Democracy in Palestine, American style


“It’s interesting that extremists attack democracies around the Middle East, whether it be the Iraq democracy, the Lebanese democracy, or a potential Palestinian democracy.”


Believe it or believe it not, those are the words of President Bush, as he stood beside Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, at the White House on 19 June 2007.


President Bush was speaking a few days after he had finally succeeded in undoing the outcome of the democratic elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in January 2006, when Hamas won 74 out of the 132 seats (compared with Fatah’s 45).  It is worth emphasising that nobody, not even President Bush himself, questioned the fairness of these elections.  Hamas had won, and won fair and square.


NUG dismissed

On 14 June 2007, with US encouragement, the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, declared a state of emergency and dismissed the recently formed National Unity Government under Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh.  Subsequently, Abbas appointed Salam Fayyad, the Finance Minister in the previous government, as Prime Minister and invited him to form a so-called “emergency” government.


Salam Fayyad’s popularity in Washington was his main qualification for the post.  His unpopularity in Palestine didn’t disqualify him.


An economist who lived in the United States for twenty years, he was an official of the World Bank from 1987-95 and later the IMF representative to Palestine until 2001, when the US forced Yasser Arafat to accept him as Finance Minister.  He served in this post until the Fatah government resigned after their defeat by Hamas in January 2006.


Salam Fayyad was elected to the PLC in those elections as the leader of the Third Way party, which received 2.4% of the “national list” vote (on the basis of which 50% of the 132 seats were determined) and got 2 seats on the PLC.  The party’s other representative is Hanan Ashrawi.


So, a Hamas Prime Minister, whose party got 44.5% of the “national list” vote eighteen months ago, and won 74 seats overall, has been replaced by a Third Way Prime Minister, whose party got 2.4% of the “national list” vote, and has 2 seats overall.   That’s democracy in Palestine, American style.


NUG the lawful government

Hamas has objected to the dismissal of the National Unity Government led by Ismail Haniyeh and its replacement by a so-called “emergency” government.  It has objected on the grounds that under the Palestinian constitution – the Basic Law – a new government must seek the approval of the PLC and, until it receives that approval, the existing government continues to act in a caretaker capacity.


As we will see by examining the Basic Law, Hamas is absolutely correct in these assertions. So, at the time of writing (8 July 2007), the new government led by Salam Fayyad has not received a vote of confidence from the PLC, so the National Unity Government led by Ismail Haniyeh is still the lawful government.


(What seem to be a reliable version of the Basic Law, which came into force on 19 March 2003, is available on the website US Agency for International Development here [1].  It was later amended on 13 August 2005 – see [2] – to, inter alia, set the term of the PLC to 4 years.)


Article 45 of the Basic Law states:


The President of the National Authority shall select the Prime Minister, and task him to form his government. The President shall have the right to remove him, and to accept his resignation, …”

So, Abbas had the power to dismiss Ismail Haniyeh as Prime Minister and to ask Salam Fayyad to form a new government.  Article 45 is unambiguous on that score.


But Article 78(3) is equally unambiguous that the outgoing government should serve in a caretaker capacity until the new government is formed:


“(3) Upon the completion of the term of the Prime Minister and his government, they will temporarily exercise their work, as a winding up government, during which they will make decisions only to run the executive work, until a new government is formed.”


Confidence of the PLC

Article 79(4) is also unambiguous that, as far as a new government is concerned:


“(4) The Prime Minister and any of the Ministers shall not assume the duties of their positions until they obtain the confidence of the Legislative Council.”


How this is done is specified in Article 67:


“(1) Once the Prime Minister selects the members of his government, he shall submit a request to the Legislative Council to hold a special session for vote of confidence. Vote of confidence shall take place after listening and discussing the written ministerial statement, which specifies the program and the policies of the government. 


“(2) The vote of confidence shall be collectively for the Prime of Minister and members of his government, unless the Legislative Council decides otherwise by absolute majority.


“(3) Confidence shall be granted to the government, if it obtains the absolute majority of the PLC Members.”


Given that Israel has imprisoned 40 or more Hamas members of the PLC, it is possible that a majority of the PLC members available to vote would support the new government.  However, Article 67(3) seems to imply that for a government to be lawful it must have the confidence of a majority of the 132 PLC members, that is, at least 67.


This means that Fatah, with only 45 seats, hasn’t enough seats to bring a lawful government into being on its own.  To put it another way, if the Basic Law is adhered to, no lawful government can be formed without support from Hamas, since it won over 50% of the seats on the PLC.


State of emergency

But, hasn’t President Abbas declared a state of emergency and doesn’t that bestow upon him extraordinary powers?  It is true that he has declared a state of emergency, as he can do under Article 110(1) of the Basic Law, which states:


“The President of the National Authority may declare a state of emergency by a decree when there is a threat to national security caused by war, invasion, armed insurrection, or at a time of natural disaster for a period not to exceed thirty (30) days.”


Since the Palestinian territories are under occupation (and have been for 40 years) it would seem that a state of emergency could lawfully be declared at any time.  But, the President cannot maintain it for more than 30 days without the support of two thirds of the members of the PLC, since Article 110(2) says:


“The emergency state may be extended for another period of thirty (30) days after the approval of two thirds of the Legislative Council Members.”


That would appear to mean two thirds of the 132 PLC members, that is, 88.


More fundamentally, the Basic Law provisions with regard to a state of emergency (Articles 110 to 115) don’t significantly enhance the powers of the President.  Indeed, they are more concerned with setting limits to his powers: thus, for example, Article 113 specifically states:


“The Palestinian Legislative Council shall not be dissolved or suspended during the emergency situation nor shall the provisions of this chapter [Articles 110 to 115] be suspended.”


Amending the Basic Law

The Basic Law provisions on a state of emergency do not mention the concept of an “emergency” government.  Nor do they give the President the power to amend the Basic Law, in whole or in part.  The Basic Law is unambiguous on the question of its own amendment, Article 120 stating:


“The provisions of this Basic Law shall not be amended except with two thirds majority of the Members of the Legislative Council.”


Yet, President Abbas purports to have amended the Basic Law without reference to the PLC.  On 16 June 2007, he issued a decree which purported to remove Articles 65 and 67 from the Basic Law.  Article 67 requires, inter alia, that a government be endorsed by a majority of PLC members in order to be a lawful government.  Obviously, he removed these Articles in order to avoid, he hoped, the necessity of his “emergency” government having to get a vote of confidence from the PLC. 


Abbas’ manifestly illegal act of amending the Palestinian Basic Law by decree has gone unreported in Britain.  However, there is a report in English by the Kuwait News Agency about it here [3] (the numbering of the Articles differs slightly from those in [1]).


Note that Abbas doesn’t seem to have attempted to remove Article 79(4), which states that that


“(4) The Prime Minister and any of the Ministers shall not assume the duties of their positions until they obtain the confidence of the Legislative Council.”


Plainly, therefore, neither Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, nor his Ministers are fit to take up their duties.


Other views

The views expressed above about the President’s powers under the Basic Law are in line with those expressed on 8 July 2007 by Anis al-Qasem, who took a leading part in the drafting of the Basic Law (see [4]).


The views expressed above also match those of Nathan J Brown of the Washington foreign policy think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who last year wrote an analysis which sought to identify what, if anything, Abbas could do under the Basic Law in order to circumvent the Hamas election victory.  Brown’s conclusion then was that Abbas could do very little.   See Annex A below, where extracts from his analysis, which is called What can Abu Mazin Do?, are published. 


Brown’s analysis has the virtue of having being written long before recent events, but on 16 June 2007 he added a preface about recent events, which said:


“Hamas responded that Abbas had no right to act as he did and that if he wished to dismiss Haniyya, existing ministers (including Haniyya) would continue as caretakers until new ones are approved by the Palestinian parliament. …The Basic Law is completely unambiguous in backing Hamas’s position.”


Both al-Qasem and Brown make the point that Abbas’ lack of authority as President under the Basic Law is the product of US determination to reduce the power of the Presidency in 2002/3, when Yasser Arafat held the office, and to introduce a powerful post of Prime Minister.  The Basic Law was amended to that end in March 2003, and a Prime Minister assumed office.  His name was Mahmoud Abbas.


As al-Qasem writes:


“It is worth remembering that the whole Basic Law has been amended to reduce, rather than increase, the powers of the president as a result of the power struggle between Mr Abbas when he was Prime Minister and the late President Arafat.”


Had the Basic Law been left as it was, there wouldn’t have been a Hamas Prime Minister and President Abbas could most likely have ridden roughshod over the Hamas-controlled legislature without infringing the Basic Law.


The EU & the Quartet lie

The EU under its German presidency rushed to support Abbas, issuing a statement on 15 June 2007 saying:


“The EU Presidency emphatically supports President Abbas’ decision, in keeping with the Palestinian Basic Law, to dismiss the government and to appoint a caretaker government for the Palestinian territories.” [6]


As Nathan Brown writes [5], this statement that Abbas’ decision is “in keeping with the Palestinian Basic Law” is a lie.


The Quartet (the US, the EU, Russia and the UN) followed suit in a statement the next day:


The Quartet expressed understanding and support for President Abbas’ decisions to dissolve the cabinet and declare an emergency, given the grave circumstances. The Quartet recognized the necessity and legitimacy of these decisions, taken under Palestinian law, and welcomed President Abbas’ stated intention to consult the Palestinian people at the appropriate time. The Quartet noted its continuing support for other legitimate Palestinian institutions.” [7]


This also declares – falsely – that Abbas’ decisions conform to the Basic Law.


As for Abbas’ intention “to consult the Palestinian people at the appropriate time”, Article 47(3) of the Basic Law, as amended in August 2005, now states:


“The term of the Legislative Council shall be four years from the date of its being elected and the elections shall be conducted once each four years in a regular manner.”


So, elections cannot be held before January 2010 without an amendment to the Basic Law.


Alvaro de Soto speaks

There is no doubt that, from the day and hour that Hamas won the PLC elections in January 2006, the US has been plotting to negate the outcome.


An insider’s view of this plotting (and much more besides) has come into the public domain recently with the leaking of the “End of Mission” report by Alvaro de Soto, who was UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process for two years until 7 May 2007.  As such, he was a participant in Quartet meetings representing the UN.


A photocopy of his report can be found on The Guardian website [8].  Here is a snippet (from paragraphs 55 & 56):


“Soon after the elections, Hamas expressed its desire to establish a broad-based government.  The reactions in Fateh were mixed, but before the idea could advance any further the US made it known that they wanted Hamas to be left alone to form its government.  We were told that the US was against any ‘blurring’ of the line dividing Hamas from those Palestinian political forces committed to the two-state solution.  Abu Mazen soon made clear that Fateh members would not participate in a Hamas-led government.  The US reportedly also sent unequivocal signals to independents who had been approached about joining the government that they would be ill-advised to do so.  In the event, Hamas formed a government that included some independents but was largely dominated by Hamas.  This naturally facilitated the continued quarantine of the PA [Palestinian Authority] government, aka the “Hamas government”.


“Before going on, I want to stress that, in effect, a National Unity Government [NUG] with a compromise platform along the lines of Mecca might have been achieved soon after the election, in February or March 2006, had the US not led the Quartet to set impossible demands, and opposed a NUG in principle.  At the time, and indeed until the Mecca Agreement a year later, the US clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fateh and Hamas – so much so that, a week before Mecca, the US envoy declared twice in an envoys meeting in Washington ‘I like this violence’, referring to the near civil war erupting in Gaza in which civilians were being regularly killed and injured, because ‘it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas’.”


You can see that the US has the best interests of Palestinians at heart.


Who was overthrowing whom

The following extract from a Reuters report by Adam Entous on 18 June 2007, entitled After Gaza, some question who was overthrowing whom [9], gives other evidence of US plotting:


“The US government began to lay the ground for President Mahmoud Abbas to dismiss the Hamas-led Palestinian government at least a year before the Islamist group’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip last week.


“Western, Israeli and Palestinian official sources said over the weekend that, far from being an ad hoc response to Hamas’s offensive, Abbas’s declaration of a state of emergency and his replacement of a Hamas prime minister with Western favourite Salam Fayyad marked the culmination of months of backroom deliberations, planning and U.S. prodding.


“In the end, pressure on Abbas to act against Hamas was as great – if not greater – from within his own Fatah faction as from Washington, which is seeking to play down its own role.


“Only the triggering event, resulting in total Hamas control of the Gaza Strip, can be said to have come as a nasty surprise to the Americans. It left in tatters plans by US and Arab allies to build up Abbas’s own forces in Gaza against Hamas.


“Many Western officials and analysts see the offensive as a pre-emptive strike by Hamas before Washington could build up Fatah. Hamas says it made its move against a U.S.-backed ‘coup’.


“‘(Hamas leaders) knew what was going on’, one senior Western diplomat said. ‘They knew Abbas was going to try to establish his authority. They read it in the paper like everyone else.’ …


“Edward Abington, Abbas’s long-time adviser and Washington lobbyist, said the Bush administration made its intentions known to the president soon after Hamas was elected in early 2006. Abbas was told ‘Hamas is an illegitimate organisation and that they are doing everything they can to force it out of power’.


“Abington recounted a meeting as long ago as July last year at which ‘(Abbas) said to me that the Americans were urging him to kick out the government, to form an emergency government.  He refused to do it because it would lead to civil war.


“‘(Abbas) did not want to get into a confrontation’, said Abington. But in the end, he said, ‘it was forced on him.’


“Western officials said Abbas was able to move swiftly this week to form a new government because much of the advance work had already been done. In one closed-door briefing with US lawmakers earlier this year, a senior US official said Abbas could rule by decree for 6-12 months before elections are held.


“On Sunday, faced with a constitutional article demanding any new government be approved by parliament, where Hamas has a majority, Abbas simply issued a decree scrapping that provision.”




Annex A:  Extracts from “What Can Abu Mazin Do?” [5]

by Nathan J. Brown, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


When Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council in the January

2006 elections, many observers asked whether President Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazin), the popularly elected president from the rival Fatah movement, could prevent Hamas from assuming authority. Once Hamas formed a government, many asked whether Abu Mazin could dismiss or replace it.


… Despite widespread media commentary concerning gaps and silences in the Palestinian “Basic Law”—the interim constitution for the Palestinian Authority—the document is actually unusually clear on most matters. … Existing arrangements give Abu Mazin very few tools to act unilaterally. Almost any change would require either Hamas’s consent or a violation of the Basic Law.


1. Can Abu Mazin dismiss Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya (of Hamas)?

Yes. Article 45 states clearly that the President may “remove or accept the resignation” of the prime minister.


2. How would a new government be formed?

Only with the support of Hamas.


Any new government would have to receive the support of an absolute majority of deputies (not just a majority of those voting) according to Article 67.


Under current circumstances, this would make it impossible to form a government without Hamas’s support. But it would also be impossible right now for Hamas to form a government without the support of other parties. One-third of Hamas deputies cannot vote because they are imprisoned by Israel.


Any new government would thus have to receive support from both Hamas and Fatah to obtain the necessary majority.


3. Who would govern if Abu Mazin dismissed Haniyya and no cabinet obtained a majority?

Under Article 78, Haniyya’s cabinet would continue to serve in a caretaker capacity.


4. Can a technocratic government be formed?

Only if Hamas agreed. 


5. Can Abu Mazin order early elections?

No. His aides constantly hold out this threat, but the president has no authority to end the term of the Legislative Council early. Much of the Western media coverage has claimed that the Basic Law is ambiguous on the issue. But it is extremely clear and definitive. Article 47 (as amended in 2005) provides that “the term of the Legislative Council is four years from the date of its election.” There is no loophole—under existing constitutional provisions, Abu Mazin has no more basis for early parliamentary elections than President George W. Bush has for ordering new Congressional elections if he does not like the result. Parliamentary elections before 2010 would require that the constitution be amended—which only the Hamas dominated Legislative Council could do.


6. Can Abu Mazin declare a state of emergency?

Yes. Under Article 110, the President may declare a state of emergency for up to thirty days.

After that, it may be renewed only with the consent of two-thirds the Legislative Council.


7. What would Abu Mazin be allowed to do under a state of emergency?

Very little without the consent of the Legislative Council, as I make clear below. Under a state of emergency, the cabinet has far stronger claims to special authority than the president. And even if the president tried to take emergency powers himself, the Legislative Council could overturn any of his actions.


8. Can Abu Mazin use a state of emergency to dismiss the Legislative Council?

Absolutely not. Article 113 is clear: “Dissolving the Legislative Council or suspending it during the period of a state of emergency is not permitted.”


In order to prevent Abu Mazin from suspending this article (as the Emir of Kuwait did with a similar article in the Kuwaiti constitution), Article 113 specifically states that the Article itself cannot be suspended.


9. Can Abu Mazin call a referendum?

No. He did so once anyway but then cancelled the call.


When leading imprisoned figures from Fatah and Hamas negotiated a common political understanding, Abu Mazin asked that Hamas endorse the “prisoners’ document.” When Hamas hesitated, Abu Mazin issued a decree ordering a referendum on the subject. There was no legal basis for the decree. Its proponents argued that the Basic Law’s silence on the matters of referenda allowed the president to do as he pleased. And they attempted to lessen the gravity of the constitutional violation by declaring the referendum to be “advisory” rather than “binding.”


This remarkably expansive view of presidential authority—that the president may do anything not explicitly prohibited—seems unsupported by the Basic Law, which insists (Article 38) that the president only exercise authority in accordance with its provisions. Further, the referendum depended not simply on the presidency’s authority but also on the cooperation of bodies that did not answer to the president. The decree simply ordered the independent Central Elections Commission to administer the voting. And a sound election would have required the cooperation of bodies that answered to the Hamas-led government, like the ministry of interior (responsible for security) or the ministry of education (because most polling places are located in schools).


When Hamas and Fatah agreed to a modified version of the “prisoners’ document,” the referendum became superfluous and a constitutional crisis was avoided.


In recent days, however, Abu Mazin has suggested that he may revive the referendum, perhaps this time in support of a technocratic government.


10. Why was the Basic Law written this way?

To restrain the president.


Most of the provisions that tie Abu Mazin’s hands were specifically and consciously inserted into the Basic Law to fill legal gaps exploited by Yasser Arafat. Arafat resisted the Basic Law but finally succumbed to intense domestic and international pressure to sign it in 2002. One year later, the same coalition imposed on him a series of amendments that closed more loopholes, created the position of prime minister, and strengthened the parliament and the cabinet at the president’s expense.



David Morrison

Labour & Trade Union Review

8 July 2007











[7]  See