BY KHALED ABU TOAMEH, STONEGATE—
At a time when Arab heads of state are facing popular uprisings demanding reforms and democracy, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has secured himself yet another job: Prime Minister.
Earlier this week, Palestinians were surprised to hear that Abbas had reached a deal with Hamas to form a unity government that would be headed by the Palestinian president.
The 76-year-old Abbas already holds several titles. In addition to his job as president, he is also the chairman of the PLO Executive Committee, head of the Fatah Central Committee and Commander of the Palestinian Armed Forces.
Abbas’s deal with Hamas, which was reached under the auspices of Qatar, has drawn sharp criticism from many Palestinians. Moreover, the deal has divided Hamas into camps — one that accepts the appointment of Abbas as prime minister and another that categorically rejects it.
As if not enough, Palestinian sources reported that Abbas may also serve as Finance Minister and Interior Minister in the proposed unity government — raising the number of titles he would hold to eight.
Abbas’s critics say his planned appointment as prime minister is in violation of the Palestinian basic law, which prohibits the president from serving as prime minister simultaneously.
Ironically, it was Abbas who in 2003 demanded that the basic law be amended to prevent his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, from serving as prime minister and president at the same time. Abbas’s goal back then was to limit the powers of Arafat’s autocratic leadership.
While most Palestinians have welcomed the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the feeling in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is that Abbas is making a mockery not only of the same law that he fought so fiercely to approve, but also of calls for reform and change.
Many Palestinians are convinced that the Qatari-brokered deal is more about helping Abbas consolidate his grip on the Palestinian government than ending the Hamas-Fatah dispute.
The deal with Hamas does not only guarantee Abbas additional titles and powers, but also helps him (and Hamas) get rid of current Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Both Fatah and Hamas regard Fayyad as a threat. Fatah does not like him because of his efforts to end financial corruption and reform Palestinian institutions. Hamas has never accepted Fayyad because of his moderate views and the Palestinian Authority’s security crackdown on Hamas supporters in the West Bank.
In the end, Abbas succumbed to Hamas pressure to get rid of Fayyad. If and when the Qatari-sponsored deal is implemented, Fayyad will be forced to search for a new job.
By agreeing also to serve as prime minister, Abbas has chosen to swim against the tide. Instead of paving the way for the rise of new leaders, he is searching for ways to tighten his grip on the government.
It is hard to see how he will manage to get away with this new initiative at a time when a growing number of Palestinians and Arabs are demanding an end to the rule of autocrats and tyrants.