Friday, July 24, 2009

Fatah and the Palestinian Movement: Weak, Divided, Intransigent, and Heading For Bigger Problems

By Barry Rubin

With Fatah, ruler of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the PLO--in effect, Israel’s Palestinian negotiating partner--planning to hold a rare congress to determine the group’s future, it’s a good time to examine its leadership, the Fatah Central Committee.

Two important facts leap out at you: the high degree of both age and intransigence among those who lead the Palestinian movement. A generational struggle cannot be postponed forever, but the younger cohort may be even more radical.

Almost all the members have been on the committee for more than 20 years; the last one was added in 1995. All are over age 65.

Why are Fatah’s leaders so rarely discussed? Because to do so immediately shows there isn’t going to be any comprehensive peace agreement in this generation and that the designation of Fatah as "moderate" rests on a rather broad definition of that word. The following analysis of the actual Palestinian power structure can be ignored but not refuted.

PLO and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, 74 years old, is no dictator able to order around the other leaders. Even if he wanted to make a compromise deal—which he doesn’t—he couldn’t deliver even his own purported followers, much less his Hamas rivals.

Of the Fatah Central Committee’s seventeen surviving members, only three can be classified as relative moderates. At least seven can be called radicals—many still oppose the original 1993 Oslo agreement—even in relation to the late PLO, Fatah, and PA leader Yasir Arafat. The remaining seven might be called hardliners whose views are close to those of Arafat, which makes any peace agreement with Israel impossible.

One thing that unites them all is a hatred of Hamas and a belief that Fatah is the natural and only conceivable leader of the Palestinian movement. They are eager to make a deal with Hamas, but only if the Islamists accept a subordinate role, which won’t happen. Many in the younger Fatah generation, however, are sympathetic to a more equal coalition with their “brothers” to fight Israel.

At present, fourteen of seventeen members could never make a comprehensive peace treaty with Israel. Even the fifteenth, Abbas himself, is so firm on demanding all Palestinian refugees must be allowed to return to live in Israel he could be added to this group.

The two genuine moderates on the Committee, at least by Palestinian standards, are Nabil Shaath, 71 years old, and Ahmad Qurie (Abu Ala), 72 years old. Both have declined in importance in recent years. Shaath reached the peak of his power as Arafat’s moderate front-man, though he briefly served as prime minister in 2005. Shaath owns his own successful—though partially through his political connections and with serious accusations of corruption—business.

Qurie was prime minister for most of the 2003-2006 period but quarrelled with Abbas. Neither Shaath nor Qurie has any political base of support. These two might well be willing to make a two-state deal with Israel but their political power today is zero.

In comparison, many of those who are far more extreme hold positions of power and influence in the organization. They and not Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (who is technically an independent) or PA leader Abbas are the ones who really control Fatah, the main Palestinian institutions, and the West Bank.

The best-known of those rejecting a two-state solution and the leading figure in the radical group is Farouq Qaddumi, 78 years old, who is Fatah’s chairman. He continues to oppose the Oslo agreements and lives in Tunis. Qaddumi is very popular in the movement though clearly of the generation now moving off the stage, and extremely close to Syria. Periodically, he snipes at Abbas. While he isn’t going to displace Abbas, his views—which have not changed over the last 40 years—still set much of the organization’s and movement’s tone.

Another influential radical is Salim al-Zaanoun, head of the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s quasi-parliament. Zaanoun has always denied that the PLO changed its Charter to recognize Israel, as it pretended to do in 1996. He ought to know and in fact he is quite correct. This was a violation of the Palestinians’ obligations under the Oslo agreement, one of many which have gone unnoticed by the West.

Others among the radicals, both of them opponents of the Oslo accord who didn't return to the West Bank, are Muhammad Ghana'im (Abu Mahir)and Brigadier General Muhammad Jihad, a former Palestine Liberation Army officer. Arafat’s former spokesman, Tayyib Abd al-Rahim, supported the accords but is also a radical in today’s spectrum.

The most actively important radicals in Fatah's hierarchy are Sakhr Habash (Abu Nizar), long-time head of Fatah’s Revolutionary Committee (the body immediately below the Central Committee) and Fatah’s key ideologue, and Sharif Ali Mashal (Abu Zaki), long-time PLO director of Arab world relations and now Fatah’s representative in Lebanon. Both men are close to being traditional radical Arab nationalists. To hear what these two say is to be back in the world of PLO politics from the 1960s and leaves no illusion about the possibility of peace between the Palestinians and Israel.

What about the “merely” hardline group? This includes veteran Fatah member Hani al-Hasan, 72, who criticized Abbas’s leadership and urged continued attacks on settlers but not within Israel itself, and three former PLO diplomats: Hakam Balaoui (Abu Marwan), a personal favourite of Arafat, Abdallah Franji, and Subhi Abu Karsh (Abu Monzer). Another is Intisar al-Wazir (Um Jihad), 68, widow of a key PLO leader and sometime minister of social warfare, the only woman on the committee. Finally, among the most veteran members is Nasir Yusuf, a former police commander and national security advisor.

The last member added, in 1995, and the only one not living in exile for decades is Zakariyya al-Agha, a 67-year-old doctor who Arafat made token leader of Fatah in the Gaza Strip with no real power. There is not a single local West Bank member, despite the fact that this is the area that Fatah rules.

The end of Abbas’s career is in sight. There’s no conceivable consensus candidate to become head of Fatah, the PA, and/or the PLO. Equally, there’s no leadership willing to make any comprehensive peace agreement with Israel. The Palestinian movement’s troubles may get much worse.

How can such huge factors be ignored by those many people and governments in the West acting as if a quick resolution of the conflict is both possible and such a high priority?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles or to order books.

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