Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Meet the Palestinians’ Next Leader, Muhammad (Abu al-Mahir) Ghaneim: The Man Who Will Make Comprehensive Peace Impossible

By Barry Rubin

There’s nothing written about more often—and inaccurately—than the Palestinians, yet there is curiously little interest about the politics and ideology which governs their behavior. The same situation applies to the man s slated to become that movement's next leader, only the third to hold that post in 50 years, after Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas.

The fact that an issue that is supposedly the most important, high-priority question in the Middle East, or even the world, is so little studied in depth has a simple answer. The contemporary narrative is that the Palestinian leadership yearns for a state, an end to the conflict, and peace, while the failure to achieve can be blamed on Israel. Yet even the slightest real examination shows the exact opposite is true.

This point is only underlined by looking at the current candidate for next leader, Muhammad Ghaneim, often known as Abu Mahir. Of all those who might credibly have been considered for the leadership of Fatah—and hence of the PLO and Palestinian Authority (PA)—he is probably the most hardline one.

Ironically, while media coverage of the 2009 Fatah Congress stressed the accession of young and more flexible leaders, the 72-year-old Ghaneim certainly does not fit that description.

Born in Jerusalem on August 29, 1937. His first political involvement was with the Muslim Brotherhood but he became a founding member of the Fatah movement in 1959 and active ever after, involved mainly in recruitment and organizational matters.

It is difficult to say to what extent Ghaneim’s early involvement with radical Islamism has shaped his thinking and whether it would make it easier for him to reconcile with the even more radical Hamas. Most Fatah and PLO people came out of more secular Arab nationalist or leftist movements. The only prominent leader who blended an Islamist background with nationalism was Arafat himself, and this certainly remained a prominent theme in his worldview during his entire career.

Ghaneim’s big career break came in 1968 when at the age of just 30 Arafat appointed him commander of Fatah’s forces in Jordan. And later that year, at age 31, he was put by Arafat on Fatah’s Central Committee in charge of the organization and recruitment department.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of these two jobs. At that time, Jordan was a Fatah stronghold and the group constituted a dual government alongside that of King Hussein, the country’s nominal ruler. Fatah guerrillas—and shortly after Arafat took over the whole PLO—had military bases from which they launched attacks on Israel across the Jordan River. Arafat must have had an extraordinarily high opinion of Ghaneim to appoint him to such a sensitive post.

Since so much of this task was involved with military matters, Ghaneim took a short officers’ course in China. On his return, in 1969, Arafat gave Ghaneim still a third chore, as is deputy for military issues. While the details aren’t clear this means Ghaneim must have played a central role in planning and implementing scores of guerrilla and terrorist attacks.

The other job was just as important. Ghaneim played a central role in selecting those to be given key jobs and just how much authority each had. Of course, everyone was far below Arafat in power but Ghaneim was about as essential as a second-tier figure could be. That job is also useful in making contacts with those who would continue to be top people in the movement in ensuing decades.

In 1970, Fatah overplayed its hand, was defeated by Jordan’s army, and had to flee to Lebanon. Ghaneim continued his organizational and military duties there. When the PLO and Fatah were forced out of Lebanon in 1982, Ghaneim accompanied Arafat to Tunis. From 1982 to mid-2009 he remained living there, though as early as July 2007 he may have begun visiting the PA-ruled territories in the West Bank.

Ghaneim didn’t return with Arafat in 1994 because, despite serving Arafat closely and loyally for 35 years, Ghaneim rejected the Oslo accords of 1993 as too moderate. Only continued armed struggle, total victory, and Israel’s destruction were worthy goals in his eyes.

While Arafat’s strategy sought these things covertly, the compromises involved in such a pretense were too much for Ghaneim, who openly criticized his old chief. He stayed in Tunisia despite numerous invitations from Arafat, starting in October 1994, to join the PA and instead insisted Arafat cease all negotiations with Israel.

Ghaneim moved closer to the popular Farouq Qaddumi, often referred to as the second most powerful man in Fatah and PLO or as the PLO’s “foreign minister.” Qaddumi rejected the Oslo agreement and kept up a close connection with Syria. Arafat undercut him but Qaddumi was so strong in the movement that he could never be fired altogether.

Finally, Ghaneim decided to return and support Mahmoud Abbas. While the details are not clear, this coincided with Abbas naming him as successor, which was certainly a great incentive for changing sides. Despite some analysts claiming that Ghaneim has moderated his positions, there is absolutely no evidence that he has done so.

On the contrary, it is likely that he joined the PA and Abbas because he felt that they were closer to his long-held views in many respects.

Ghaneim has a definite appeal for Abbas as ally and successor. He is one of the few remaining original founders of Fatah and has wide contacts throughout the movement.

On the one hand, he possesses Arafat’s seal of approval historically but on the other hand he is so hard-line as to appeal to that powerful tendency in Fatah. In addition, as someone who has been outside the PA politics for 15 years he was seen as a neutral figure in many petty and personal disputes.

But this is not the man to choose if your top priorities were making peace with Israel and maintaining good relations with the West. He is the man you would choose if you intended to reject compromise, rebuild links to Syria and Hamas, and perhaps return to armed struggle in future.

On arrival at the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan on July 29, 2009, just before the Fatah Congress, Ghaneim was picked up by Abbas’ personal limousine, taken to his office, and welcomed in a ceremony.

At the reception, Ghaneim stated: "The struggle will continue until victory" and that if political means did not win Palestinian demands the movement would return to armed struggle. (Al-Hayat al-Jadida, July 30, 2009). It is clear how Ghaneim defines victory and it is not a West Bank-Gaza state with its capital in east Jerusalem living alongside Israel in perfect harmony.

That Ghaneim would give up demands that all Palestinian refugees and their offspring must be allowed to live in Israel or that he would make any territorial compromise, or that he would end the conflict permanently in any peace agreement is extremely unlikely. These are things—all necessary for peace—that even the less extreme Abbas has rejected.

Thereafter, Abbas promoted Ghaneim among the delegates to the meeting. He finished first in the Central Committee elections with 1338 votes, about two-thirds of those participating and far ahead of every other candidate.

Ghaneim’s success, and the others elected, show that the old Arafat crowd is still in control rather than any transition, youth cohort, moderate, or reformist group. Given the fact that there are virtually no real moderates in the leadership, having the tired, corrupt old guard in charge is better than having younger, more extreme elements running things.

Yet the hardline parts of the old guard have a large portion of power even among this group. If Ghaneim becomes leader of Fatah the PA and PLO, then you can forget about peace. Violent conflict becomes far more likely. Yet Ghaneim will not take over by a coup but because the current elite wants precisely the policy he represents.

No one should say a word about the Palestinian issue, the peace process, or Israeli policy without analyzing these factors. Unfortunately, there isn’t at present a Palestinian partner for peace. Fortunately, there is a Palestinian partner for maintaining a relatively peaceful status quo. But if and when Ghaneim takes over, even this consolation might be gone.

(For more detailed discussions of contemporary Palestinian leadership and politics read two articles by me here and here as well as my books Revolution Until Victory? and Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography which can be ordered here.

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), 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. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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