Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas political strategist Khaled Meshaal signed a landmark unity government deal late Thursday night.
The signing was witnessed by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. The deal flew in the face of all skeptics who felt nothing tangible would come out of the Makkah Summit.
Both Abbas and Meshaal vowed not to let their people down again. “We promise here in this holy city and with the Kaaba as our witness that we will not let the dark events of the past to be repeated ever again,” they both said in their speeches at the brightly-lit Al-Safa Palace that overlooks the Grand Mosque. “We will protect the honor and blood of all Palestinians.”
The Palestinian leaders said they appreciated the key role played by King Abdullah in bringing them together. “He spoke like a great father speaks to his sons,” said Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. “May God bless him and protect the people of Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
A very happy and pleased King Abdullah then congratulated the Palestinian leaders. “They have proved that they are worthy of our trust,” he said. “They reached this accord of their own free will and I am confident that they will stick to the articles of this historic accord. I wish them all success.”
The historic document was signed by Abbas who heads Fatah and Meshaal on behalf of Hamas. “We have achieved results that will serve our people,” Abbas said at the ceremony and immediately asked Prime Minister Haniyeh to form a new government following the accord.
Under the deal, the Hamas premier will keep his job and the crucial post of interior minister will go to an independent. “We agreed with Hamas that Haniyeh should lead the government of national unity,” said Fatah’s Azzam Al-Ahmad, adding that Fatah would name a deputy prime minister.
The key breakthrough came when the two sides agreed on the distribution of Cabinet portfolios in the unity government. “A deal that is sure to gladden the hearts of Muslims worldwide has been reached on the ministerial posts,” said a top Hamas member at the meeting. The distribution of Cabinet posts was a key stumbling block to a unity government.
The agreement on a unity government is sure to end a recent explosion of deadly factional fighting that has killed more than 90 Palestinians since December. It could also lead to an end to an international embargo on Hamas, which defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections early last year. It was Fatah which had steered peace talks with Israel since 1993.
The blockade was imposed by Western nations which insist that Hamas is a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of Israel. Critics of the blockade, which has halted vital assistance from Europe and the United States to the Palestinians, say that Hamas won fair and square in the type of democratic process that the West has been calling for all along.
Under the agreement, nine posts will go to Hamas, six to Fatah and four to other factions which have representation in the Palestinian Parliament. Five ministries have been reserved for independents, including the coveted Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Interior.
Previous meetings between Hamas and Fatah floundered because there was no unanimity on the distribution of portfolios in an eventual unity government. Both Hamas and Fatah wanted to retain control of the Interior Ministry, which is key to security operations. The general impression is that whoever gets the Interior Ministry eventually controls the men on the ground.
Under the Makkah deal, Abbas will choose an independent interior minister from among five names to be submitted to him by Hamas. The two sides agreed on the names of two independents for the finance and foreign affairs portfolios. Former Culture Minister Ziad Abu Amr was nominated as foreign affairs minister and Salam Fayyad as finance minister. Abu Amr, who has a doctorate from Georgetown University, has close ties to Hamas. Fayyad was the finance minister in the Fatah interim government from 2002 and is a highly respected reformer. He has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin. He is seen as pro-Western but enjoys support of both Hamas and Fatah.
Early Thursday, members of the two delegations were split into four groups to consider four key issues: Ending factional infighting; seeking cooperation and partnership between Hamas and Fatah; restructuring the Palestine Liberation Organization to include all factions; and the formation of a national unity government and unifying security forces. Late last night, a drafting committee was drawing up the final text of the accord.
The Saudi leadership came in for praise after the successful conclusion of the Makkah summit. “The issue of Palestine is very close to the heart of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah. Let us not forget it was he who came up with the Arab initiative when he was the crown prince,” said a member of the Hamas delegation. “Such a bold move could have come only from him. Though it was rejected by Israel and many other backers of Israel, everybody now believes that only that initiative can form the basis of an Arab-Israeli peace treaty.”
A Fatah member at hand nodded in agreement. “An honest man, King Abdullah has his fingers on the pulse of the Ummah. Being the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques he represents not just Arabs but Muslims throughout the world. Given this background he was disillusioned and upset by the infighting among us Palestinians. He had to act. And he did act. We are thankful to him for bringing us on one platform and helping us reach this historic accord,” the Fatah member said.
“The respect that he commands can be gauged by the wholehearted acceptance by both Hamas and Fatah leadership. They agreed to come together without any preconditions. That speaks volumes for the faith that Palestinians and the Muslims at large have in the Saudi, and especially King Abdullah’s, leadership,” said Mamdouh Zakout, a member of a prominent Palestinian family based in the Kingdom. “This was acknowledged by both Abbas and Meshaal in their opening address on Wednesday and during their speeches last night,” Zakout added.
A Hamas leader Thursday took exception to suggestions in a section of the foreign media that the Makkah summit was “nothing but a PR exercise” for Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia is a sovereign nation. As a leader of the Muslim world it has played its historic role in stabilizing the region. It has conveyed in unambiguous terms to Washington and other Western nations that unless and until the festering issue of Palestine is solved nothing is going to lead to an enduring peace in the region,” he said. “This accord reinforces Saudi Arabia’s historic role in the region and in the affairs of the Ummah.”