National unity?

Before the June 25 capture of an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip, the Hamas-led government was facing a number of severe difficulties as a result of lack of experience and the Israeli and international boycott of that government.

These difficulties, compounded by the fact that all rival parties, including Fateh and the PLO factions, were outside the government creating a relatively strong opposition, had started to produce the beginnings of public criticism of the government.

For these and other reasons, the ground was being prepared for a possible national unity government. After June 25, however, and with the Israeli campaign of violence against Gaza as well as the arrest of most Hamas Cabinet members and parliamentarians in the West Bank, these efforts froze.

Within Hamas now, the debate seems to be focused on whether or not to link negotiations on the captured Israeli soldier in Gaza with what Hizballah might be doing regarding the two Israeli soldiers captured on the Lebanon-Israel border.

Most Hamas members in Gaza do not seem enthusiastic about such a linkage and prefer a deal that would involve a release of Palestinian prisoners and an end to the Israeli violence against Gaza in return for the release of the Israeli soldier held in Gaza and an end to the rocket launching at southern Israel.

Should such a deal materialize–and strenuous efforts to this effect are being undertaken by Egypt and the presidency of the Palestinian Authority–the possibility of a national unity coalition government might emerge again.

There are two views within Hamas on such an eventuality. There are those who still take seriously their task as a government and believe that a coalition government has a better chance of survival and consequently of sustaining Hamas’ victory in parliamentary elections in January.

This strand of thought also holds that a coalition government will be better able to confront and end the international boycott and might also help convince Israel to stop withholding the taxes it collects on behalf of the PA, monies that constitute one-third to a half of the PA’s salary bill.

Indeed, the transfer of that money might also be a condition in any deal with Israel over the captured Israeli soldier.

However, there have been no encouraging signals from Israel or the international community to indicate that support of the PA can resume should a national unity government emerge. This is in spite of suggestions that any such government will have a technocrat prime minister rather than a Hamas premier or even that President Mahmoud Abbas would himself play that role.

The lack of such signals is being used as an argument by the other strand of thought on the issue within Hamas. This strand holds that a pure Hamas-government should continue because no matter how flexible and forthcoming on this issue Hamas is, there is little that can be expected in terms of flexibility in the attitude of the donor community and Israel.

Nevertheless, any prisoner exchange deal with Israel is likely to be followed by at least a government reshuffle. That might coincide with a change either in the composition of the Israeli government or a change in its attitude and position vis-a-vis the Palestinian issue.

One of the conclusions that Israel is invited to draw from its crises with both Hamas in Palestine and Hizballah in Lebanon is that relying only on military superiority and the use of force will not be enough to ensure the safety, security and survival of Israel. No matter how strong Israel is, the continuing injustice it inflicts on its neighbors and the lack of any peaceful political prospect for co-existence–the sum total of the Palestinian experience of negotiations for a historic compromise based on the exchange of land for peace–will always give rise to resistance.

That’s why, logically, it should be expected from either a new post-conflict Israeli government or the existing government to move toward a political process. Without such a process, Israel cannot hope to defuse the growing hostility among Israel’s neighbors that has resulted from Israeli arrogance, the disproportionate use of force and a total neglect of the basic needs and rights of the other side.