Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Murder, He Said: Palestinian Politics Fragments Further

By Barry Rubin

Reality keeps impinging on the four main illusions regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the ideas that: peace is possible in the not-distant future; that there’s a Palestinian negotiating partner which wants a two-state solution; that there’s a serious Palestinian negotiating partner capable of reaching and implementing an agreement; and that the failure to end the conflict is due to Israel.

Now we may be at the start of another Palestinian implosion, this time in Fatah, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the PLO, the less-important but still existing Palestinian political umbrella group.

The latest development is a very public feud between Fatah leader and long-time PLO “foreign minister” Farouq Qaddumi, and PLO and PA head Mahmoud Abbas. With the word “moderate” endlessly—and exaggeratedly—applied to Fatah, it is easy to forget that the group’s perennial most popular leader is Qaddumi, a man who opposed and still openly opposes the Oslo agreement and a two-state solution.

Given this opposition, Qaddumi, unlike many other Fatah leaders, long refused to move to Gaza or the West Bank. It should be stressed, however, that Qaddumi could probably—if a conflict broke out—muster more support in the organization than the bureaucratic and uncharismatic Abbas. Indeed, the only real asset Abbas has is the Western aid which subsidizes the PA and, indirectly, Fatah and the PLO.

Qaddumi has now accused Abbas of murdering former PLO, PA, and Fatah leader Yasir Arafat, in partnership with Israel no less! Of course, Israel is often blamed for this even by supposedly “moderate” Palestinian leaders or intellectuals aligned with Abbas. The truth is that Arafat, who was always in poor health and never exactly a physical fitness fanatic, received poor medical care, further delayed by the movement’s refusal to deal with the reality of his illness.

Let’s pause here for a moment. If Palestinian leaders lie about each other so shamelessly, shouldn’t Western journalists, politicians, and human rights’ groups consider how much more of an incentive they have to lie about Israel? Israel is accused of all sorts of misdeeds based on statements by Palestinians who view such lies as part of their propaganda effort. Shouldn’t that be taken into account and such claims discounted without hard proof?

Let’s return, however, to the Palestinian political action. Why this feud between the two top non-Islamist Palestinian leaders?

1. Western observers think peace processes are one-way streets but fail to understand that the closer successful negotiations might appear, the more determined are extremists to wreck it. In other words—it isn’t really paradoxical—even the potential prospect of diplomatic progress raised the level of violence and conflict. In this case, the new feud is in part a response to U.S. efforts to heat up the process by those who want to ensure the conflict doesn't end.

2. Abbas is perceived as becoming too close to America and there's fear of the PA and Fatah becoming U.S. satellites. A key factor here is U.S. training of Palestinian security forces. Fatah isn’t a movement so much as it is a militia; the PA is not so much a government as it is an assembly of gunmen. If the United States seems to gain influence over the security forces, militants believe it could get control of the movement. Many in the movement want to sabotage this efort. Remember these are people who have spent decades hating and mistrusting America. (Arafat used to lead meetings in a rousing version of a little ditty entitled, "America is the head of the snake.")

3. Qaddumi has always been Syria’s man. Syria keeps insisting that it is the key to stabilizing Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinians, Arab-Israeli peace, contacts with Iran, and just about everything else. The Syrians want to assert its own influence over the movement and ensure the United States doesn’t get too much. (And since Syria also sponsors Hamas one can see what that would lead.)

4. Finally but most significantly, the battle to be the next PLO leader has just begun. Abbas is not in good health. Will he really last more than a year? Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is a Western-backed bureaucrat with no base of his own. Qaddumi is too old. There is no leading candidate, or even candidates, for the top job. But within the next year they will emerge. Each one will have a faction behind him. And don’t forget that each of these candidates will also be thinking about whether he wants to fight Hamas or get its backing in the battle for leadership.

In August, Fatah is supposed to hold a general congress, but these meetings are often postponed. Internal elections have been repeatedly postponed. Indeed, the reelection of the PA’s leader has also been postponed, in part due to the fact that the PA can’t control elections in the Gaza Strip and cannot be entirely sure it would defeat Hamas on the West Bank.

Palestinian politics, in short, are in a gigantic mess. They aren’t going to get better for a long time and might get worse. The PA and Fatah could descend into anarchy, or an even more radical leadership could emerge, putting its priority on an alliance with Hamas.

Western aid and hope of Western diplomatic support (not for a compromise peace but to make Israel give the Palestinians whatever they want with no reciprocity or compromise on their part), keeps people talking about a "two-state" solution in English. But they are chomping at the bit to demand openly that all of Israel become part of Palestine. They already do it in Arabic every day.

And these are the leaders and the group and the regime that U.S. and European policy depend on to make the tough compromises needed for peace with Israel? These are the shaky leaders and unstable organizations which much of the world is rushing to give control over a state?

To paraphrase what they say in the movies' legal declaimers: Any coincidence between the dominant Western analyses and actual Palestinian politics is purely coincidental.

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