If Mahmoud Abbas steps down, Hamas official next in line
Interview: Hamas official Aziz Dweik, the constitutional successor to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, rejects violence. He seeks to bridge the Hamas divide with Abbas's Fatah party, which weakens Palestinians in talks with Israel.
Hebron, West Bank
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His name is Aziz Dweik, a leading member of Hamas who was released from Israeli prison this summer after being held for three years.
Among 41 elected Hamas lawmakers – nearly a third of the Palestinian parliament – rounded up by Israel following the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Dr. Dweik was one of the most prominent. His resume boasts spectacular English, a PhD in urban planning from the University of Pennsylvania, and a key spokesman on behalf of 415 Hamas members deported to Lebanon in 1992. (With the help of international pressure, they were quickly returned.)
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator under Abbas, has said repeatedly in recent weeks that if his boss goes, Dweik is next in line. Some Palestinians go even further, pointing out that Abbas's term actually expired in January 2009, and that legally, Dweik should replace him.
"Abu Mazen's term ended long ago," says Dweik in a conversation in his home in the West Bank city of Hebron, referring to the embattled Palestinian president by his patronym. "If it were challenged in a constitutional court, I'm pretty sure he would lose."
Dweik says he's not agitating for the top seat, however. He is focused instead on trying to bring about a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, without which the Palestinians cannot claim to have their own house in order and are thus weakened in peace talks with Israel.
As a member of Hamas, but one who does not view violence as the answer, Dweik sees himself as a bridge between the Islamist organization and the secular Fatah party.
Two issues holding up Fatah-Hamas deal
The Egyptian-brokered reconciliation deal that over the past six months has repeatedly been reported as just around the corner is in fact close, Dweik says, but two major issues are holding it up.
One, Hamas wants about 1,000 Hamas-affiliated Palestinians fired from various government jobs and teaching positions to be reinstated. Second, it seeks the release of some 900 Hamas prisoners the Palestinian Authority swept up in its West Bank law-and-order crackdown, carried out with the help of the US security coordinator in the West Bank, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton.
"We have to insist on that [their release], or we will sell out our own people," Dweik says. "Of the 900, 99 percent of them are not fighters. But some of them used to serve us in election time as part of our canvassing teams." In short, the reason Hamas will not agree to a deal that doesn't include them is because to do so would mean that its grassroots activists will remained jailed and incapacitated – a key problem given that the reconciliation deal is expected to pave the way for elections.