Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Palestinian Politics and The Peace Process: The Looming Gigantic Danger

By Barry Rubin

The more I think about Western media coverage of the Fatah Congress, the angrier I get. But the carelessness and ignorance of coverage and analysis about an issue on which lives depend is very disturbing.

I've detailed this event repeatedly in recent days here and in earlier dispatches so I won't repeat all these facts now.

There is no question that the meeting was a success for the Fatah establishment and for PLO and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas in particular. But like many such successes it will be paid for by an inability to move forward toward peace and conciliation as well as the material situation of the Palestinian people themselves. It also holds within it the seed for a future disaster: the worst possible choice to succeed Abbas himself.

Virtually every key point showing the organization's direction--perhaps paralysis would be a better word--has been omitted or downplayed in many places. The basic theme has been that Fatah is changing, moderating, reforming, and passing power to a youthful new group.

And yet all one has to do is examine the list and see that basically only one of the eighteen men elected has been an important critic and leader of an alternative grouping. That's Marwan Barghouti, who is a very complex guy but not a flaming moderate. Another man, Muhammad Shtayyeh, is a private sector, reformist type who was the last one to get in, making it by a single vote.

But everyone else is from the Fatah establishment. That is factually verifiable.

And what about the official adoption of the al-Aqsa Brigades as Fatah’s armed wing? The next time that group commits a terrorist attack will we be told that Fatah is now involved in terrorism again or will this connection be ignored?

And what about the implications of the officially adopted conspiracy theory that Israel killed Arafat, when actually it was his own lifestyle (not enough time in the gym, fatty foods) and poor medical care that did so?

I want to stress that this is not right now an extremist Fatah eager to tear up previous agreements and go to war with Israel, though that could happen. And it is a group with which—as Israel’s present coalition government understands--Israel must try to work in order to stabilize the situation, minimize violence, and keep Hamas from seizing control of the West Bank. Yes, too, what goes on behind the scenes isn’t always precisely what you see in public.

For example, shortly before the elections which Fatah lost, certain Fatah officials approached the Israeli government and suggested that some phony clashes be staged to give them an excuse to cancel the voting. They were turned down.

What is most important for Western governments, however, is that this is not a leadership which is going to make a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel. Since achieving such an arrangement often seems the number-one goal of the U.S. and European governments that is a fact of real importance.

But there’s one more thing that should be the main headline, which you should be reading in every article and seeing in every television news broadcast. And you’re not.

Fatah has apparently chosen as its next leader a man, Muhammad Ghaneim, who rejects the 1993 Israel-PLO (Oslo agreement) and the ensuing peace process. He was so passionately opposed even to negotiating with Israel that he refused to go to the Gaza Strip and West Bank with Yasir Arafat in 1994. He refused to participate in the Palestinian Authority which was created by the Oslo agreement. And when he later decided to go to PA-ruled territory—but without denouncing his previous view—Israel blocked it.

It would be as if Russia chose a hardline Stalinist as its next leader and that fact was not deemed worth reporting. Might not this tell us something important about the politics and future policies of Fatah and hence of the PA, too?

Why did all those people—two-thirds of the delegates--vote for him? Ghaneim got 33 percent more votes than did Barghouti, who not only has a personal base of support but the appeal of being a “political prisoner.”

Ghaneim is simply not that personally popular. I can speculate that he is the candidate of hardline Fatah chief Farouq Qaddumi, a man who is close to Syria’s radical dictatorship, who is popular but too old to run himself. But the key reason is that Mahmoud Abbas, PA and PLO leader, and his colleagues told delegates to vote for Ghaneim.

Abbas may well leave the scene in the next year and Ghaneim would then become leader of the PA, PLO, and Fatah, too. He would be only the third leader in history of this trio. From a political and policy view this is incredibly important, far more so than the minor changes being touted as revolutionary.

I’m reminded here about the last Palestinian elections when—please forgive me but you have to know this in order to weight what I’m saying here—I correctly predicted that Hamas would win and form the government. How did I do it? Simple. I analyzed the previous local elections and looked at the candidate lists.

The State Department depended, however, on opinion polls taken by a Fatah activist, a decent and moderate guy but nevertheless a partisan. Hamas won and later seized the Gaza Strip. This was a disaster for U.S. policy (and also the Palestinians, the Arab regimes, Israel, and the region in general).

Should I mention the idea held by many in the West that it didn’t matter when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini emerged in 1978 as the Iranian revolution’s leader? This kind of mistake is not equivalent to predicting a complex, relatively unexpected event (say, the reformist turn and political collapse of the USSR) because here we have all the information we need to see the direction of events.

You know, when propagandists distort the facts, they fool only others. When policymakers distort the facts, they fool themselves, with ultimately devastating results.

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