by Nasr Salem (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 1, Safar, 1427)
After weeks of intense consultation, discussion and negotiation with other parties, Hamas leaders have nominated Ismail Haniyeh (pic), a powerful 43-year-old Hamas leader in the Ghazzah Strip, as prime minister. The decision resulted from internal deliberations over whether to choose a non-Hamas figure, who might be more acceptable to the West, to lead the next cabinet. By choosing one of its own as prime minister, Hamas appears to have dismissed the possibility of taking a less visible role in the new Palestinian government in the hope of warding off diplomatic isolation and a sharp decline in foreign aid. Haniyeh, Hamas's top candidate in its landslide electoral victory on January 25, was chosen with overwhelming support from the movement's leadership, both within the Palestinian territories and in exile. "This is a decision of the movement across Ghazzah and the West Bank, including those in the jails," Haniyeh told reporters.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas abided by common parliamentary practice and formally asked the nominee of Hamas, which won a substantial majority in Palestinian parliamentary elections on January 25, to form a new government. But Haniyeh's appointment on February 21 fails to hide the deep differences between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah movement. Abbas' letter designating Haniyeh as prime minister also listed the Palestinian president's political positions, including his commitment to the interim peace accords with Israel and the US-backed "road map" plan for a final-status agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Haniyeh has five weeks from his appointment to form a government. All the indications are that Hamas is eager to form a coalition government that includes Fatah. Initially, the general mood within Fatah was to refuse to join Hamas in a coalition government, and watch the Islamic group struggle with a range of problems, including a financial crisis, alone. Yet Hamas, which has been adamant since the announcement of the election results that it intends to form a government in partnership with its arch-rival Fatah as well as smaller parties, exerted a great deal of effort to get Fatah to accept an offer to become a junior partner in a coalition government after its crushing defeat in the elections. After a meeting with Hamas leaders on February 22, Azzam al-Ahmad, the head of the Fatah bloc in parliament, spoke of "an agreement in principle and the intention" to take part in a coalition government.
The powers vested in the prime minister by the Palestinian Basic Law, which acts as a quasi-constitution, give him the authority to appoint a cabinet with a maximum of 24 ministers, to draft policy, to supervise the work of ministries and to take charge of some of the security forces. The remaining security apparatuses are directed by the PNA president, who also handles foreign relations, including peace negotiations with the Israelis. This state of affairs effectively translates into a division of authority: a situation which is fraught with tensions over crucial policy issues and navigation of the ship of state.
In fact, the outgoing parliament used its final session on February 13 to give Abbas broad new powers in an obvious attempt to pre-determine the future course of Palestinian politics. The parliament granted Abbas the authority to appoint a new, nine-judge constitutional court that will act as the ultimate arbiter in disputes between the PNA president and a Hamas-dominated parliament and cabinet. The law also gave the court the power of ‘judicial review': that is the authority to determine whether laws passed by the government conform to the Palestinian Basic Law. Hamas leaders were furious, describing the session as "illegal" and as amounting to a "bloodless coup." Abbas, who is likely to pack the new court with his own supporters, will be able to use the court to neutralise any legislation that he disapproves of. The outgoing parliament also appointed Fatah loyalists in four key positions, including the head of the government supervisory body responsible for eradicating corruption. These tactics and devices may well ensure that Hamas, which won elections on a platform promising to end years of Fatah graft and nepotism, will face a tough challenge as it tries to clean up a Palestinian bureaucracy packed with Fatah loyalists.
Tell-tale signs that Haniyeh's government will begin its term in office in an orchestrated shortage of cash are everywhere. Israel, the US and many Western countries have made it clear that they will not deal with a Hamas-led government unless Hamas recognises Israel, accepts past agreements between Israel and the PNA, and disarms its military wing. The US and the European Union have threatened to slash funding to the Palestinians. For its part, Israel has said that it will regard a Hamas-led government as a "terrorist authority"; it has already imposed sanctions, including suspending the transfer of taxes and customs revenues worth around $50 million a month.
During a tour of several Arab countries, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice tried to pressure Arab governments not to bail Hamas out. Rice's efforts to isolate Hamas exposed the internal contradictions of the US government's policy towards the Middle East. Despite the clamour from Washington, with all its apparent proselytising zeal, on the need to promote democracy in the Middle East, the US secretary of state is trying to subvert and even asphyxiate a Palestinian legislature that came to power in a democratic election. Yet, in an unusual rebuff to a US effort in the region, these pro-US Arab governments said that the prospect of a Hamas-led cabinet will not prompt them to cut off aid to the Palestinians. "We wish not to link the international aid to the Palestinian people to considerations other than their dire humanitarian needs," Prince Saud al-Faysal, Saudi foreign minister, told reporters after a one-on-one meeting between Rice and his country's ruler, king Abdallah bin Abd al-‘Aziz, that lasted for nearly two hours and a half. However, there are signs that these governments' position over financial aid to Hamas is necessitated more by the need to avoid inflaming their own people, than by a genuine desire to support Hamas and its programme. Some US officials say that, in private meetings, Saudi officials have expressed uneasiness about Hamas's electoral victory. Moreover, Arab officials have repeatedly called on Hamas to work for a negotiated settlement with Israel.
Hamas has so far stood fast for its platform, which combines armed resistance with political action at all levels of government and society. "The Europeans and Americans want to tell Hamas that you can keep one of two: weapons or the legislative council," said a statement of Hamas to reporters. "We say weapons and the legislative council, and there is no contradiction."
Hamas has demonstrated that its conception of struggle with Israel is not restricted to violence. The movement has indicated that it could follow other means of struggle as well. It has observed a year-long truce with Israel, and its leaders have said that they will consider a long-term armistice if Israel withdraws from the West Bank as it pulled its forces and settlers out of the Ghazzah Strip last year.
Anticipating the freeze in international funds, Hamas has been exploring potential alternative sources of funding. During a recent visit to Tehran, a Hamas delegation headed by Khaled Meshaal got assurances from Ali Larijani, Iran's Supreme National Security Council chief, that the Islamic Republic was ready to help out. "We will definitely help this government financially in order to resist America's cruelty to this country," Larijani has been quoted as saying. Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, the Islamic Republic's supreme leader, appealed to Muslim governments on February 20 to provide financial aid to the future Hamas-led government.
Haniyeh, a former administrator at the Islamic University in Ghazzah, first joined Hamas at its formation in 1987 during the first Palestinian intifada, when he was a student at the same university. He soon became a leading activist and organizer in the group's student branch. In 1987 he obtained his bachelor's degree in the Arabic language from the Islamic University. He was among more than 400 activists, mostly of Hamas, who were expelled by Israel in 1992 to southern Lebanon, where they were marooned for several months in the Marj al-Zuhur area. These deportees included many of the current Hamas leadership, such as Mahmoud al-Zahhar, head of the Hamas parliamentary bloc, and Aziz Duweik, the speaker in the new parliament. Shortly after returning to Ghazzah a year later, Haniyeh became the dean of the Islamic University. In 1998 he became director of the office of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, Hamas founder and spiritual leader, who was assassinated in an air-strike by Israel in 2004. Haniyeh himself survived an air-strike in June 2003. The son of a refugee family, he lives with his wife and 11 children in a humble house located in the slums of the Shati' beachfront refugee-camp, where he was born in January 1963.
Throughout his years of Islamic activism, Haniyeh has built the reputation of being a pragmatist and a skilful negotiator with rival Palestinian groups. His excellent negotiating skills helped him to succeed in his role as liaison between Hamas and the PNA and in managing delicate dealings with rival Palestinian factions. For instance, in 1996 Haniyeh helped mediate with the PNA's security forces after they carried out a bloody crackdown on Hamas. During the coming weeks, as Hamas tries to set up its government in the face of the threat of diplomatic isolation and a precipitous decline in foreign financial assistance, Haniyeh will certainly need all the negotiating skills he can muster.