Palestinian Parliament to Meet With Hamas Majority

On Saturday, the Palestinian parliament will meet for the first time since Hamas won a majority of seats in last month's elections. Some Hamas leaders are reporting that Ismail Haniyeh will be nominated as prime minister. Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East program, talks with Robert Siegel.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

The Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas is expected to name Ismail Haniyeh as its Prime Minister. Hamas won an outright majority in the Palestinian legislative elections. Mahmoud Abbas of the nationalist Fatah movement remains the president, but it's now up to Hamas to name ministers, who would actually run the government. Mr. Haniyeh is often described as a pragmatist or a moderate, at least by Hamas standards.

For what that means and for other questions about Hamas' victory, we turn to Rob Malley, who is director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East Program. Robert Malley writes about Hamas in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. And, Robert Malley, when they say that, say, Ismail Haniyeh or somebody else is a pragmatic leader of Hamas, what do they mean?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, everything is relative, but it means that compared to some other members of Hamas, he is less inclined to advocate violence. He was less inclined to advocate confrontation with the Palestinian Authority at the time that it was headed by Fatah, and may be more amenable to contacts with Israel. Again, everything is relative, but he has been promoted as the moderate, pragmatic face of Hamas.

SIEGEL: According to Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, President Abbas may ask the next Palestinian Prime Minister to affirm existing peace agreements like the road map, things that Hamas does not acknowledge. Do you think he's capable of doing that, or does that exceed the limits of pragmatism for someone in Hamas?

MALLEY: I think that's the test, and I think that's precisely where the test should be. The test shouldn't be on Hamas as a party, as an organization. There's no question that it won't, tomorrow, recognize Israel or renounce violence. The proper place to place the burden is on the government, and that government will have to say whether or not it's prepared to respect the past agreements that the Palestinian government has entered into since Oslo, and if the government can't, then we're facing a real crisis.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm. Ismail Haniyeh, who may or conceivably still may not be named Prime Minister of the Palestinian authority, grew up in Gaza. This is not somebody coming in from Tunisia, the way the Arafat leadership did. On the other hand, trained as an imam and in Arabic literature, not exactly a technocrat. Is he up to the job?

MALLEY: Well, I mean, part of his experience is also that he was in an Israeli prison. That probably gave him some more experience. Listen, it's unclear that anyone right now would be up to the job, given the challenges that any Hamas-led government is going to face. The reason he was selected is, in all likelihood, because he was the preeminent leader in the territories and because he has this reputation as being pragmatic and perhaps more acceptable to the international community.

Whether he has the skills to do it, one will have to see, but it'll also depend very much on who, if it's him, who he'll appoint in his cabinet. But, again, the government will not be able to succeed if the international community decides that it's going to be starved of resources and ostracized, and that much more than the technocratic abilities of Ismail Haniyeh will determine his and his government's fate.

SIEGEL: When the Palestinian National Authority was first established, the leadership of Fatah came to Gaza and also ultimately, too, to the West Bank, from overseas. In this case, the leadership of Hamas remains in Damascus. It's outside the country. Is there going to be a tension between the leadership that's been exiled and the leadership that's in the parliament?

MALLEY: Well, there've been signs of tension. It's not only between the outside and the inside. It's tensions among those on the outside and tensions among those on the inside. It's an organization that really has developed as a collective leadership. They make their decisions by consensus. Now they have to choose the public face and what role the outside is going to play. All of that is going to create tensions. And I think, again, there's a way to use those tensions in a smart way, by presenting Hamas and its government with tough but realistic demands that some of them are going to be more likely to accept than others. And that, in a way, is exactly President Bush's gamble on democracy, that democracy is a way to get people who may otherwise be attracted to radical ways to see the appeal of politics, and let's see whether some members of Hamas, some members of its leadership, may in fact be more attracted to this way of life than to their old way.

SIEGEL: Robert Malley, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

MALLEY: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: Robert Malley is director of the Middle East Program of the International Crisis Group, and he's co-author of the article Hamas: The Perils of Power in the March 9 issue of The New York Review of Books. He spoke to us from Athens.

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