Danny Rubinstein: Countdown for the Hamas Government

By Danny Rubinstein
The chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), has already made up his mind. The general direction of his decision is clear: to disperse – or, to state it more bluntly – to put an end to, the Hamas government.

The details of his decision are not yet clear, perhaps not even to Abu Mazen or his aides. But we shall all be better informed about it within a short time, maybe even a few short days. This is what can be understood from a long series of statements made over the past few weeks by the chairman and his advisors. Ever since he returned from the United Nations General Assembly last month, he has repeatedly intimated that there are new revelations and clarifications taking place every day. In the middle of last week, for example, Abu Mazen declared: "Bread is more important than democracy."

This sentence was quoted in all the Palestinian media. The significance of this statement is clear to all: True, the Hamas government rose to power through democratic elections, but it is not able to function, it does not pay salaries, it does not provide bread, and it cannot continue to rule. By the end of the week, Abu Mazen was already speaking explicitly: "There is a responsibility on our shoulders," he said, "and we have to take decisions about setting up a loyal Palestinian government that will enjoy international recognition, will enable the embargo against our people to be lifted and will concentrate on the central objective, which is an end to the occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, a state that will live in peace and security alongside Israel." Nothing could be more clear than that. And he even turned to the public with his quandary over how to succeed in this.

Should a government of experts be set up, or perhaps a state of emergency should be declared and an early date be set for new elections? Or perhaps a referendum should be held?

Hamas rejects all these options. Its extremist spokesmen, such as Interior Minister Said Sayam, have announced that Abu Mazen intends to depose of the Hamas leaders in a way that is tantamount to an anti-democratic coup, and that they plan to fight against this.

The more moderate elements, such as Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, still speak of the possibility of a unity government. However, Abu Mazen is behaving like someone who has given up on that possibility. Until yesterday, the eve of the four-day Id al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of the month of Ramadan, Abu Mazen had not fixed any meeting with Haniyeh to discuss a unity government.

The two sides, Abu Mazen and his advisors, and the Hamas leaders, are not satisfied with mere talk and are also taking action. Abu Mazen has invited the members of the central elections committee to meet with him and he is preparing them for the possibility that there will be elections or a referendum. In addition, he has put the senior military commander, General Haj Ismail, back on active service. The Hamas spokesmen, for their part, have announced the organization of the operational force of the Palestinian Interior Ministry in the West Bank as well.

What is pushing the Palestinians into a violent conflict and a civil war is not merely the gap between the positions of the two sides and the fact that Hamas is not capable of adopting more moderate positions, but also external forces. The United States and many other countries, certainly Israel, are pressing Abu Mazen to act forcefully and to crush Hamas. Even more interested in this are the Arab states. Almost all these regimes are afraid of a Muslim opposition in their countries. It is clearly in their interest to bring about the failure of a Muslim-oriented government such as that of Hamas, and they are acting like heroes at Abu Mazen’s expense.

From the point of view of the Arab states, even a Palestinian unity government with Hamas at its center, is something to be avoided. The price for the dispersal of the Hamas government will be paid, first and foremost by the Palestinians who will kill their own brothers. But we Israelis may also have to pay a heavy price. Violent expressions of frustration and anger on the part of a large Palestinian public, and obviously also of a large Arab public in the neighboring countries, will be turned against Israel. The chance of renewing the peace process, which has diminished more and more over the past few years, will now become even more remote.
© Haaretz, October 24, 2006.  

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