After failing to subdue the Intifada, Sharon concluded that the time had come to abandon the Likud and establish a new party, better suited to the steps he wanted to take toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the Palestinian arena, two changes occurred. First, Hamas decided to participate in the elections and to renew, accordingly, the “period of calm” to which it had agreed in 2005 at the urging of PA President Abu Mazen.
Second, the Fatah Party settled its internal differences. It had nearly gone to the polls with two heads. One belonged to the Tunis group (PLO veterans who had followed Yasser Arafat from Beirut to exile in Tunis; in 1994, he brought them with him to the Territories, giving them top positions in the PA); the second belonged to Marwan Barghouti and other young men, notably Jibril Rajoub and Muhammad Dahlan.
The coup of the younger generation
Under pressure from the “Tunisians,” however, Abu Mazen at first attempted to do just that. The younger group revolted, presenting a separate Fatah list called “The Future” with Barghouti at its head.
The factions returned to sanity after the victories of Hamas in the December municipal elections. Hamas achieved almost absolute majorities in major cities such as Nablus, Jenin and al-Bira.
After tense negotiations, the representatives of the Fatah factions decided to unite the lists. In the final result, it is clear that the Barghouti group trounced the Tunisians. We say Tunisians and not Abu Mazen: a number of seasoned observers believe that in his heart of hearts, Abu Mazen supports the younger generation. We recall, for instance, the period when Arafat lived under siege in the Muqata’a. Abu Mazen lent his hand to a revolt under Muhammad Dahlan (encouraged by Israel and the US). This failed, and Abu Mazen went into voluntary exile. It is not surprising, therefore, to find him again behind the grass-roots leaders – whose victory is desired, we may add, by both the Quartet and Egypt.
Among those criticizing Abu Mazen for this shift is veteran political commentator Bilal al-Hassan, writing in the London-based Sharq al-Awsat on January 1, 2006. The headline was “Crisis in Fatah or Change of Goals?” He accuses the “rebels,” meaning the Barghouti group and Abu Mazen, of calling for the “destruction of the historical Fatah” and the birth of a new movement. The latter will focus only on internal problems, cutting off relations with the Palestinian Diaspora. After taking power, the new leaders will seek a binding accommodation with Israel, the parameters of which will be determined by the Sharon consensus, including the separation barrier.
Abu Mazen, claims Hassan, is playing a double game. At first he presented a list that mainly consisted of figures from the historical PLO, but the pressure of the local leaders, backed by Egypt and the Quartet, enabled him to describe his surrender to them as an act of “no alternative.” Hassan maintains that the local leaders want to free themselves from the issue of the refugees’ right of return. The process, he says, has been gradual. At Oslo the Palestinian leaders gave up the PLO, which was established to fulfill the right of return, and now they are seeking to be rid of the historical Fatah too. In its stead they want to establish a pragmatic leadership, which will achieve a cordial relationship with the White House and work out a final agreement, no matter how inadequate, with Israel.
Bilal Hassan’s comments hew close to reality. This is not just a question of intergenerational conflict.
Israel’s strategic interest has always been to separate the Palestinian people from the PLO and create an alternative leadership. That was the purpose of the “Village Leagues” in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. It was also the purpose, in 1991, of the Madrid Conference, where the PLO was not permitted to take part officially. In the new Fatah list, we witness the completion of this quiet overthrow, wrapped in the seeming legitimacy of elections. Even those who rejected Oslo, including the Left and Hamas, will not hesitate to take part in this process, so eager are they to be in the government. But we need not be surprised. Hamas never belonged to the PLO and even opposed it.
What is the secret of the younger generation’s attractiveness in the coming elections, apart from the fact that they are supported by the Quartet, Israel and Egypt? Unlike the Tunisians, they sit among their people. That is, because they are close to the grass roots, their chances of gaining support from there – even if this is based on clan membership rather than issues – are considerably greater than those of the Tunisians, Arafat’s transplants.
The Fatah list still reserves the first five spots for Tunisians, but this is a big reduction. The remainder consists of the younger generation, whose members are little known to the Palestinian public. If that public decides to opt for a fundamental change or for a party with internal discipline, its vote will go to Hamas.
But Hamas is also becoming more pragmatic, in no small measure because of the assassinations Israel carried out against its senior leaders. The movement has an Achilles heel, however, on which the PA and Fatah will surely press: Hamas claims the right to criticize and veto any political agreement, but it remains unwilling to assume a position from which it might be called on to negotiate with Israel. In an interview on January 10, its political leader, Khaled Mashaal (who lives abroad) said the following: “We don’t want to take the regime from Fatah, we just want to participate.” This position does not arouse popular trust. Palestinians in the Territories do want to see progress toward peace. What can Hamas say? “Excuse us, on this issue please turn to Fatah; let it do the dirty work of dealing with Israel.” This weakness may cost Hamas votes, but probably not enough to help Fatah significantly. Hamas is about to become an irreversible fact in the political struggle between Israel and the Palestinians.
Elections to what end?
And the day after
How then will Abu Mazen be able to govern, surrounded by:
- young Fatah leaders whose priority is to line their pockets;
- an Islamic bloc that will tie him down;
- Israel, increasing his irrelevance with every new slab in the separation wall; and