Job 1 is to mend Hamas-Fatah rift

Mustafa Barghouti leaned forward, drawing a diagram that illustrated the challenges he has faced while trying to mediate talks between Hamas and Fatah, the rival Palestinian factions that have been shooting it out in the streets.

The more flexible Hamas became in its stance toward Israel, Barghouti said, the more it insisted on particular Cabinet appointments in a potential coalition government with Fatah. The less Hamas budged on policy, the more give there was on Cabinet positions.

The dynamic of those negotiations, and their ultimate outcome, will be a crucial factor in setting the course of the Palestinians in the coming year, directly affecting prospects for peace talks with Israel. A bitter power struggle between Hamas and Fatah, which erupted in deadly violence at the close of 2006, raised fears of a slide toward civil war.

Barghouti, 53, an independent lawmaker, former presidential contender, corruption critic and longtime proponent of building institutions in Palestinian civil society, could play a crucial role in that process.

His independent status suits him well to mediate the factional talks that have deadlocked, but which Barghouti said have been followed by further contacts, despite a recent call by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for new elections.

Barghouti remains in the thick of things. During an interview in his office, he mentioned that he had just gotten off the phone with Khaled Mashaal, the exiled political leader of Hamas, and that he had found Mashaal more flexible than Hamas leaders in Gaza.

Barghouti's key role in the negotiations was illustrated recently when Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, in a televised speech, brandished a document outlining principles of a factional agreement that had been signed by him and Abbas, and countersigned by Barghouti.

A physician by training, Barghouti has long been known to Palestinians for his leadership of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, a non-governmental health-care group that has provided emergency medical services during violent clashes with Israeli forces. He also heads a think tank that studies health-care services in the Palestinian areas.

Barghouti finished a distant second to Abbas in the race for the presidency in 2005, running on a platform of reform and enforcement of the rule of law.

Those issues, Barghouti said, remain central to any solution of the Palestinians' internal disputes and progress toward negotiations with Israel.

While Hamas leaders in government have proved free of the self-enriching personal corruption that characterized leaders of Fatah when they were in power, Hamas "follows the same patronage system as Fatah," distributing jobs and favors to people close to the movement, Barghouti said. "We have to liberate the country from it."

Rival security branches loyal to Abbas and Hamas "are militias, not security forces" and have become bloated, amounting to about half of public-sector employees, Barghouti added.

The path to reform, Barghouti said, lies in setting up a Hamas-Fatah coalition Cabinet staffed by ministers appointed based on professional qualifications rather than political cronyism--a notion both Fatah and Hamas have accepted. But squabbling over posts has held up an agreement.

A new government could set a new tone domestically by encouraging private-sector business initiatives to create jobs and make people less dependent on employment in the Palestinian Authority, Barghouti said. It also could award scholarships to university students based on merit rather than political connections, he added.

But there are larger issues at stake. Abbas, in calling for new presidential and parliamentary elections, seems to be setting a course to undermine Hamas, which came to power in Palestinian elections just a year ago.

The move follows efforts by the U.S., Israel and European nations to isolate the Hamas-led Palestinian government through an economic boycott. That has effectively forced Palestinians to choose between hardship under the current administration or a political and economic breakthrough with a new government that recognizes Israel and renounces violence.

"There are two schools of thought," Barghouti said. "One is to have a national unity government, with Hamas as part of the democratic system. The other is to establish a parallel government to Hamas and try to crush them. I think that would be a disaster for the Palestinians, for Israel and for the whole region."

As for elections, Barghouti said, "you can't have elections without consensus."

So the only way forward is to work with Hamas, which in its first year in power has come closer to adopting the notion of a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel, Barghouti argues. The group has offered a long-term truce with Israel in return for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in East Jerusalem, although it continues to reject recognition and a permanent peace.

"A national unity government is vitally important to sustain our democracy," Barghouti said, "and democracy is a precondition for our national survival."


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