Abu Ala (Ahmed Qureia) and Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) seized the reins while Arafat was hospitalized in France. Upon the announcement of his death, they pressed for quick presidential elections, setting January 9 as the date. This urgency derives from two needs: 1) to restore Abu Mazen’s legitimacy, which faded when he had to resign from the prime ministry in September 2003; 2) to put a stop to the armed Intifada and return to negotiations. These will be the first presidential elections since 1996, and all sides in the conflict are involved: the Palestinians, the Arab regimes, Israel, America and Europe. All stake great hopes on the outcome.
The Revolutionary Council of Fatah chose Abu Mazen on November 25 as its candidate for president. This, together with his broad international support, has paved his way to victory. He was challenged briefly from inside Fatah itself: Marwan Barghouti, who sits in an Israeli prison under five life sentences, decided to compete. Certain Fatah members put tremendous pressure on him to withdraw. He did so, but soon repented and again declared his candidacy. He withdrew again on December 12.
Barghouti’s zigzags tantalized everyone involved. The affair drew passionate reactions not only from within Fatah, but also from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Israel opened the gates of Barghouti’s prison for visits from anyone who might persuade him to drop his bid. The fear was not that Abu Mazen would lose, but that his majority would be so small as to signify a weak, divided Palestinian Authority (PA). He would not be able to carry out the tasks that Israel and the world expect from him, above all the quashing of armed resistance.
Barghouti’s flirtation with candidacy exposed the deep fissure in Fatah between two groups: on the one hand, the younger leaders in the Territories who have conducted the armed struggle but remain on the margins of power, and on the other, the veteran PLO leadership that came with Arafat from Tunis and took all the offices and honors. The younger faction wants to go on fighting, the veterans want to stop. Arafat never settled the conflict between the two. After his death, the Fatah leaders have opted for stopping. They have had enough of being ostracized by the West. They believe that a cease fire is the only way to restore Fatah’s international standing and thus remain in power.
The argument between Abu Mazen and Barghouti, we should note, is not one of principle. Barghouti remains an enthusiastic supporter of the Oslo agreements. He differs from Abu Mazen, rather, by the fact that he sided with embittered elements of Fatah who had not, in their opinion, received as much power in the regime as they deserved.
How to explain Barghouti’s shilly-shallying? He was attempting to turn his potential candidacy into a bargaining chip. Counting on massive support, he wanted to strike a deal whereby his withdrawal from the race would result in his release. If such was his hope, it would appear that it has come to nothing.
Abu Mazen has presented himself from the start as a candidate who fits the broadest international and Arab consensus. He is correct. Egypt actively supports him. Syria welcomed him for an official televised visit, the first such in years for a Palestinian leader. It is above all Washington, however, that sets the tone. Alex Fishman reports that the Americans are giving Abu Mazen “good hard cash.” He got $20 million to buy the Tanzim (Fatah’s military wing – MS), as a balance against Iranian money that went to his opponents. (Yediot Aharonot, Weekend Supplement, December 3, 2004.)
The 1.25 million Palestinian voters would appear to have a clear choice: either continue the armed Intifada in a situation of unequal forces, enabling Israel to go on crushing them while they achieve no political gain, or elect Abu Mazen and hope for a bit of quiet.
Abu Mazen, for his part, is trying to convey that something new is afoot. He has already declared his readiness for “official or unofficial talks about the final agreements, whether through the Quartet (the EU, Russia, the US and the UN) or via any other nation… If the intentions are good, let us by all means start at once, without bypassing the Road Map, so we can reach an arrangement by the appointed date in 2005.” (Al Hayat al-Jadidah, December 2, 2004.)
The most pressing issue – and the Egyptians, in particular, are devoting their energies to it – is to unify the various Palestinian security forces. This is a major motive for the frequent visits of Egypt’s security chief, Omar Suleiman, in the Territories.
Abu Mazen is currently enjoying a honeymoon. The real test lies ahead. Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot wrote on December 24: “Abu Mazen has not reached the elections, and already a certain disappointment is evident among factors in Israel who had expected great things from him. He tried to reach an understanding with Hamas but was met with refusal.”
It is clear that the public wants to make itself heard, so the boycott of the elections by Hamas and the Jihad amounts to an admission that they do not constitute an alternative. Politically, they are bankrupt.
There are several candidates apart from Abu Mazen, among them: the temporary head of the legislature, Hassan Khreisheh, an independent, who has stood out in the fight against PA corruption; Bassam al-Salahi of the People’s Party (formerly the Communists); and Mustafa Barghouti, head of the “National Initiative,” which represents the voice of civil society. He recently joined forces with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose leader, Ahmad Sa’adat is a prisoner in Jericho. But Khreisheh heads no movement or party. As for the National Initiative or the People’s Party, one can hardly claim that they reflect opposition to the Fatah.
On the other hand, Taisir Khaled, representing the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP, a party that has lost much ground in recent years) does present a political program in opposition to Fatah’s. It is the first time that the DFLP has submitted itself to an electoral test. (In the past, Arafat apportioned representation among the PLO factions.) In 1996 the DFLP boycotted the elections. Interviewed by Asma Agbarieh on December 3 (in al-Sabar No. 181), Khaled opposed the Israeli plan to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza: “The disengagement plan that Sharon is trying to impose on the Palestinian people is a strategic maneuver that will keep Gaza under siege, and the Strip will remain a prison for more than a million Palestinians.” The editors of al-Sabar, published in Nazareth, have urged the Palestinians to support any one of the existing candidates who opposes the American line – hence, not Abu Mazen.
Barghouti’s withdrawal from the race has paved Abu Mazen’s path to power, but it does not mend the rift in Fatah. This is bound to widen because of the difficulties the new president will face. They will also make it harder to bring Hamas and the other opposition factions into line. The first difficulty will arise in response to Israel’s disengagement plan. As touted by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the prestigious annual convention of the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzlia, the plan amounts to a slap in the PA’s face. Sharon continues to speak as if there were no partner on the other side. All he is willing to offer the Palestinians at this point is a degree of coordination during disengagement.
If Abu Mazen tries to reach an agreement, he will not want to appear as one who departs from Arafat’s path, that is, as one who is willing to make concessions that are unacceptable to his people. We may conclude, therefore, that the presidential election will not solve the basic problem: what Israel is willing to offer amounts to much less than the minimum that the Palestinians are willing to accept.