These last two weeks seem to have been pretty good ones for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Faced with a direct challenge to his leadership from the Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas government, he has challenged Hamas to put up or shut up. A group of Fatah and Hamas prisoners came up with the document advocating for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, and Abbas has told Hamas that if it doesn’t accept it, he will take it to a referendum. Hamas now has until Saturday to accept it. This has obviously put the Islamists in a quandary, as evidence by their arguments that a referendum is illegal–a rather strange argument coming from a terrorist group, but one that isn’t implausible (the PA basic law makes no provisions for referenda, so it’s unclear whether it is legal.) The populace will most likely approve the document.
But I think that Hamas is playing a deeper game here. They indeed have a problem, but not the one that the press says they do.
Hamas did not want to take over the PA government–essentially, it was forced to when it won the parliamentary elections in January. It’s task now is how to get out of this mess, and the referendum may give it the opportunity.
Hamas has threatened to boycott the plebescite, which would virtually ensure its success. But that is exactly what Hamas wants. A successful plebescite would be read as a vote of no-confidence, “forcing” the government to resign. New elections would most likely result in a victory for Fatah, putting Hamas back in the opposition–exactly where it wants to be.
Islamists don’t want responsibility: they want absolute power. They don’t want the headaches of arranging to pay thousands of civil servants. They would prefer to criticize and build their credentials as radical revolutionaries, which they can’t do in the current situation. They certainly don’t want to share power with the likes of Abbas.
Hamas’ task, then, is to get out of the government without suffering an embarrassing electoral loss. I suspect that they are now debating ways to lose the plebescite but being able to spin it as some sort of western-Israeli-Fatah conspiracy.
Ha’aretz superb political correspondent, Danny Rubenstein, accurately points out that Fatah and Hamas have 40 days to work out a face-saving compromise for both sides because that is the date scheduled for the referendum to take place. Perhaps he is right, but there is another possibility here: Hamas will tell its supporters to boycott the elections, and use subtle means to stop people from going to the polls. Even if the referendum is passed, Hamas will point to lower turnouts to show that the people don’t really support it, and then angrily resign as the victims of a corrupt process.
Abbas will get what he wants: a Fatah government. But Hamas will get it what it wants, too: the ability to build itself for an eventual Islamist takeover of the territories without having the responsibility for Fatah failures. It turns out that the Middle East isn’t a zero-sum game after all.