Forming a new Palestinian government: challenges and opportunities

Forming a new Palestinian government: challenges and opportunities

Reports have emerged that Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s government will soon resign and that a new PA government will be formed in its place. To be sure, a new government will have little if any direct impact on Palestinian-Israeli relations, as major policy decisions on negotiations, internationalization and bilateral security cooperation fall under the authority of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its chairman, President Mahmoud Abbas. Yet, the unfolding transition will hold significant implications for intra-Palestinian politics that will inevitably affect the prospects for reforming the PA’s institutions and rebuilding Gaza.

It remains uncertain whether the new government will fall under the “national unity” rubric or instead exclude Hamas and focus on the West Bank. While Abbas has called for a unity government in order to “turn the page on the dark division,” he probably does not mean a cabinet that includes Hamas ministers. Such a government would run afoul of U.S. law, the “Quartet Principles,” and various European laws; moreover, Abbas reportedly excluded this option in recent talks with French foreign minister Laurent Fabius.

Instead, Abbas will likely seek the formation of a technocratic “national consensus” government akin to the current one — at least at first. Despite some potential unease in Washington, such a government would be internationally acceptable. Absent a dramatic change, however, it would also face the exact same obstacles that have spurred Hamdallah to step down — namely, paralysis resulting from the unresolved Hamas-Fatah power struggle.

In forming such a government, Abbas may simply aim to pressure Hamas into making concessions or — failing that — shift public blame to the group if a unity government proves unachievable. He recently hinted that the new government might explicitly accept the Quartet Principles, namely recognizing Israel and renouncing violence. He also referred the government formation issue to the PLO Executive Committee, indicating that the resultant cabinet would have the backing of all Palestinian factions even if Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad do not accept it. In doing so, he is signaling to Hamas that it may soon find itself internationally and domestically isolated.

If Abbas opts for a government without Hamas participation or approval, it could be either technocratic or composed of political ministers chosen from the PLO factions. From his perspective, such an approach might have advantages. A government without Hamas might be easier to form, and it would be viewed more favorably in Western capitals. But this would be a mixed blessing. Given Fatah’s contentious politics, the cabinet formation process might still be very lengthy and complicated. A government without Hamas might also complicate the PA’s efforts in international forums by raising questions about its control over all of Palestinian territory. Additionally, excluding Hamas would carry a domestic cost, exposing Abbas to further accusations that he has abandoned Gaza and the cause of national unity.

Indeed, there is a growing sense in Israel, Egypt, and the wider international community that Abbas lacked the will to reintroduce the PA to Gaza by leading the reconstruction effort. As a result, recent media reports indicate an ongoing, mediated conversation between Hamas and Israel regarding a long-term truce in exchange for Hamas-led reconstruction. Similarly, recent Egyptian moves (opening the Rafah crossing; allowing Gaza to import cement) may indicate the beginnings of a thaw with the group. Cairo and Israel would both prefer to see the PA in charge of Gaza’s border crossings and the overall reconstruction process, but without credibly demonstrating his willingness to implement that process, Abbas may inadvertently be strengthening Hamas. If a new Palestinian government is seen to have abandoned even a formal role in Gaza, then Israel and Egypt may decide to strike their own separate deals with Hamas to allow for Gaza’s reconstruction.

The history of PA cabinet formation is cluttered with false starts and unmemorable governments. But given the political challenges facing Palestinians today — including national disunity, Gaza reconstruction, the role of Hamas, and the PA’s legitimacy gap  — the upcoming government formation process could have wide-ranging implications. For the international community, the situation should be viewed as an opportunity not only to prevent Hamas from emerging stronger, but also to revive a conversation with the Palestinians about refocusing on reform and institution-building.

Ghaith al-Omari is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute.