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Backgrounder Hamas’ Options and Challenges As It Works to Form a Government

March 2, 2006
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A month after Hamas’ landslide victory in Palestinian legislative elections, the group needs to form a government. The question is, what kind? The Islamic fundamentalist movement controls 74 out of 132 parliamentary seats. Here are some of the key questions as Hamas moves forward: What are Hamas’ options?

There are three possible scenarios for a Hamas-led government.

Create a national unity government that would include Fatah and other Palestinian factions as coalition partners. If this, the apparent preference of Hamas, fails, a fallback plan calls for the appointment of an independent prime minister. This would leave control over Palestinian security forces in the hands of Fatah leader President Mahmoud Abbas.

Form a one-party government. This is not Hamas’ preference because it lacks the international credibility and competence to run the authority on its own.

Create a Cabinet of “technocrats and experts,” in the words of Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ candidate for the premiership. This would include some independent Fatah members, with whom the world might be more willing to deal.

How likely is a national unity government with Fatah?

Outgoing Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei said last week that chances were slim that Fatah would join a government led by Hamas. However, in the past few days, this position has softened. The party has been engaged in coalition negotiations with Hamas.

Fatah is torn, in effect, between its parliamentary faction leader Azzam al-Ahmad, who supports a national coalition, and members of the old guard, who oppose the idea vehemently. Among them are the outgoing foreign minister, Dr. Nabil Sha’ath; the outgoing chief negotiator, Dr. Saeb Erekat; and security strongman Jibril Rajoub. They argue that Hamas got itself into a difficult situation. Fatah should not save Hamas from its own mess, but rather help accelerate its downfall.

Who is Hamas courting for its Cabinet?

Chances are that Hamas will convince some Fatah activists to join its Cabinet as independent candidates.

Hamas would be happy to include Salam Fayyad, the previous government’s finance minister, in the same position in the new government, as one way to secure continued financial support from the West.

“There is an urgent need to try to achieve a general understanding, if not a consensus, on the political and security agenda of the coming government,” Fayyad told reporters after meeting in Gaza last week with the head of the Hamas parliamentary bloc, Mahmoud Zahar.

The fact that Fayyad has not rejected the position outright and that he met with Zahar are good indications that he is considering accepting it.

Hassan Khreish, a well-known Fatah activist from Tulkarm, has already crossed over as an independent, and was appointed deputy speaker of the Parliament when the new Hamas-led Parliament took office last week.

If this trend continues, it would amount to a de-facto split of Fatah. Fatah in fact has suffered an internal crisis ever since the death of Yasser Arafat last year, and to an extent, even before that.

What if Hamas fails to recruit outsiders to the Cabinet?

Some Palestinian analysts believe that such a Cabinet without non-Hamas members will not enjoy public support — despite its parliamentary backing — and new elections would be inevitable.

How would the Cabinet function vis-a-vis Abbas?

It is a political abnormality in a parliamentary system that the legislative and executive powers rest with opposing parties. According to Palestinian law, the president has extensive powers regarding foreign, internal and security relations. He is the commander-in-chief of the security forces. However, even when Fatah was in power, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did not dismantle the various militias. He is even less likely to use the security forces to enforce his will on a Hamas-led government.

Moreover, a Hamas-controlled Parliament could make Abbas’ political life intolerable by passing bills and resolutions that would undermine his positions.

Abbas, for his part, is trying to expand his powers, even before the new Cabinet is formed. He claims to have the prerogative of dissolving the Palestinian Legislative Council and is demanding total control over the Palestinian Broadcasting Authority.

His strongest weapon, though, is his threat to resign if Hamas does not continue his policies. He already used this weapon last week, realizing that Hamas is now in dire need of Abbas, for the sake of international credibility.

Who is in the new Parliament?

The new Parliament took office Feb. 25. With 74 seats held by Hamas, the remaining 58 are shared among Fatah with 45; Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, with 2; Independent Palestine, led by Mustafa Barghouti, 2; Third Way, led by outgoing Finance Minister Salam Fayyad and veteran politician Hanan Ashrawi, 2; and four independents. In the outgoing Parliament, Fatah and non-affiliated seculars held 80 out of 88 seats.

Hamas did not run in the previous elections. However, seven members of the previous Palestinian Legislative Council were non-affiliated Islamists.

What is the new Parliament’s demographic face?

The revolutionary change is from a secular Parliament to a fundamentalist one. There are fewer Christians, but 13 percent of the members are women, compared to 6 percent in the outgoing Parliament. Some 33 percent are educators, 8 percent clergymen and the rest are other professionals, mostly physicians and lawyers. In socioeconomic terms, the majority of the members would be considered middle class.

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