Friday, August 21, 2009

Why There Won't Be Peace: A Short Analysis of Palestinian Leadership, Factions, and Strategies

By Barry Rubin

Palestinian politics and ideology is the key to understanding why there is no peace and no Palestinian state. The extremism of Hamas is an important indicator of these problems and a roadblock to such progress. But it is the situation in Fatah that remains the dominant factor. This article explains the current political line-up and different strategies being advocated in the Fatah-Palestinian Authority framework.

Nobody Advocates A Realistic Peace Program

This part is easy to understand. Nobody in the movement openly advocates accepting things like territorial swaps, security guarantees, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, resettlement of Palestinians only in Palestine, definitively ending the conflict in exchange for an independent state, or other point’s key to gaining Israel’s agreement on a peace treaty.

But here’s one of several stories I could tell you.

A few years ago, a very important Fatah and Palestinian Authority (PA) leader is speaking to a small group of special visitors. (Hint: He was just elected to the Fatah Central Committee). "We have a very unrealistic negotiating position," he says. "This Right of Return demand is a terrible mistake. The Israelis will never accept it and it will ensure there’s no agreement."

Suddenly, it was as if he woke up, realized where he was, shook his head, and added, “Forget I said that.”

Oh and nobody ever talks in Arabic about any empathy or understanding for Israel’s situation or makes any attempt to move their people toward toleration and getting beyond hatred. In America and Europe many think the Palestinian leadership is close to make peace. That's what it wants them to think, but in reality it isn't even in the same building.

The Ruling Establishment: The "All Mahmoud Abbas’s Men" Faction

Be careful here. I’m not saying these people obey Abbas or even look up to him as unquestioned ruler, as they actually did to Yasir Arafat. But they’ve hitched their wagon to his. In fact, this is basically Arafat’s old crew.

These include both older and younger guys: Saib Erikat, Azzam al-Ahmad, Hassan al-Sheikh, Tawfiq al-Tirawi, Othman Abu Gharbyeh, Muhammad al-Madani, Nabil Shaath, Muhammad Dahlan, and Jibril Rajoub.

What is their strategy? They don’t have anything very clever:

Try to avoid armed conflict with Israel and stay in the process, but without really bargaining with Israel. Just keep repeating their demands. Hope that the West forces Israel to make all the concessions. All you have to say is, "Thank you very much,"  pick up the keys, and drive away. (Well, actually they won't even say thanks.)

They are doing pretty well with the status quo and can enjoy being powerful and getting even richer. They have no intention of introducing democracy or putting a real emphasis on improving their people’s lives though if there’s money to be made they are delighted to see the West Bank become more prosperous. But they live off foreign donors.

Israel can work with them to keep things reasonably stable and non-violent. Progress toward peace? Forget it.

The Ruling Establishment's Hardline Lobby, Forget About the Peace Process, Onward to Victory!

This group hasn't had a new idea in 40 years. In practice it supports Abbas but is always lobbying for a more extreme policy and tougher rhetoric. Unlike the Abbas group, it isn't interested in saying nice things to fool the Westerners and make them happy. (It doesn't matter, though, because they don't pay attention any way.)

The person they really don’t like is Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. They’re humiliated at having a moderate technocrat who’s there just because the donors like him. They rejected the peace process and have no interest in any agreement.

These are all powerful guys, Fatah barons, like Muhammad Ghaneim, Salim al-Zanoun, Abbas Zaki, Sultan Abu al-Aynain, and Nasser Kidra. They’re also the kind of people who say to you: Where was Hamas when we were doing all the fighting?

In contrast to the Abbas group—and again I don’t want to imply they are anti-Abbas—they put less emphasis on keeping up a moderate image and more on ensuring that no concessions are ever made. They have their eyes on the prize—total victory over Israel and a Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean—and are going to make sure that the Abbas crowd doesn’t forget that’s what the struggle is about.

By making Ghaneim his successor, Abbas is cementing together these two factions. The only problem is he is dealing a death blow to any hope of peace and possibly setting the stage for a future violent confrontation. But that’s how Palestinian politics works.

The “Young Guard” Opposition: Defeat Israel, Make Peace, Defeat Israel Again

These are people who are younger, who never left the West Bank, weren’t in Arafat’s inner circle, but fought the First Intifada (1987-1990) and led the second one (2000-2005?). They never had much of a base in the Gaza Strip.

It is easy for outsiders to think of them as brave young rebels against the stodgy establishment. But they are not any more moderate than the Abbas crowd. In fact they might be better compared in many respects to the establishment’s hardline faction or you could put them somewhere in between.

I discuss this group in more detail here

Briefly, their program is:

Step one: Fight Israel on the West Bank, as was done in the Second Intifadah, until it accepts Palestinian terms.

Step two: Make a peace deal from a position of strength which does not foreclose continuing the battle once a Palestinian state has been established.

Step three: Establish a state and begin the next round to eliminate Israel altogether.


The main point is that none of these groups are going to make a comprehensive, full, final peace with Israel.

The Abbas group will continue the status quo and even work with Israel when necessary to do that. It will negotiate but never give anything, patiently awaiting success no matter what the cost in material terms. It has a cynical corrupt side to it, which is by no means completely negative since that’s better than having fanatical extremists like Hamas to deal with.

Of course, an incident could set off a new Palestinian-Israel war and, if so, the Abbas crowd will lead it. But that isn’t their goal at present.

The extremists in the establishment will act as watchdogs (are canine analogies still acceptable in such matters?) to ensure a hardline is maintained, that the next generation is educated to fight the struggle, and that there won’t be confidence-building measures toward Israel.

The young guard advocates a new rebellion. It might also be more open to cooperation with Hamas—which the establishment hates—as a needed ally in the battle. Increasingly, its rival will be the establishment’s younger generation.

The Fatah Congress was a victory for both factions in the establishment. It was an exercise in giving the appearance of change without there actually being any change.

And this is the framework which is supposedly going to bring a comprehensive peace in the next few years? Get real.

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