Fatah-Hamas leadership dispute could jeopardize Palestinian statehood campaign

Fatah and Hamas are meeting in Cairo today to choose the leader of the Palestinian unity government. But strong disagreements could derail their reconciliation pact.

Leon Neal/AP/File
In this May 2, 2008 file photo, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad listens to questions from the media during a press conference in central London.

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The two rival Palestinian political factions, Hamas and Fatah, are meeting in Cairo to decide on a key aspect of their reconciliation pact: who should head a unity government. But reported disagreements over a leader appear nearly irreconcilable, threatening to weaken the Palestinians' hand as they push for statehood recognition from the United Nations in September.

Fatah, the secular party that controls the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist party in control of the Gaza Strip, signed a reconciliation agreement in early May that laid out plans for a Palestinian unity government, with the exact composition to be decided later.

The top priority of today's meeting in Cairo is selecting a leader for the interim government and discussing other top posts, according to Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram. This weekend, Fatah named Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as its top candidate for the post. On Sunday, however, Hamas rejected Mr. Fayyad as an acceptable option, the Associated Press reports.

Fayyad is a US-educated economist, former World Bank employee, and Palestinian finance minister who has cracked down on corruption and presided over the West Bank's impressive though heavily donor-dependent economic growth. While Fayyad's work with foreign donors has been welcomed by many in the West Bank, it has drawn ire from Hamas, who sees it as cooperation with the US and Israel, the Washington Post reports.

"Salam Fayyad is unacceptable, because he has drowned the Palestinian people in billions of dollars of debt and made its economy and political decision-making dependent on foreign donors,” Salah Bardawil, a member of the political bureau of Hamas, said to the Post. Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the US, also accuses Fayyad of cooperating with those two countries to thwart Hamas's influence in the West Bank.

That Fatah nominated Fayyad as its candidate despite Hamas's well-known opposition to his leadership is a sign that Fatah may not be willing to take the steps to make reconciliation happen, Tony Karon writes in Time.

Fayyad, an independent, is loathed by Hamas and is not popular even in Fatah; he was appointed, largely at the behest of the United States as part of a program to bypass the elected structures of Palestinian government, after Hamas was voted in as the ruling party in the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006. Fayyad was a key figure in a plan to isolate Gaza and build up an authoritarian development-oriented regime in the West Bank as an alternative. Even today, he owes his place in the Palestinian power structure less to any popular support base than on the favor he enjoys among the donors on which the PA depends. And the fact that he's being put forward again, risking a showdown with Hamas on a unity agreement that was demanded by the base, is a sign of how difficult the Palestinian leadership is finding the idea of breaking with business as usual.

The Jerusalem Post and Israeli news source Ynet are both reporting that a Hamas senior official told pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat that Hamas would respond to the selection of Fayyad by naming Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh as their top pick for leading the unity government. Al Ahram reports, however, that the top candidate for Hamas is Jamal El Khodary, who leads the committee working to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip.

Hamas officials say that Fayyad's nomination was presented to them as an ultimatum and runs counter to the plan in the reconciliation agreement for the two parties to decide on a consensus candidate after they submit their nominations for the position, according to the Post. The Palestinian Authority rebuffed the accusation.

Reconciliation between the groups has gained urgency ahead of an anticipated United Nations vote in September to recognize a Palestinian state. If Palestinians cannot reach an agreement on an interim government soon, it won't matter whether Israel manages to thwart the statehood vote, because it is unlikely to go through, Karon writes in Time.

If Hamas stands its ground on Fayyad and the issue becomes a breaking points in the unity agreement, that would be a portent of what to expect on the U.N. vote – it would mean that when push came to shove, Abbas was unwilling to rupture relations with Washington. In which case, the Israelis wouldn't really need a strategy to head off a UN vote on Palestinian statehood.

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