The Palestinian national unity government of technocrats headed by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah that was sworn into office in Ramallah Monday is rich in irony and opportunity. It offers important new possibilities, if key actors respond reasonably, rather than hysterically.
The new government’s own policies will be telling of what it might portend for the Palestinians’ hopes of ending the Israeli occupation and siege of the West Bank and Gaza through negotiations, and moving towards the birth of a viable independent state. The most critical criterion of its success or failure will be its ability to achieve a series of priorities for the Palestinians in the occupied territories and in the diaspora. These include forging a stronger sense of genuine unity among Palestinians, holding parliamentary elections in six months’ time, improving day-to-day living conditions in the occupied territories, and shaping a clear diplomatic and resistance policy vis-a-vis Israel that is supported by a strong majority of Palestinians who act politically through the revived institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
This government came into being because the separate policies of both Fateh in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza had reached dead ends, and both groups had been steadily losing support and even legitimacy among Palestinians. Fateh’s bold policy under President Mahmoud Abbas of negotiating endlessly with Israel in the context of Washington’s Israel-leaning mediation has proved fruitless. Hamas’ policy of armed resistance and building institutions at home has also failed to improve living conditions and opportunities for ordinary citizens.
Israel’s reaction has been predictably hostile, promising not to deal with the new government and to impose punishments. We have been through this before, without any meaningful results from the Israeli boycott. Ironically, Israel is now in the same position the Arab world assumed in September 1970, when Arab leaders declared at the Khartoum summit their three “no’s”: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.”
Now Israel is the side that rejects dealing with the other, even though its own government is composed of several right-wing parties that represent a majority of Israelis. Some of these Israeli parties in the government also reject the idea of a sovereign Palestinian state, and yet they expect the world to agree with them unconditionally.
The reactions of the United States and the European Union to the new government will be the most important ones to watch in the short run. Initial signs that the United States and the EU will deal with the Palestinian government suggest that the rest of the world will follow suit, leaving Israel badly isolated and wallowing in its own vindictiveness.
The United States has wisely and reasonably said it would judge the Palestinian government on the basis of its policies, acknowledging that its Israeli-induced boycott of the Hamas-led government following the 2006 elections was a mistake. Washington, the Europeans and many others have also said they expect the new government to adhere to international principles, including recognizing Israel, renouncing violence, and respecting previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements. The new government has stated it will do so, even while Hamas itself rejects some of these principles.
Hamas has sensibly stated for years that it would respect any peace agreement that is ratified by a majority of Palestinians, and is willing to back a unity government of technocrats that tests the diplomatic water. It does so because it is convinced that a negotiated peace with Israel is not possible, given the current imbalance of power and coalition of rightwing Zionists that rules Israel.
The Palestinian government’s adherence to the three principles related to its ties with Israel — with the agreement of all major political groups — may put new pressure on Israel to show if it, too, is committed to these three principles. The rising tide of international criticism, and even boycotts of Israeli conduct in the occupied territories has already sharpened the focus on the criminal nature of Zionist conduct vis-a-vis the Palestinians: the assassinations, siege, annexation, colonization, collective punishment and other nasty policies that are carried out by the Israeli government and army. The new Palestinian government’s commitment to negotiate a peace agreement and honor existing agreements will only further isolate Israel and force its citizens to decide whether their present rightwing coalition government accurately reflects their views.
Much of what happens now will depend on the steps the new Palestinian government will take. Its commitment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict suggests that its first priority should be to clarify the implications and purpose of the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, which remains on the table but has never elicited a serious Israeli response. This could be the most effective way to move towards achieving the main priorities of the new government, which are forging a strong national consensus, revitalizing the inputs of diaspora Palestinians in national decision-making, and mobilizing the significant international support that exists for the Palestinian cause.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global
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