The Region: Meet the next Palestinian leader

The Region Meet the nex

By BARRY RUBIN
September 21, 2009 20:59

 
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Few subjects get written about more often - and inaccurately - than the Palestinians, yet there is curiously little interest in the politics and ideology governing their behavior. The same situation applies to the man slated to become their next leader, only the third to hold that post in 50 years, after Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas. The fact that an issue that is supposedly the most important, high-priority question in the world is studied so little has a simple explanation. The contemporary narrative is that the Palestinian leaders yearn for a state, an end to the conflict, and peace, while the failure to achieve these 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. WHILE MEDIA coverage of the 2009 Fatah Congress may have stressed the accession of "young" and "more flexible" leaders, the 72-year-old Ghaneim certainly doesn't 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 Fatah in 1959 and has been active ever since, involved mainly in recruitment and organization. It is difficult to say to what extent Ghaneim's early involvement with radical Islam 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 members came from more secular Arab nationalist or leftist movements. The only prominent leader who seemed to blend an Islamist background with nationalism was Arafat himself. 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. Later that year, he was put on Fatah's Central Committee, in charge of organization and recruitment. It is impossible to overstate the importance of these two jobs. At that time, Jordan was a Fatah stronghold and the group constituted a shadow 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 him a third chore, as his 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. 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, but Ghaneim was about as essential as a second-tier figure could be. 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 there, though he may have begun visiting the PA-ruled territories as early as July 2007. Ghaneim didn't return with Arafat in 1994 because, despite serving Arafat closely and loyally for 35 years, Ghaneim rejected the 1993 Oslo accords as too moderate. Only armed struggle, total victory, and Israel's destruction were worthy goals in his eyes. While Arafat sought these things covertly, the compromises involved in such a pretense were too much for Ghaneim. 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 Kaddumi, often referred to as the second most powerful man in Fatah. Kaddumi rejected the Oslo agreement and kept up a close connection with Syria. Arafat undercut him, but Kaddumi 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. Despite some who claim Ghaneim has moderated his positions, there is absolutely no evidence of this. Ghaneim has a definite appeal for Abbas as ally and successor. He is one of the few remaining founders of Fatah, and has wide contacts throughout the movement. IN ADDITION, as someone who has been outside PA politics for 15 years he is seen as a neutral figure in many petty disputes. But this is not the man to choose if your top priorities are making peace with Israel and maintaining good relations with the West. He is the man you would choose if you intend to reject compromise, rebuild links to Syria and Hamas, and perhaps return to armed struggle. 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 achieve Israel's destruction, 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. That Ghaneim would give up "the right of return," make any territorial compromise, or end the conflict permanently is extremely unlikely. These are things that even the supposedly less extreme Abbas has rejected. Thereafter, Abbas promoted Ghaneim among the delegates to the meeting. He finished first in the Central Committee elections with 1,338 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. If Ghaneim becomes leader of Fatah the PA and PLO, you can forget about peace. 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.

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