April 12, 2013
Number 04/13 #03
This Update deals with the apparent political crisis within the Palestinian Authority, with reports saying Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has either submitted or plans to submit his resignation following growing disagreements with President Mahmoud Abbas and the wider Fatah movement he chairs (Fayyad is not a Fatah member).
First up is of the Times of Israel, who explores the reasons for deteriorating Abbas-Fayyad relations. He notes that the most concrete disagreement concerns the resignation of Finance Minister Nabil Qassis last month, which Fayyad accepted but Abbas rejected, but Miller argues the problem is considerably bigger and is actually rooted in strong and growing resentments of Fayyad within the Fatah movement. Sources within Fatah told the Times of Israel that many within Fatah resent Fayyad for his tight controls over the PA’s finances, which, in the words of one Fatah member, has “angered many Fatah officials who wanted more control over the PA’s finances to benefit their cronies.” For more on the role of Fatah officials in the current PA political crisis, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, reports say Western governments are again pressuring Abbas to keep Fayyad as PM.
Next up is noted and highly knowledgeable Palestinian affairs writer Khaled Abu Toameh, who tries to put the difficulties of Fayyad into the wider context of the Palestinian national movement. He argues that Fatah officials have long seen Fayyad as a threat to their control over PA finances and sought to remove him, but threats to withhold Western aid if Fayyad – trusted by Western government to employ proper governance over funds – goes have so far induced Abbas to keep him in his position. Abu Toameh notes that Fayyad has virtually no public following of his own, and attributes this to the fact that the Palestinian public generally only respects leaders who have used violence against or been arrested by Israel – such as Marwan Barghouti, a popular leader sentenced to five life terms for terrorism. For Abu Toameh’s full argument, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Palestinian political analyst Hussein Ibish looks at the wider regional influences currently affecting Palestinian politics, especially with respect to Hamas. He notes that while some states still back the PA, the Syrian war cut Hamas loose from its traditional alliances and the biggest winner in a subsequent struggle for influence appears to have been Qatar, putting them in competition with Fatah-sponsors Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. He also point out that Muslim Brotherhood Egypt has not offered the practical as opposed to rhetorical support Hamas had hoped for, actually toughening Gaza border enforcement, while Turkey is another suitor and Iran still maintains a role within Hamas. For this knowledgeable look at how the divisions and changes in the Middle East are influencing Palestinian politics, CLICK HERE. More on the divisions within the Egyptian leadership over support for Hamas here.
Readers may also be interested in:
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- Israeli officials involved in the talks with Kerry reportedly predict some sort of freeze on building in settlements leading to renewed negotiations. This, despite the fact that Abbas reportedly insisted on a whole litany of preconditions for peace talks in his discussions with Kerry.
- Netanyahu reportedly told Kerry he was determined to restart talks and try and end the conflict.
- Barry Rubin argues that, despite frequent claims to the contrary, it is just not true that progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace would help defuse regional radicalism.
- A poll shows declining Palestinian support for Hamas and increased support for Fatah.
- Former Knesset member Einat Wilf writes about the political importance of President Obama’s affirmation of Zionism during his visit to Israel last month.
- New Wikileaks revelations about the US relationship with Yasser Arafat in the 1970s.
- AIJAC’s Talia Katz pays tribute to the late Baroness Margaret Thatcher and her relationship to Israel and the Jewish people.
Palestinian Authority prime minister says he has had enough, following fallout with PA President Abbas
Conflicting reports regarding the resignation of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad abounded in local media Thursday, as Fatah officials spoke of a deep schism between Fayyad and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as with the leadership of his Fatah party.
The immediate reason for Fayyad’s alleged resignation on Wednesday was disagreement with Abbas over the resignation of finance minister Nabil Qassis in early March.
Fayyad accepted Qassis’s resignation, tendered while Abbas was overseas. But according to an unnamed “knowledgeable source” who spoke to Ma’an news agency, the Palestinian president was apparently outraged by the move and decided to sack Fayyad.
Tensions between Abbas and Fayyad, an American-trained economist and political independent who enjoys the confidence of the West, have resulted in numerous resignation announcements in the past, none of which has materialized. Some skeptical observers believed that this new resignation was just another public relations maneuver by the disgruntled prime minister.
Last October, Fayyad reportedly offered to quit amid a sharp financial crisis and reconciliation talks with Islamic movement Hamas, which views his liberal economic and political positions with suspicion.
Abbas reportedly told Fatah’s Central Committee and Revolutionary Council that Fayyad now faces two options: either to reinstate Qassis or be fired. The source told Ma’an that Fayyad insisted on submitting his resignation upon Abbas’s return from an official trip to Qatar on Thursday, before his dismissal by him.
According to the Ma’an source, Abbas intends to replace Fayyad with Mohammad Mustafa, head of the state-owned Palestine Investment Fund and a former World Bank official.
“There is a deep and serious problem between [Fayyad] and Chairman [Abbas],” Qadoura Fares, a former Fatah official who now deals primarily with Palestinian prisoners, told The Times of Israel. “The story with Qassis only intensified the problem.”
Fares said he did not know whether Fayyad did indeed tender his resignation on Wednesday.
As it is, Fayyad is serving on borrowed time. According to a February 2012 reconciliation agreement signed between Fatah and Hamas in Doha, Mahmoud Abbas is supposed to head a Palestinian interim government in addition to his position as Palestinian president. Unity talks stalled, however, and Fayyad has remained in office.
But a source in Fayyad’s office told independent Palestinian daily Al-Quds on Thursday that while Fayyad did not yet resign, he intends to do so soon, following incessant attacks against him by members of the ruling Fatah party.
“Fayyad feels that he is attacked every day by Fatah. Not a day goes by without leaks or public statements by party officials who target Fayyad personally,” the source told Al-Quds. “Party officials led a wave of protests against him through strikes, refusal to work, and accusing him of the economic shortfall which in reality was the result of political developments.”
Fayyad, widely regarded as the mastermind behind the PA’s economic policies, was the main brunt of economic protests that swept the West Bank last September.
Hussam Khader, a Fatah official from Nablus, concurred that the main opposition to Fayyad came from the ranks of Fatah and not from Abbas.
“There is pressure on the President to sack Fayyad,” Khader told The Times of Israel. “I think this decision is wrong, and stems from personal interests of Fatah people. Clearly there are many capable people [to replace him] but the excuses for fighting Fayyad are illogical.”
Khader said that opposition to Fayyad from within Fatah stems from the prime minister’s good governance in legislating and regulating financial transactions, which angered many Fatah officials who wanted more control over the PA’s finances to benefit their cronies.
Asked whether these men constituted a majority within Fatah, Khader answered in the affirmative.
“This time these men are serious. They want to get rid of Fayyad,” he said.
These efforts, however, seem to have failed: Fayyad is apparently on his way out.
Over the past few years, Abbas and his Fatah faction have been trying to get rid of Fayyad, but to no avail.
Abbas and Fatah leaders see the US-educated Fayyad, who was appointed prime minister in 2007 at the request of the US and EU countries, as a threat to their control over the Palestinian Authority in general and its finances in particular.
Some Fatah leaders, such as Tawfik Tirawi and Najat Abu Baker, are even convinced that Fayyad is plotting, together with the US and other Western countries, to replace Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority.
Were it not for US and EU intervention, Abbas and Fatah would have removed Fayyad from his job several years ago.
Each time Abbas considered sacking Fayyad, US and EU government officials stepped in to warn that such a move would seriously affect foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who made separate visits to Ramallah recently, also found themselves devoting much of their time trying to persuade Abbas to keep Fayyad in his position.
But US and EU efforts to keep Fayyad in power seem to have been counterproductive. These efforts further discredited Fayyad in the eyes of many Palestinians.
Fayyad’s enemies have cited these efforts as “proof” that he is a “foreign agent” who has been imposed on the Palestinian Authority by Americans and Europeans.
Fatah’s main problem with Fayyad is that he has almost exclusive control over the Palestinian Authority budget.
In other words, Fatah does not like the idea that its leaders and members can no longer steal international aid because of Fayyad’s presence in power.
The Fatah leaders are yearning for the era of Yasser Arafat, when they and others were able to lay their hands on millions of dollars earmarked for helping Palestinians.
In a bid to regain some form of control over the Palestinian Authority’s finances, last year Abbas exerted heavy pressure on Fayyad to appoint [Abbas loyalist] Nabil Qassis as finance minister.
Until then, Fayyad had held the position of finance minister in addition to the premiership.
Earlier this year, Fayyad, in a surprise move, announced that he has accepted the resignation of Qassis without providing further details.
Shortly afterwards, Abbas issued a statement announcing that he has “rejected” the resignation of the finance minister.
Fayyad has since refused to comply with Abbas’s demand and reinstate Qassis.
But the dispute between Abbas and Fayyad is not only over financial matters.
In fact, much of it has to do with the feeling among Fatah’s top cadres that Fayyad is seeking to undermine the faction’s influence and probably end its role in the Palestinian arena.
They accuse him of cutting funds to Fatah’s members in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and refusing to pay salaries to former Fatah militiamen.
In this power struggle between Fatah and Fayyad, the prime minister is certain to emerge as the biggest loser.
Fayyad has no grassroots support or political power bases among Palestinians.
He does not have a strong political party that would be able to compete with Fatah.
Nor does he have his own militia or political backing, especially in the villages and refugee camps of the West Bank.
In the 2006 parliamentary election, Fayyad, who was graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, ran at the head of an independent list called Third Way. He won only two seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Most Palestinians did not vote for Fayyad because he had never played any active role in the fight against Israel. For Palestinians, graduating from an Israeli prison is more important than going to any university in the world.
The Palestinians’ problem with Fayyad is that he did not sit even one day in an Israeli prison.
Had Fayyad killed a Jew or sent one of his sons to throw stones at an Israeli vehicle, he would have earned the respect and support of a large number of Palestinians. In short, Palestinians do not consider Fayyad a hero despite his hard efforts to build state institutions and a fine economy.
The Palestinians’ only heroes are those who fight against Israel or are sitting in Israeli prison.
Just last week, a public opinion poll showed that Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader who is serving five life terms in prison for his role in murdering Israelis, would be elected as president if he ran in the next elections.
The poll showed that Barghouti was even more popular than the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who was never convicted by an Israeli court of murdering Jews .
If Fayyad wants to embark on a political career in the future, he will have to join Fatah’s armed wing, Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and start participating in terror attacks against Israelis. He will need to do something against Israel to show Palestinians that he has “credentials.”
Otherwise, Fayyad will have to start searching for a new job outside the West Bank.
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Perhaps the biggest factor in this transformation is the extent to which Hamas came “up for grabs” after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, which forced the organisation to break its long-standing relationship with the Assad regime. This meant that Hamas, particularly its paramount political leadership outside of Gaza, needed to find new patrons quickly. Governments around the region suddenly had an opportunity to gain real influence over the most powerful and enduring political symbols in the Arab world: Palestine and Jerusalem.
A new axis of support for Hamas has emerged from a Sunni Islamist or Islamist-supporting set of governments in the region, especially Qatar, Turkey and Egypt.
Thus far, the biggest winner in the battle for influence with Hamas is probably Qatar. This was reflected in the recently concluded Hamas political leadership election, won by incumbent Khaled Meshaal, who is seen as close to Doha. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, last year took the lead in breaking Gaza’s diplomatic isolation with a formal visit, and pledged at least $400 million (Dh1.47 billion) in aid.
Indeed, Qatar’s sudden acquisition of power and influence over a major Palestinian faction might be its single most important breakthrough yet in using its soft power to extend its influence and Muslim Brotherhood-supporting agenda throughout the region.
But Egypt’s hard power – particularly its military control of Gaza’s southern border, the only means of access not directly dependent on Israel – remains inescapable. After their falling out with Syria and, consequently to some extent Iran, many in Hamas had hoped and expected that the new Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohammed Morsi would become their most important new ally.
To Hamas’s vocal chagrin, Egypt remains primarily guided by its national interests, not the ideology of its new president. The Egypt-Gaza border has never been more tightly controlled, Egyptian-Israeli security coordination is strong, and Egypt’s military has been flooding Gaza smuggling tunnels with raw sewage.
Even before the so-called Arab Spring, Egypt was the party designated by the international community to deal directly with Hamas effectively but without providing it undue added diplomatic legitimacy. Now in Cairo, Hamas leaders receive the same requisite cups of tea they got from former President Hosni Mubarak, along with a few more spoonfuls of sympathy. There’s plenty of rhetorical support for Hamas from the Egyptians, but little more. To the contrary, actual Egyptian policies on most Gaza-related issues have hardened compared to those of the Mubarak era.
Had Egyptians felt able or inclined to come to the rescue of Hamas and Gaza, which they manifestly have not done, their own favoured candidate, Mousa Abu Marzouk, might have emerged as the new Hamas political bureau leader. He certainly spent the past year campaigning hard for the post.
But not only did he lose the leadership battle to Mr Meshaal, he did not even retain his post as deputy leader. Yet it is significant that the decisive politburo meeting was held in Cairo: Hamas is clearly counting, in the long run, on a transformation of Egyptian policies, because practically it is the only country other than Israel that can actually determine what does and does not happen in Gaza.
Last year Turkey, with its Islamist Justice and Development Party government, emerged as yet another suitor for Hamas’s affections. It had already taken a major step in trying to establish its credibility in the Arab world with the 2010 flotilla confrontation with Israel. The country reportedly provided Hamas with $300 million in aid as its leadership fled Syria and scattered around various Arab capitals.
And Turkey remains interested in at least the symbolism of the Palestinian issue: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reportedly considering a visit to Gaza soon.
However, Turkey’s attention is focused at present on the war in Syria, relations with Iran and Iraq and an attempted rapprochement with Kurdish factions both inside Turkey and on its frontiers.
Crucially, a powerful faction that politically, diplomatically and financially supports the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, including Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, among others, stands counter to the other Hamas-supporting bloc.
For example, Qatar recently launched a $1 billion fund, supposedly to preserve “Islamic sites” in Jerusalem. In response, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan publicly reiterated Jordan’s long-established but recently downplayed role as “a custodian” of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem and its role “in preserving them”.
Most ominously, the contest over influence among Palestinians isn’t restricted to the Sunni Middle East, as seemed possible after the Syrian uprising started. Iran has been able to retain strong military ties – as evidenced in last year’s exchange of rocket fire between Gaza factions and Israel – with Hamas’s military wing and, even more closely, with Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
For Palestinians, all of this raises two crucial questions. First, what kind of independent state are they trying to build: an exclusivist Islamist autocracy, or a pluralistic nationalist polity? And, second, how can Palestinians navigate a new political landscape in which regional forces are once again able to exercise a degree of influence in their internal political affairs – a situation they once hoped was a thing of the past?
Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington, DC