GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Rivals Hamas and Fatah are moving toward a unity government as early as next week, in what seems to be their most promising attempt yet to heal a seven-year split that weakened the case for Palestinian statehood.
Both are propelled by crisis. The Islamic militant Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah in 2007, is having trouble governing alone because of crippling financial problems. Abbas needs a new political program after his strategy of statehood through talks with Israel yielded deadlock. Yet even if the sides manage to replace their competing governments in the West Bank and Gaza with a joint one, the potential of failure remains high because of their ideological divide and the false starts of the past.
Here's a look at what lies ahead.
WHAT'S THE DEAL?
Abbas is to head a temporary government of 15 independent technocrats that prepares for elections for president, parliament and the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the main Palestinian representative body of which Hamas is currently not a member. The Hamas-dominated Palestinian parliament, inactive since the 2007 split, is to resume its work until new elections are held.
WHAT IS THE TIMELINE?
Abbas returned to the West Bank from abroad Monday, and is to begin selecting government ministers from names accepted by both sides. Under previous understandings, he would retain his job as president and also serve as prime minister, but the possibility has been raised that he might name someone else as prime minister to ease his work load. The government should be formed by May 27, or five weeks after the latest reconciliation deal was struck, though an extension is possible. The government is to remain in power for at least six months. Parliament should resume work a month after the Cabinet is formed.
WHAT DOES HAMAS GET?
Hamas needs a bailout. The Palestinian offshoot of the regional Muslim Brotherhood is in its worst shape since it seized Gaza, largely due to the ouster of a Brotherhood government in Egypt last year. Egypt's new rulers have sealed the border with Gaza, closing hundreds of smuggling tunnels that had delivered cash and weapons to Hamas and kept the Gaza economy going with cheap cement and fuel. Deprived of tunnel revenues, Hamas has been unable to make its government payroll, and the last partial salaries were paid in February. Hamas is also increasingly isolated in the region, having previously alienated longtime patrons Iran and Syria. Separately, reconciliation would offer Hamas a possible entry to the PLO and with that greater political legitimacy.
WHAT DOES ABBAS GET?
Abbas wants to remove the stain of the Palestinian split from his decade-old presidency. With Egypt unlikely to ease up on Hamas, Abbas believes he has the upper hand over the Islamic militants. While Abbas doesn't see enough common ground for a peace deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he hasn't abandoned the idea of negotiations entirely. Netanyahu says he won't negotiate with a government that in any way includes Hamas, which he considers a sworn enemy, even if Abbas is the leader.
WHAT'S ABBAS' BIGGEST CHALLENGE AS HEAD OF A UNITY GOVERNMENT?
Securing Western recognition. Abbas has to convince the U.S. and Europe that he is in charge and that Hamas, branded a terror group by the West, will remain in the background. Abbas has said a unity government would recognize Israel, renounce violence and respect previous deals with Israel, global benchmarks for recognition Hamas has rejected. The EU has welcomed unity efforts and said it's ready to keep sending aid under such circumstances, while the U.S. is undecided. The Palestinians need hundreds of millions of dollars a year in aid, in part because Israeli restrictions have suppressed economic growth. Arab states promised support, but broke some of their aid pledges in the past.
CAN THE TWO PARTIES' BUREAUCRACIES BE MERGED?
Yes, but it will cost more money. The rivals set up separate governments after Hamas overran Gaza, leaving Abbas with only parts of the West Bank. Abbas' Palestinian Authority has more than 154,000 employees, including close to 60,000 in Gaza who kept getting paid after 2007 on condition they didn't work for the Hamas administration. Hamas, in turn, hired 41,500 civil servants and members of the security forces. Having complained about the bloated Palestinian Authority payroll, donor countries would likely object to keeping all of these employees. Yet Hamas government spokeswoman Isra Almodallal said all current civil servants are expected to stay, with only ministers and their deputies being replaced.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE RIVAL SECURITY FORCES?
They are to merge under terms negotiated by an Egyptian-led committee, but obstacles are daunting.
The Hamas government has a security force of 16,500. Separately, the Hamas movement commands a 20,000-strong military wing which has carried out scores of attacks against Israeli targets. In the West Bank, Abbas' 34,000-strong security force, including officers trained by the U.S., coordinates with Israel in an ongoing crackdown on militants, including those from Hamas.
Gaza analyst Adnan Abu Amer says Hamas will never accept the dismantling of its military wing, the base of its power in Gaza. Israel and the U.S. will not accept bringing Hamas loyalists into the West Bank security forces.
After the formation of the new government, 3,000 Abbas loyalists who worked for Gaza security before the Hamas takeover are to return to their jobs. Some would be deployed on the Gaza-Egypt border, presumably to pave the way for an easing of Egyptian restrictions there.
Hamas fighters and Abbas loyalists clashed in Gaza before 2007, and animosity could erupt again if they are asked to serve in the same force. If there's another round of Hamas-Israel fighting, it's also unclear how Fatah forces deployed in Gaza would act.
WHAT'S THE OUTLOOK FOR RECONCILIATION?
Odds against elections being held are higher than those against the formation of a unity government. Both Hamas and Fatah might want to protect their current assets in the West Bank and Gaza rather than risk defeat in elections. At the same time, Israel would likely not allow Hamas to campaign in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas under Israeli control.
Partial reconciliation, without elections, could serve both camps. Abbas gets a foothold in Gaza, but retains his control of the West Bank, while Hamas gets rid of the burden of having to provide for 1.7 million Gazans, but remains deeply rooted in the territory. Much depends on international recognition — and whether the aid keeps flowing.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed.