Sunday, June 17, 2007

Abbas Moves to Reassert Fatah Authority


RAMALLAH, West Bank, June 17 — The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, swore in an emergency government at his headquarters here today, reasserting his authority over the West Bank days after the rival Hamas routed his forces in Gaza and seized power there....

Under the circumstances, the swearing in the emergency Palestinian government in Ramallah was a somber affair, devoid of any congratulatory atmosphere. Salam Fayyad, an internationally respected economist, will serve as prime minister as well as both foreign minister and finance minister in the 12-member cabinet.

Most of the ministers, like Mr. Fayyad, are political independents and technocrats, with the exception of the interior minister, Abd al-Razaq al-Yihya, a longtime Fatah figure and retired general with a reputation for toughness, who will now be responsible for the Palestinian Authority security forces. Mr. Yihya held the same post under the late Yasir Arafat.

In assertive mood, Mr. Abbas also issued decrees outlawing the armed militias of Hamas and suspending clauses in Palestinian Basic Law that call for parliamentary approval of the new government. Hamas has a firm majority in the 132-seat Palestinian Parliament, although 40 of its legislators are currently imprisoned in Israeli jails.

Hamas has dismissed the emergency government as illegitimate, insisting that the Hamas-dominated unity government, which Mr. Abbas dissolved, is still in charge. A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the new government is a “conspiracy against the Palestinian people” that “serves Israel and the United States.”

Although the media are playing this as a "Fatah government," and it certainly isn't structured to represent Hamas, nearly all of the ministers are nominally independent, and not necessarily the old guard, corrupt and ineffective Fatah functionaries. Might one dare to hope that there might be an opportunity for decent government for at least the West Bank segment of the Palestinian people (and clearer responsibility on Hamas for providing a modicum of order and social welfare services in Gaza)?

The pre-existing order under the Saudi dispensation was no great shakes, for the Palestinians or for prospects for peace. While a descent into utter chaos, with the prospect of renewed Israeli military intervention in Gaza, is a distinct possibility, it is not the only one. Given the perverse unpredictabilities of life in the Middle East, this could also be an opportunity for enlightened and imaginative statesmanship, perhaps from unexpected quarters. I'm not inclined to bet on it, or to hold my breath awaiting it, but I'm hoping. What is the alternative?

Maybe some folks festering in Israeli prisons could play a constructive role in this moment. Marwan, anybody?

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