- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2008

TEL AVIV | A constitutional crisis is brewing in the Palestinian territories that could make the dim prospects of Arab-Israel peace even more remote.

The four-year presidency of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas ends Jan. 8 and, so far, his Fatah party and Hamas haven’t reached agreement on the terms for a new presidential election.

Palestinians fear a failure to resolve the crisis could embolden Hamas, which took over Gaza 20 months ago, encourage political violence and further undermine the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

“There is a political crisis of legitimacy,” said Sam Bahour, a Palestinian businessman and political analyst. “Abbas has already proven that he is willing to stretch the law as much as possible to avoid a political vacuum, and the question is whether he will do it again now. People are very worried about what comes next.”

Egypt this week formally invited Hamas and Fatah representatives to a Nov. 9 summit in Cairo to try to reach a compromise, but months of Egyptian mediation efforts have thus far been fruitless.

Egypt is reportedly pushing for the sides to agree on a national unity government. If there is no agreement by Jan. 9, it would leave the Hamas-dominated parliament — effectively disbanded by Mr. Abbas after the 2006 Gaza takeover — as the sole elected representatives of the Palestinians.

Also on the agenda are Hamas demands to be included in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the umbrella Palestinian nationalist governing body long dominated by Fatah.

The sides are also expected to discuss control of security forces and a formula that would allow a Hamas-Fatah unity government to meet international demands for recognizing Israel, forswearing violence and honoring past agreements. Hamas has rejected these conditions so far.

Fatah officials have sought to delay presidential elections until the end of parliament’s term in 2010, citing a clause in the Palestinian Authority constitution requiring presidential and parliamentary elections to be held at the same time.

A national unity government should set a date for presidential elections at the earliest date possible and “reorganize the Palestinian domestic reality,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator and former peace negotiator.

“This has reached constitutional crisis. We need a consensus,” she said. “The Arab League is losing patience; they have said that we have two months to put our house in order.”

The Bush administration rejected a prior national unity government put together by Saudi Arabia last year, arguing that Hamas had not explicitly recognized Israel and agreed to give up violence. The United States appears to want Mr. Abbas to stay in power but has not explained how to deal with the looming crisis.

“Mahmoud Abbas is the elected president of the Palestinian Authority, and, along with Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad, leads a legitimate government committed to peace and to a two-state solution,” said State Department spokesman Edgar J. Vasquez. “They enjoy the firm support of the international community. Any changes to the Palestinian government must be in accordance with Palestinian law.”

In an effort to boost Mr. Abbas, the Bush administration announced earlier this week that it is providing an extra $150 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority, for a total of more than $700 million this year.

The Jan. 9 deadline and the specter of political chaos is pressuring the sides to come to the bargaining table after 16 months of deadlock, said Dr. Eyad Saraj, the head of the Gaza Mental Health Program and a human rights advocate.

Mr. Saraj said that Fatah officials have threatened that a failure to reach an agreement would prompt them to declare Hamas in Gaza a hostile entity.

“Then the whole place will be in turmoil and in war,” he said. “People are concerned. The message of the Egyptian government is that they will disown the party that does not accept the agreement.”

Mr. Saraj said a failure to reach agreement would provide a de facto green light for Israel to tighten its siege of Gaza. Indeed, Israeli military officers quoted in the Israeli press recently said they expect a collapse of a truce in effect since June around Gaza because of the internal Palestinian conflict.

The dispute has soured observers about the already minimal chances for President Bush to extract a viable peace accord before he leaves office. Experts say there’s no point in reaching an Israeli-Palestinian deal with Hamas and Fatah still at odds.

“The one thing that Israel shouldn’t do is to assume that Abbas will be the chair of the Palestinian Authority after January,” said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, a think tank that advises the Israeli government.

“We should definitely prepare for a situation in which Abbas cannot negotiate by early ‘09 because of the eroding legitimacy when his tenure will have expired.”

Nicolas Kralev contributed to this report from Washington.

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