Hamas Leaves Abbas in a Bind

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Although Israeli and American optimists like to imagine that financial pressure from the West will help President Mahmoud Abbas quickly reverse Hamas's Palestinian election victory, the opposite seems to be happening. As Hamas submitted its cabinet nominees to President Abbas, that fact became even more clear in a new poll showing that Hamas's support had actually increased since its election victory two months ago.

President Abbas, meanwhile, appears to be flailing. After Hamas presented its nominees, Abbas said he would respond within 48 hours, but first planned to discuss the matter with the PLO Executive Committee. Abbas' unspoken message appeared to be that the PLO's legitimacy trumps that of the Palestinian Authority, the democratically elected body it helped to create with the Oslo Accords. But that is, at best, a dubious proposition, since the PLO actually has no formal constitutional role to play in approving the cabinet. Hamas, which is not part of the PLO and is not likely to take orders from it, now holds 74 seats in the Palestinian Legislature — a lot more than the parties affiliated with the PLO.

Abbas's action underscores the fact that Fatah lacks a clear program, and is breaking up into fiefdoms run by local warlords: In Gaza, on Monday, Fatah-aligned gunmen who attacked a Palestinian police station and electricity utility were repelled by mostly Fatah-aligned Palestinian policemen. Hamas, meanwhile, has picked a cabinet designed to show a responsible face to the world: Its nominee for finance minister, economist Omar Abdel Razzak, has said that financial cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians is in the best interests of both sides, and should continue. He believes it will, since he also thinks Israel will move towards making a reluctant accommodation with a Hamas-led government once its own election is over. After all, since Hamas has no real interest in holding political negotiations with Israel, Israel sees the Hamas victory as improving its prospects for unilaterally redrawing the boundaries between the two peoples.

While Razzak appears to be a well-qualified technocrat, there are questions over whether Interior Minister nominee and longtime Hamas activist Sayed Siam will have the power and experience to handle the increasingly difficult internal security challenge symbolized by Monday's Gaza firefights. Still, Hamas is taking a pragmatic approach, blessing current talks about opening border crossings to ease the stranglehold on Gaza's food supplies and also on combating a regional outbreak of bird flu.

Certainly, the diplomatic rhetoric isn't about to end anytime soon. The European Union indicated Monday that its decisions on financial support to the PA will be based on measuring the performance of a Hamas government against EU anti-terrorism principles. More would be expected of Hamas, however, if there was any active political negotiating process under way right now. Instead, as long as it doesn't initiate terror attacks, Hamas can claim to be practically playing by the rules.

And for now at least, there is general agreement that the best interests of Hamas lie in establishing a viable government and restraining militants. But some of that agreement may be tenuous, and Hamas, like Fatah, may face internal political troubles as a result of its ascent. Although the Islamist movement is far more disciplined than its secular nationalist rival, many leaders in Hamas opposed the decision to participate in elections, and they will resist the trend towards reaching any level of accommodation with Israel.

Now that Hamas has refused to accept Abbas' party's bottom lines for sharing power — which included accepting existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinians — President Abbas faces yet another dilemma. He can either move to fire the new government by rejecting the cabinet nominees, creating a political crisis and forcing new legislative elections. Or he could resign his own position and force new presidential elections. Either way, however, Hamas would probably prevail at the polls.