Unlike his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, the current Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is not known for hoarding power or being authoritarian. Abbas will most likely end his revolutionary/professional career in retirement and not in a direct struggle with his enemies.
But in spite of his power-sharing style of management, Abbas finds himself this week with more titles than most countries have in ministries. He is the chairman of the PLO’s executive committee, the president of the Palestinian Authority, the commander of the Palestinian armed forces and security services, the prime minister of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the head of the Fateh movement.
When Abbas was last prime minister, the US and Israel were keen on curtailing Arafat’s powers so they transferred many of the presidential powers to the prime minister. But this tactic backfired when the Hamas-supported Reform and Change parliamentary block in the Palestinian Legislative Council won 70 per cent of the seats and was able to name Palestine’s first Islamist prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh.
Much has happened since then, including armed confrontations in Gaza that led to Haniyeh becoming the de facto president as well as prime minister of Gaza. Abbas then fired Haniyeh-appointed Salam Fayyad as interim prime minister.
News out of the Qatari capital, Doha, is that Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal proposed Abbas as an interim prime minister. The suggestion and Abbas’ acceptance (apparently this was offered before and rejected) breaks up months of deadlock over who will be Palestine’s prime minister until the presidential and parliamentary elections planned for May this year.
Abbas’ faction, Fateh, officially nominated Fayyad, while Hamas totally rejected the appointment. With the help of the Qataris, and no doubt with lots of money to grease the empty coffers in Ramallah and Gaza, the deadlock was resolved.
Abbas’ decision not to run again for president of the Palestinian Authority no doubt helped. Also of tremendous help in bringing about reconciliation was the fact that Hamas’ leaders abroad, like Mishaal, no longer can count on a permanent home in Damascus. Hamas’ refusal to support Syrian President Bashar Assad and its attempts to amend its relations with Arab countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia also means that Hamas can no longer keep good relations with the region’s Sunni and Shiite rulers. Having to choose between fellow Sunnis Arab and the Iranian Shiites, Hamas seems to have chosen its natural Arab allies. Cutting its relations with Iran, however, means that funds that have kept the Gaza power alive have quickly dried up. Haniyeh has begun a fund-raising tour to help replenish his government’s coffers.
Israel’s angry response to the latest reconciliation effort was reflected Premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated statement that Abbas has to choose between Hamas and peace. It was made in Hebrew and in English with a clear message to the US and the West to stop pressing his government to make concessions to the Palestinians.
Whatever Netanyahu’s motives, there is no evidence that the reconciliation means a Palestinian move away from moderation. If anything, recent months saw Hamas move much more to the political centre, accepting de facto an Israel based on the 1967 borders and agreeing to reach that goal through "popular struggle" rather than "military means".
By nominating Abbas, Hamas reflects an understanding that he can ensure both a continuation of funds for the cash-strapped Palestinians and a fair opportunity at overseeing democratic elections. After all, it was under Abbas’ leadership that the last free and fair elections too place in Palestine.
If Hamas wins the elections, it will be able, like Islamists in other regional countries, to take power and be accepted by the world community. If it loses, it can count on fellow Muslim Brotherhood leaders to ensure that it stays as an important factor in regional politics.
Abbas may have many titles now, but he is likely to end his political career where he started it, alongside the current Palestinian revolution leadership, with one title, that of chairman of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, a sign that the work of liberating Palestine is far from over.