Khaled Meshaal, the head of the Hamas political bureau, yesterday gave a speech in Damascus which welcomed direct, unconditional dialogue with the Obama administration and repeated his previously signaled support for a two state solution within the 1967 boundaries. He called Obama's statements thus far a step in the right direction, but -- like virtually everyone else in the Arab world -- immediately reserved judgement to see whether concrete actions followed the words. While his outreach to Obama is important, the more important part of his speech may have been his warning about the "repressive" practices of the Fayyad government and his call for the removal of General Keith Dayton's mission of training Palestinian security forces.
Meshaal called General Dayton's security forces the greatest obstacle to Palestinian reconciliation and called for his removal. Many in the U.S. will take this as a sign that Dayton's mission is succeeding, and that Hamas is growing worried about the increasing competence and strength of the Palestinian Authority's security forces. Certainly, Israelis seem impressed with their improved performance, as do American officials and Congress. And on our recent trip we heard considerable testimony (from Palestinians, not just Israelis and Americans) about the improving law and order on the streets of West Bank cities.
But serious questions about the role and future of these security forces need to be asked -- not just because Meshaal raises them, but because his concerns reflect widespread Palestinian sentiments. It is now common to refer to the current Palestinian government as either the "Fayyad/Dayton government" or just "the Dayton government" and the Palestinian security forces as "the Dayton forces." This is not meant as a compliment. This widespread perception partly represents a strategic communications failure on the part of Dayton's team -- and partly represents real, perhaps unresolvable, contradictions.
There are major questions about the mission of these new Palestinian security forces which have largely escaped serious public debate. Are they meant to establish law and order, as per the official mandate? Is it something akin to the logic of COIN, establishing security and population security in order to provide the breathing space for political reconciliation? Is it to target Hamas and its infrastructure, as the Israelis demand and as seems to have been happening of late in Qalqaliya, Hebron, and elsewhere? How do these security forces fit withing Netanyahu's concept of a demilitarized Palestinian state?
There are also real concerns about the implications of a rapidly improving security sector combined with hapless, inefficient and dilapidated civilian ministries. One Palestinian Minister told me in Ramallah last week that the budgetary request for the security forces had almost equalled the entire proposed budget for the Palestinian Authority. Rule of law, the judicial system, governance, and economic development trail far behind. And as for transparency and accountability, there seems to be a veil over the activities of these security forces from the point of view of most Palestinians. The active grumbling and concerns about their alleged abuses and their real mission come from far wider precincts than just Hamas.
Such questions are not abstract. They go to the core of exactly what kind of Palestinian state is supposedly being built, and what the balance will be between security (primarily an Israeli demand) and everything else.
These questions will be brought to a knife's edge if a Palestinian national unity government were against the odds to be achieved, and Hamas joins Fatah and the other factions in a national unity government -- something which most people assume is necessary if there is going to be serious negotiations towards a final status agreement. Will the Palestinian security services cooperate with Hamas or continue to crack down upon them? Will General Dayton's team continue training the security forces of a Palestinian Authority which includes Hamas? Will Hamas men be brought in to the security apparatus? And what about the elections scheduled for January 2010, which Salam Fayyad wants held on schedule -- were Hamas to win again, as they did in 2006, what will become of these new security forces?
There are all important questions which have to be addressed -- and can not simply be dismissed as Hamas propaganda.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.