Following its unexpected victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections, Hamas found itself facing major political, social and economic obligations.
The initial post-election-shock caused many to be thrown off balance, leading to a reaction that was not carefully considered. This has resulted in confusion, unrealistic expectations and illusions, and has produced political paralysis and chaos. Its end result has been a social and political crisis, bringing the Palestinian situation to the brink of explosion.
Amazed with its electoral success, Hamas raised its expectations, believing it was given an absolute mandate to make political, social and historic reforms on the Palestinian scene. Moreover, Hamas believed the success guaranteed it complete control over the Palestinian agenda and the legitimacy to override anything that contradicted its own vision. This conviction was reflected in Hamas’ position towards the PLO and its insistence that the PLO should be reshuffled to match the electoral outcomes in the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas did not realize that its victory was not an absolute mandate, but instead reflected the frustration and desperation of the Palestinian people as well as their search for solutions. Therefore, whether it recognizes it or not, Hamas’ legitimacy following its victory is based on its ability to manage its political, economic and social obligations. A failure to meet these obligations would delegitimize their continued rule.
The existing circumstances require the ability to maneuver, to overcome difficulties and tensions, and to avoid an all-out confrontation. Disregard for the complicated Palestinian and international dynamics, and the challenges of the struggle in Palestine, is akin to leaping into an abyss of ideological rhetoric over substance—in the end there are political, social and economic questions that must be dealt with.
Hamas needed the experience of the past months to transcend the euphoria of its electoral success and to admit that it is not able to face the obligations of the Palestinian situation alone. It reached the conclusion that a national unity government would guarantee a way out of the crisis. Moreover, it has now been able to discern that it must lower its expectations, allow interaction with other political forces and enter into compromises.
Fatah after the Shock of the Elections
Following the legislative elections, Fatah fell into a state of confusion, only able to superficially grasp the meaning of the results: It believed it could sabotage the Hamas victory and return to power by taking the initiative through its control over the Palestinian Authority’s security forces and the civil services, and relying on support from European, international and Arab partners. This resulted from a conviction within the Fatah leadership that Hamas would not be able to respond to the required political and international obligations and would find itself in confrontation with the international community, subject to major pressures. Therefore, Fatah rejected participation in a national unity government because such a government would give Hamas a strong political cover and pave the way for its participation in the security and civil bodies of the PA.
Fatah went further, mobilizing nonstop protests to demand salaries for security service personnel and civil servants. Through this policy, in more than one Palestinian city, Fatah resorted to skirmishes and armed clashes to apply pressure to Hamas and push it into a state of helplessness.
The political and economic siege imposed by Israel and the United States, with support from Europe and Arab countries, encouraged this policy and raised the expectations of its possible results.
Still, the experience of these past eight months has shown that Hamas is able to hold its ground and withstand pressure. Hamas responded to the pressures with a political counterattack, through accusations that the Palestinian democratic process was being targeted and not given a chance to succeed. On the ground, it also responded with popular activities, pushing internal tensions nearly to breaking point.
Hamas’ reaction led Fatah to the conclusion that its approach would set in motion an internal Palestinian conflict, and possibly result in ousting Hamas from government without reaching its objectives. Fatah then lowered its expectations, realizing it could not maintain its role and status unless it accepted the idea of a national unity government. For Fatah this option could guarantee two things:
It would limit the dominance of Hamas in PA institutions; preserving Fatah’s advances at this level and alleviating the intensity of the tensions between the presidency, led by Abu Mazen, and the government led by Hamas. Balance and discipline would be created in Hamas’ political positions through the national unity government and through use of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a tool to pressure the narrow Hamas government.
The Impact of the European and U.S. Position
How should we interpret the European welcome, and the American hesitancy, towards a Palestinian government of national unity? Europe and the United States have been forced to lower their expectations and abandon some of their demands. With the election of Hamas to the PA executive, Europe and the US were deluded into thinking that an economic siege and political boycott would result in the Palestinian public turning against the Hamas government. This scenario was to have paved the way for the re-imposition of US-Israeli terms on the Palestinians.
However, the resolve of Hamas in the face of pressures and extortion, coupled with pent-up tensions within Palestinian society, have increased the risk of three serious dangers confronting the European-US interpretation of the Palestinian situation:
The collapse of a democratic discourse and the damage done to it would expose US-European hypocrisy. Sabotaging Hamas’ through economic siege and political boycott may exonerate Hamas from feeling any commitment towards acceptance of a future alternative PA, thereby undermining the possibility of legitimacy or opportunity for change. The Palestinian situation could move towards an all-out explosion, undermining US-European projects and escalating the conflict dramatically. The outcome of the US-Israeli war on Lebanon and the subsequent frustrations of the Arab public with US policy have increased the intensity of those combined dangers.
For Europe, therefore, a Palestinian national unity government, even one headed by Hamas, is the lesser evil. This government, with the inclusion of Fatah and other factions, would, in practical terms, constitute a force balancing Hamas and open the possibility for a gradual change in the Palestinian political arena. In addition, this option would help to halt the deterioration of the economic and security situation, which are threatening a wide-scale explosion. For Europe, it is an opportunity to get out of the crisis and come down from the difficult position it has put itself in, under the policy of isolating and bringing down the Hamas government.
In Britain, Tony Blair’s political stance has helped bring about a change in the European Union. Large sectors of the British Labor Party and wider British public opinion see Tony Blair’s policies in the Middle East as political subordination to US President George Bush and as damaging Britain’s interests. This is especially true following the violent blow of the British-US policy in Lebanon and the perception of Britain in the eyes of millions of Arabs and Muslims as a partner in the aggression by adopting the US-Israeli stance.
Attempting to absorb the growing resentment against his policies in the Middle East, Tony Blair rushed to the region and welcomed the idea of a Palestinian national unity government. In addition, the Russian government’s position has become more flexible and dynamic towards the conflicts in the region, in an attempt to reactivate Russia’s historical position and to confront American domination.
The United States continues to oppose the Palestinian national unity government and attempts to use its influence to prevent it. However, we must assume that Blair’s welcoming of the Palestinian national unity government did not occur behind the US administration’s back.
It seems, therefore, there is some distribution of roles, ranging from the European welcoming and encouragement and the ongoing US-Israeli pressure, which will not make the birth of a national unity government an easy feat.
Israel’s Limitations and Arab Opportunities
Israel still declares its refusal to deal with a government led by hamas, or in which it participates, until it accepts Israeli conditions. Moreover, Israel has not yet recovered from its defeat in Lebanon—the government is aware of the difficulties it is facing and feels the need to catch its breath. Therefore, Israel sees it in its best interest now to cool down the Palestinian social and political crisis, even if for a short time, to gain the time needed to tend to its political, sexual, military and financial scandals.
The Arab regimes, which contributed to besieging the Hamas government following US demands, but were exposed during the war on Lebanon to popular rage against their inaction and collaboration, also see an opportunity to regain some of their dignity in the formation of a Palestinian national unity government. For these regimes, the Palestinian national unity government is perceived as a heaven-sent way to absorb some of the anger of the Arab public.
A Palestinian national unity government is bound to be born out of the lowering of expectations of all actors and as a proof of their misunderstanding of the outcome of the PLC elections. However, this government may not necessarily hold solutions to the challenges facing the Palestinian people and its political forces. A strategy to escape the political, economic and social crisis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs more than the formation of a national unity government.
It needs a vision and clear stances that deal with the roots of the conflict and its challenges; an international and Arab guardianship must be provided along with a determination to impose a just political solution that would lead to real peace and not the pursuit of projects aimed at making the Palestinian people subordinate to Israeli demands.
Having Said That...
The national unity government is up against major challenges on economic, social and political levels. Still, it represents an opportunity to reevaluate the Palestinian situation and to formulate a political, social and economic strategy that would allow the Palestinian people to avoid internal strife and defend its basic national rights.
The formation of a national unity government does not mean an end to the pressure. Israel, with US support, will try to manipulate this opportunity and attempt to stop it from giving the Palestinians any potential gains. The United States is still determined not to deal with Hamas unless it accepts its three conditions: an end to armed resistance, recognition of Israel, and a commitment to agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority at previous stages.
In the future, we may see that the political dimensions of the Palestinian Authority are taken over by the PLO under Abu Mazen, freeing the government led by Hamas from direct confrontation with the obligations required internationally and from the socioeconomic challenges, of which the national unity government would be in charge.
Such a maneuver could constitute an opportunity to ease the immediate Palestinian tensions. However, in the end, no party will be exempt from facing their major political obligations.
If Fatah oversteps the Palestinian political red lines, through the PLO using the national unity government as a tool to meet Israeli and US demands, and offers political concessions that undermine the Palestinian national consensus, then resolutions to the political clash between Fatah and Hamas will not last long and all players in the game will be returned to square one, with the fundamental questions remaining.
We must distinguish between a national unity government that is created as a response to the political and social will of the Palestinian people, reinforcing its unity, steadfastness and resistance, and a national unity government that comes as a new attempt to adapt to external demands and pressures. The second option will transform the government into a tool in the hands of Israel and its allies, to achieve what could not be achieved by military pressure, political boycott and economic siege. In this case, we do not know how much time and bloodshed will be needed before the actors to the conflict rediscover what should already be obvious.
Nassar Ibrahim is a Palestinian writer and journalist. He is also the editor of the Arabic quarterly journal Rouy’ya Ukhra published by the AIC.