[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]

 

February 3, 2006

 

This week in Palestine….. Behind the news with Hanna Siniora

 

Mahmoud Abbas in a Quandary

In the Arab world, President Abbas is the second Arab leader in recent history who hands power to a democratically elected party. A couple of decades ago General Suwar Al-Dahab of Sudan took power in Sudan when the army threw out the Sudanese dictator of that period Numeiri and handed it to a democratically elected government.

 

Mahmoud Abbas, to whose credit goes his insistence in carrying the real exemplary democratic fair and square elections, according to democratic tradition he should be handing the reign of government in the PA to the Hamas majority. International pressure on him as well as on the Hamas movement might prevent him from fulfilling the democratic step of asking the leader of Hamas to form the next PA cabinet.

 

Already the Palestinian public, the Hamas majority, public opinion in the Arab and Moslem world, are wary of the possibility that pressure is being put on Abbas to forego parliamentary tradition and deny Hamas the right of forming the government.  One consequence would be that within one week, Abbas who was acclaimed as the champion of true democracy will be accused by his people and the free world of treading over and abusing democratic principles, thus causing him to become a pariah in his own country.

 

Additionally, he would become the second Arab leader to dismiss the duly democratically elected party in his country from taking office, the FLN and its leader Boutaflika in Algeria did it at the advice of western countries, among them France, and it led to a vicious civil war that Algeria, up to this date, has not completely recovered from. Abbas certainly is in a quandary, he wants to be remembered as the Palestinian leader who nurtured nascent democracy in Palestine, can he withstand Arab and Western pressure and courageously proceed with the democratic process or is he going to succumb to pressure and most probably lead his nation to disaster and civil war. I believe he will be steadfast to the democratic principles with all its dangers.

 

Cohabitation: Sharing Power

 

Democracy in Palestine is at its early stages, it needs to grow roots, if it goes forward as a majority of the people wish, it will soon face the challenge of power sharing, co-habitation between a duly elected secular Fateh leader, and a duly elected fundamentalist religious movement. When the PA was originally structured, our first President Yasser Arafat wanted a strong executive presidential system similar to the American presidency but without the checks and balances that the USA built.

 

Israel initially suggested in the Oslo accords, an executive council of 24 headed by Arafat and had no intention of offering a parliament. To the credit of Arafat, he cajoled and coaxed the Israeli government into accepting an 88 member legislative council (PLC).

 

As a result of the second Intifada in 2000, Yasser Arafat was branded as no partner by Ehud Barak then by Arik Sharon. Israel, the USA, even the EU pressured Arafat in creating the job of Prime Minister and Mahmoud Abbas became the PA’s first PM. After a few months on the job, he resigned in dispute over the issue that the PA cabinet, and the PM and his interior minister should be in charge of the security forces.

 

Now, we are facing arguments between Hamas and the Presidency, on this very issue again. The present caretaker government when it took office, the Interior Minister was put in charge of the security forces. Hamas argues that security is the prerogative of the cabinet and not the presidency. This is going to be a major bone of contention that might disrupt cordial relations between the president and the Hamas movement.

 

Another issue, which might be useful in diminishing Israeli and western opposition to Hamas forming the government, would be who should conduct negotiation between Israel and the PA. All the agreements with Israel were ratified by the PLO and not the PA. Israel and the PLO mutually recognized each other in the Oslo accords. Hamas could announce that negotiation will be left in the hands of Abbas, who is also the PLO chairman, and that their mission is to fulfill their campaign promises of change and reform and in this sphere establish cordial cohabitation with the presidency, and avoid stormy relations with Israel and the international community at this stage.

 

Similarly continue to follow the established role of the presidency in appointing Palestinian diplomats and conducting foreign policy.

 

Hamas can also proclaim as some of its leader has already publicly declared that they accept binding international agreements, and are offering Israel a long-term cease-fire, and at this stage are mainly concerned with the welfare of the Palestinian people in providing better services developing the economy and creating jobs. This will insure that Hamas will not be a one term phenomena, and might create for Hamas a better image internally and externally.

 

Is constructive cohabitation of this type possible? The country needs it the region needs it, Hamas can diminish the fear of it assuming power without losing face with its constituency.

 

Hamas wisely chose the proper slogans in order to reach power. They ran on the promise of change and they brought change, they ran on the issue of providing reform and they have the chance to do it, by limiting their first years in power to do so.

 

The Palestinian Stock exchange is in jitters, it is losing daily 4-5 percent of its worth, the maximum that the rules will allow, Hamas has the duty to reassure the leaders of the private sector that they are going to provide stability and help rebuild the economy, this is were they should focus on immediately.

 

The EU has taken a wiser stand of not cutting aid immediately, they will make judgment in a few months according to actions and not presumptions, it is also to the best interest of the USA to do the same, also Israel should transfer customs and taxes to the PA as usual, the policy of the stick, collective punishment has always back-lashed negatively, the Israeli security people recognize its damage, the Israeli government should also follow the footsteps of the EU.