PALESTINIAN UNITY GOVERNMENT Q & A

The Arab League summit, which just took place in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh has made the 2002 Saudi peace initiative a central focus of its work.  This would not have been possible without the recent establishment of the Palestinian unity government.  The following FAQ was developed to provide a basic understanding of the government. We would like to thank Rafi Dajani, Executive Director of the American Task Force on Palestine, for his assistance in the development of this document.

  1. What is the Palestinian unity government and why was it established?
  2. What is the "Mecca Agreement"?
  3. What was the timeline leading up to the unity government?
  4. How is the unity government different than the previous government?
  5. How are the cabinet positions being shared between the parties?
  6. What is the political platform of the government?
  7. What is the position of the Israel, the US and the international community on the unity government?
  8. How might the unity government affect Israeli-Palestinian relations?
  9. How might the unity government affect internal Palestinian relations?
  10. Additional Resources on the Palestinian Unity Government


1. What is the Palestinian unity government and why was it established?

The unity government is a coalition comprised largely of members of Hamas, Fatah and independent lawmakers. The government was formed on the basis of negotiations held in February in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and formally began its tenure on March 17, 2007.

Though Hamas and Fatah have been political adversaries for two decades, the rivalry between the two intensified exponentially with increasingly armed confrontations after the January 2006 elections. A year later, civil war appeared highly likely. The leaders of both parties had been negotiating to establish a unity government for months under Egyptian and Qatari auspices with no result. When the armed clashes intensified, internal and external Arab pressure mounted around the establishment of such a unity government.

It should be noted that other external pressures, such as the Israeli and Western economic boycott of the outgoing Hamas government, placed a significant strain on the Palestinian population as a whole, adding an additional layer to existing internecine hostilities. In addition, there was growing Palestinian concern across factional lines that the armed clashes between Fatah and Hamas were eroding both Arab and international support for the Palestinian statehood project.  While the unity government’s primary goal is to end Palestinian civil strife, also important is the hope that a unity government would ease the West’s economic sanctions and preserve international support for a future Palestinian state. [Top]

2. What is the “Mecca Agreement”?

The Mecca Agreement is the accord achieved by Fatah and Hamas during the February negotiations in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The agreement stresses the need for national unity and an end to violence among Palestinians. The importance of holding the talks and signing the Accord in Mecca is hugely symbolic because Mecca is one of the two holiest sites in Islam.  It is the site of the annual Hajj (pilgrimage), and therefore signing the agreement there places an added religious obligation on the parties to uphold it.

The Mecca Agreement was not planned in advance by the hosting country Saudi Arabia, but came about as a result of many factors occurring simultaneously; the spiraling of internal Palestinian clashes, the growing Iranian and Shiite power in the region, the perception that Iran had ‘hijacked’ the Palestinian cause from Saudi Arabia, and the strong sense that the U.S. was currently unable to play a decisive role in addressing the three Middle East hotspots of Lebanon, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All of these factors spurred a historically reluctant Saudi Arabia to adopt a strong leadership role in the Middle East, beginning with the brokering of the Palestinian unity government.

The Mecca Agreement does not refer directly to Israel, but mentions the occupation, and states that the new government will “respect international resolutions and the agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization  – including, by definition, those UN resolutions which refer to a two-state solution, and previous Israeli-Palestinian accords and agreements.

What is unclear, however, is the intention of the word “respect.” Some are suggesting that the word ‘respect’ is not as legally binding as ‘abide by’ while others maintain that the word ‘respect’ in Arabic is actually more binding than ‘abide by’ since respect is tied into the centuries-old Arab tradition of honor. [Top]

3. What was the timeline leading up to the unity government?

Very soon after the previous, Hamas-led government was elected in January 2006, it became clear that it would face both enormous external pressures, and growing tensions with Fatah.

By late May, the parties had achieved the National Conciliation Document, as negotiated by leading representatives of the major Palestinian movements serving time in Israeli prisons. Known as the Prisoners Agreement or Prisoners Document, it discusses a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders of the occupied territories (i.e.: a two-state solution) and calls for solidarity among the various Palestinian factions. Considered an especially promising development, allowing Hamas room to move toward recognition of Israel while also addressing the increasing intra-Palestinian violence, the agreement was largely pushed to the side by the escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. Once Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured and Israel launched its military offensive in Gaza in June, all efforts to see the Prisoners Agreement realized came to a halt.

In September 2006, it appeared that renewed efforts to establish a unity government would be successful, but these ultimately failed, as did a Qatari-backed effort in October. Negotiations continued in a variety of forums and with various levels of success over the following months, but inter-Palestinian relations continued to deteriorate.

By the time the sides met in Mecca, both the Saudis and Palestinians appear to have sensed that any further delays would be disastrous. Indeed, the decision to form the government, based on the original Prisoners Agreement, was made in advance of a fully formulated platform, which the parties continue to hammer out now. [Top]


4.  How is the unity government different from the previous government
?

The previous government, a coalition established after legislative elections in January 2006, was led by Hamas; Fatah, a moderate element in Palestinian politics, was the largest opposition party. The current government is a coalition of Hamas, Fatah, several independent lawmakers, one Communist, and one member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a secular left-wing party.

Unity governments (such as that currently serving in Israel) generally lean on the common denominators between the sides, finding a way to bridge differences either in times of crisis, or when no single party is strong enough to form a coalition of like-minded parties. The Palestinian unity government is the first such government in the Arab world. [Top]


5. How are the cabinet positions being shared between the parties?

The unity government has 25 ministers. Hamas holds the greatest number of seats, followed by Fatah, independents, and left wing blocs. Most of the Fatah members are relatively unknown and thus untouched by the accusations of corruption that cost the party the parliamentary elections in January 2006.

Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh remains Prime Minister, with Fatah’s Azzam al-Ahmed serving as Deputy Prime Minister. Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr is an independent former member of Fatah who has Hamas support; an independent technocrat, Hani al-Qawasmi, was named Interior Minister and will be responsible for the various security services; and Texas-trained economist and political independent Salam Fayyad will serve as Finance Minister. [Top]


6. What is the political platform of the government?

The platform is still in development, but the May 2006 Prisoners Agreement is serving as the starting point for discussions. However, there have been two significant statements made by leaders of the unity government since its formation that are clear indicators of what such a platform may be. Prime Minister Haniyeh has said that the primary goal of the unity government will be “the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the borders of 1967” – an implicit acceptance of a two-state solution – and the unity government’s new Information Minister, independent Mustafa Barghouti, said on March 19 that the Palestinian aim is a “complete” ceasefire.

The Saudis have worked to establish Palestinian support for the 2002 Saudi Initiative (in which all members of the Arab League agreed to a two-state solution) by the time of the Arab League Summit convened for March 28-29. The Arab peace initiative has been embraced by President Mahmoud Abbas, while unity government Prime Minister Haniyeh said that his group would not oppose the initiative. Prior to the summit, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal reportedly assured Saudi Arabia that whatever consensus the Arab summit reaches on the plan would be accepted. [Top]


7. What is the position of Israel, the U.S. and the international community on the
         unity government?

The Israeli government has said quite clearly that it will continue to boycott all members of any Palestinian government that doesn’t explicitly accept the three preconditions it set with the Quartet when the last Palestinian government was inaugurated: acknowledgement of Israel’s right to exist, renunciation of violence, and adherence to previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements.

It is significant, though, that many Israelis disagree with this position. Immediately following the establishment of the Palestinian unity government, 39% of Israelis surveyed by the newspaper Yediot Aharonot said Israel should negotiate with the new Palestinian government, while 17% felt Israel should talk to those members who do not belong to Hamas.

With regard to the US and international community, it is too soon to tell what may ensue after the recent Arab League Summit. However, it is significant to note that the U.S. government, in the person of the U.S. consul in Jerusalem, has already met with the Palestinian Finance Minister, and Secretary of State Rice has said that the U.S. will speak to Fatah members of the government who have a record of accepting the Quartet conditions.  Though minor, this is the first divergence in the U.S. position from that of Israel and is one of the indicators that Secretary Rice has placed addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict her top priority.

The British government announced in advance of the formation of the unity government that it would meet with non-Hamas members, and other countries have made similar statements, or have, in fact, already allowed such meetings to take place. Norway recognized the new government immediately, and Russia (significantly, a member of the Mideast Quartet which originally placed preconditions on the previous, Hamas-led government) has already said that the international aid embargo should be lifted in light of the new government.

Israel has said that its officials will snub international envoys who meet with members of the new government. Indeed, a planned foreign ministry meeting with the Norwegian deputy foreign minister was cancelled when he met with the Palestinian Prime Minister. It remains unclear how the Israeli government will react to meetings such as that between American diplomat Walles and Palestinian Finance Minister Fayyad.

Finally, the Quartet itself appears to be shifting its position slightly, placing greater emphasis on performance rather than declarations. In a statement released on March 21, the Quartet announced that it “reaffirmed its previous statements with regard to the need for a Palestinian government committed to nonviolence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations.... The Quartet agreed that the commitment of the new government in this regard will be measured not only on the basis of its composition and platform, but also its actions. The Quartet expressed its expectation that the unity government will act responsibly, demonstrate clear and credible commitment to the Quartet principles, and support the efforts of President Abbas to pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thereby achieving the peace, security, and freedom the Israeli and Palestinian people desire and deserve.” [Top]


8.   How might the unity government affect Israeli-Palestinian relations?

Currently, Israel is giving every indication that the new Palestinian government will change nothing. However, it is possible that a combination of public opinion and shifting international winds may affect this position, particularly in view of the pronouncements of the Arab League Summit. Finally, the current political upheaval on the Israeli domestic front may result in a change of leadership or perhaps early elections, and a new government may bring a different approach to the conflict. [Top]


9.   How might the unity government affect internal Palestinian relations?

The Mecca Agreement was achieved at a point when the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah appeared to be leading to a full-blown civil war – thus, the formation of a unity government was deemed imperative, for internal, domestic reasons. The agreement itself speaks very clearly of the need to end the hostilities, and all parties have emphasized the importance of finding non-violent solutions to their significant disagreements.

However, whether or not the government will be able to achieve these goals remains to be seen. Divisions between the sides run deep, and are often aggravated by Israeli and international behavior. Both Fatah and Hamas have already expressed frustration with their partners in government. The latest point of contention has been the appointment, by Palestinian President Abbas, of Hamas-nemesis Mohammed Dahlan as secretary of the new National Security Council.

Furthermore, any power-sharing agreement can only succeed to the extent that power is actually shared. Should Fatah and Hamas prove unable to successfully bridge the gaps between them, or international pressures act to undermine the ability of the two to work together, the government could essentially bifurcate into two power structures, neither of which will be able to truly meet the needs of the Palestinian people. [Top]

10. Additional Resources on the Palestinian Unity Government

Geneva Initiative Position Paper on Palestinian Unity Government, Geneva Initiative, March 18, 2007

After Mecca: Engaging Hamas, International Crisis Group, February 28, 2007

What's next for new Palestinian government, Reuters, March 17, 2007

Excerpts from the Program of the [11th] National Unity Government, Miftah, March 15, 2007

New Palestinian cabinet by Associated Press, Haaretz, March 15, 2007

The Middle East: a glossary of terms by Derek Brown, Guardian UK, May 15, 2001

IWC Call to Normalize Relations with the New Palestinian Government, March 22, 2007

[Top]



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