Sunday, August 16, 2009

Explaining Palestinian Politics: When Even the Moderates Talk Like Extremists, No Peace Deal is Possible

By Barry Rubin

U.S. and European policymakers (not to mention journalists and academics) often talk as if the Palestinian issue is the most important aspect of their. foreign policies, the Middle East, and even the whole world. Yet as recent events show, the nature of Palestinian politics and how they ensure there can be no peace are either misunderstood or not even seriously examined at all.

Fatah controls the PLO, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and about a half-dozen militias. If there is going to be Israel-Palestinian peace, Fatah is going to have to make it. Fatah is also a client of the United States which provides (directly or through international fund-raising efforts) Fatah’s money. It trains Fatah’s soldiers and provides diplomatic backing.

If there is a genuine moderate in Fatah’s higher levels it is Ahmad Qurie, best known as Abu Ala. He has no organized political base but is well-known and did get over 30 percent of the delegates’ support in the Fatah Central Committee election.

During the 1990s’ peace process, Abu Ala was one of the main Palestinian negotiators. Israelis who worked with him felt he wanted negotiations to succeed. At one point, when things were going well, he astonished fellow negotiators by breaking into a little dance of joy.

But what happened when Qurie lost in the recent election by a vote or two? He immediately charged that Israel rigged the election to install those who would “rubber stamp” its terms. Proposing compromises, much less a deal, with Israel, would prove any Palestinian leader is a traitor.

With such a political culture, how could Fatah ever make a deal with Israel?

Here’s another link in this chain. One of the main targets of Abu Ala’s wrath is Muhammad Dahlan. He was once Yasir Arafat’s protégé, the only West Banker included in the higher command of the first intifada in Tunis.

But he later quarreled with Arafat, angry at the leader’s building up of the Islamist Hamas to fight against Israel. Dahlan correctly understood that it was only a matter of time until Hamas turned against Fatah and competed with it for power. At one point, Arafat reportedly slapped Dahlan in front of several colleagues, an ultimate insult.

Dahlan was the PA’s commander of Preventive Security in the Gaza Strip, meaning it was his job to defeat Hamas there. After Arafat’s death, he had more of a free hand. He was then the national security advisor of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas. He failed miserably to stop Hamas from taking over the Gaza Strip. If anyone bears responsibility for Fatah’s humiliating defeat there, it’s Dahlan.

This has not prevented him, however, from remaining at the very top of Fatah’s politics. We are now told that this man, who has been a key player in Fatah for 20 years and a protégé of its last two leaders, is a fresh face from the younger generation.

Dahlan is a gunslinger, a tough militia leader. Like Abu Ala, however, he is one of the more pragmatic people in Fatah. Israelis can talk to him; he has few illusions that Fatah can win a military victory over Israel. He is not a bloodthirsty extremist, at least by Palestinian standards.

Recently, though, he proclaimed that Fatah has never and will never recognized Israel. In a plea to his Hamas enemies, he made it clear that Fatah would never ask Hamas to accept Israel’s existence as a condition for unity. In short, he is inviting Hamas to fight Israel alongside Fatah. Does Dahlan want a bloodbath? No. But he realizes that if he is going to have political ambitions he is going to have to bash Israel from a militant standpoint.

These two men—Abu Ala and Dahlan—are among the most moderate in Fatah. In their heads, they probably know that a compromise two-state solution is the best way forward for the Palestinians. But they will never have a chance to implement such a policy for two reasons.

First, the movement will always choose a much more hardline leadership—and I don’t necessarily mean as the nominal front man but as the group’s and the West Bank’s real rulers. Already, it is clear that the next leader of Fatah, the PLO, and the PA is Muhammad Ghaneim a man who—and this is no joke—is far more hardline tactically than Arafat. Ghaneim has still not even accepted the 1993 Oslo agreement which Arafat signed and which provides the basis not only for the peace process but for the PA itself.

Second, they know that whatever their personal views they must out-militant everyone else, insisting that there can be no concessions to Israel and that the Palestinians must maintain their demands inflexibly, glorify violence, while competing with Hamas in their inflexibility and radical rhetoric.

None of this appears in the Western media, governments, NGOs, and “experts,” groups which generally merely pronounce Fatah as moderate, flexible, ready for peace—indeed as more so than Israel! Yet there is not going to be any peace and the factors outlined above explain why.

If men like Abu Ala and Dahlan had their way--one might add PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad here--at least the status quo could be maintained and improved on. But there is real evidence that the movement might be swinging in an even more radical direction. Abu Ala and Dahlan will go along with this and even feed the fire in order to promote their careers. As a result, the Israel-Palestinian conflict will continue for decades. And if you don’t look at how Palestinian politics work and who leads them you will never ever understand why.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs. His books include, Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography (Oxford University Press) and Revolution Until Victory: The Politics and Policies of the PLO (Harvard University Press).

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