Mousa Abu Marzouk and Saleh al-Arouri. Hamas’ Feb. 24 statement said only that all meetings were positive and addressed the situation of the citizens in the Gaza Strip and reconciliation with Fatah.
On March 11, Npaa Press quoted prominent Palestinian sources as saying on condition of anonymity that Hamas and its Egyptian hosts mainly discussed President Mahmoud Abbas’ health crisis in late February, about which the Palestinians refrained from providing details, and possible scenarios for the post-Abbas period. The Egyptians also asked Hamas to relinquish the speakership of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) to an internationally accepted figure without specifying what Hamas would gain in return. They suggested three PLC members for the position: Salam Fayyad, Hanan Ashrawi and Mustafa Barghouti.
Ashrawi, 72, has been a member of the PLC since 1996. She has held many positions, including PLO Executive Committee member, official spokeswoman of the Arab League 2001-2002, minister of education and higher education 1996-1998, and official spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to the peace process 1991-1993.
Barghouti, 64, ran in the Palestinian presidential elections in 2005. He was elected to the PLC in 2006, then became minister of information in 2007. He founded the Palestinian National Initiative in 2002 and is its secretary-general. Today, he is a symbol of popular resistance against Israel, as he co-founded and supported the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and was nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
Fayyad, 66, is an independent Palestinian politician. A former senior official at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, he served as finance minister between 2002 and 2005, became a PLC member following the 2006 elections and then headed the West Bank government after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. He resigned in 2013 following disagreements with Abbas over the government's policies and financial restrictions that he had imposed, which affected his ties with some Palestinian officials close to Abbas.
Npaa Press also said that Fayyad is the Egyptians' favorite for his international relations and political experience.
Ossama Amer, a Palestinian political writer based in Cairo, told Al-Monitor, “Egypt may not be comfortable with Abbas' behavior in preparing for his succession without consulting with [Egypt], such as his intention to convene the Palestinian National Council [PNC] in April to prepare to hold elections for the PLO’s Executive Committee and Central Council, without settling on a specific figure to succeed him. However, Egypt sees Fayyad as someone who could be better than others since he is accepted on the international level. He is not an isolated security man and does not get involved in regional rivalries. Meanwhile, Egypt … will support the one who is closest to its policies in the Palestinian arena.”
Al-Monitor tried to contact Fayyad and close associates of his, but they declined to speak to the press.
A former Palestinian minister in Cairo familiar with the talks told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Egypt's proposal to Hamas regarding Fayyad was orchestrated by dismissed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan. Meanwhile, this plan caught Hamas by surprise so it could not respond to this serious proposal on the spot. This needs to be discussed by the organizational institutions of the movement, Shura Council and the political bureau before giving a final answer.”
Over two weeks have passed since the Hamas delegation returned to Gaza. The movement’s opinion on Fayyad remains unknown, but talks are ongoing with an Egyptian security delegation in Gaza headed by Maj. Gen. Sameh Nabil, who met with Haniyeh March 7.
On March 2, the PLC held a session in Gaza City in what could be seen as Hamas sending a message to Cairo that it will reject the proposal and hold onto its position in the PLC.
Hamas holds a majority in the PLC with 76 out of 132 members, and Dahlan’s bloc has 15. Together they could hold a meeting to elect a new PLC speaker who would serve as an interim Palestinian Authority (PA) president for 60 days until general elections are held, according to the Palestinian Basic Law of 2002. Hamas might prepare for such a scenario should Abbas suddenly disappear from the Palestinian arena, whether due to his health or an abrupt resignation.
Yahya Moussa, a Hamas leader and chair the Human Rights and Oversight Committee, told Al-Monitor, “Hamas is discussing with the Palestinian factions how to prevent Abbas from being re-elected as head of the PA by holding the PNC in April.” He went on, “The movement has no veto over any consensus candidate to lead this stage, Fayyad included, although he may not be able to preside over the PLC since his tenure as head of the government after the 2007 division was hard on Palestinians. He cut the salaries of Gaza’s employees and was part of the division.”
Legally, Aziz Dweik, a Hamas leader in the West Bank, remains the PLC speaker, but he has not been in office since 2007, when the Palestinian division began. He was arrested several times by Israel and is part of no current political activities. Meanwhile, his deputy Ahmed Bahr, a Hamas leader in Gaza, is considered the actual speaker of the PLC and has held meetings in Gaza, most recently in July 2017, attended by deputies from both Hamas and Dahlan’s bloc.
Hamas could be forced to relinquish the PLC's speakership as the siege of Gaza intensifies, and Abbas could appoint a new president without consulting the movement.
Imad Mohsen, the spokesman for the Democratic Reform Movement led by Dahlan, told Al-Monitor, “We are looking forward for Hamas to approve a new PLC speaker who is accepted both on the Arab and international levels and who can fill a constitutional vacuum. Many figures in the PLC fit the description, including Fayyad and others. We have no preferences, but we can reach an understanding with Hamas over who would be best in the position.”
Fayyad has found international acceptance and met with dozens of leaders in the last few years. Most recently, he was nominated to become the UN special envoy to Libya in February 2017, but Washington refused to accept him amid the tension with the Palestinians. In July 2017, Fayyad became a lecturer at Princeton University.
Tayseer Nasrallah, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, told Al-Monitor, “Fayyad would be making a big mistake if he plays the role that local and regional parties are asking of him and becomes the speaker of the PLC. This request undermines all official Palestinian institutions. We are well-aware that the speakership needs to change, but this ought to be determined by the Palestinians themselves, not by foreign countries.”