Another way

Do the new Palestinian centrist parties have a prayer?

dajani 224 88 (photo credit: )
dajani 224 88
(photo credit: )
Muhammad Dajani believes that most Palestinians have not been presented with a party that truly represents them. The 61-year-old director of the American Studies Institute at Al-Kuds University in Jerusalem recently founded a new party to represent what he calls the "silent majority" of Palestinians. The name for his party - Wasatia - reflects the platform he is advancing. The word means "moderation," but it is often used in the Koran to mean "middle ground," "centrism" and "balance." It is the first Islamic religious party to advocate a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a tolerant, democratic society at home. "I remember the moment when I came to the conclusion that Wasatia could and should work," says Dajani. "I was sitting in my fourth-floor flat overlooking the Kalandiya checkpoint. It was the holy month of Ramadan and I saw a great conflict unfolding beneath me." He describes the scene with the slow assurance of someone who has told this story many times before. A crowd of devout Muslims had gathered at the checkpoint, and demanded to be allowed to travel to the Aksa Mosque to pray. The soldiers, however, would allow only a small group with special ID cards to pass through. Both sides grew increasingly hostile and were on the verge of violence when a deal was struck. The Palestinians were to hand over their ID cards and board a secure bus the army would provide. They would be driven to the mosque, given time to pray and then return to the checkpoint and collect their IDs. "In this compromise I saw the hope for a future. These Palestinians were not Hamas, they were not violent, looking for headlines, wanting to throw rocks or start a scene," says Dajani. "They were religious, but moderate, peace-loving." It was for them that Dajani founded Wasatia in March 2007. It is the only Palestinian political party that does not support the "right of return" - a perennial stumbling block in the peace talks. "We have to get over this. Why create such a big obstacle to the peace process when it's not practical to make this demand?" says Dajani. "The right is sacred, but the return is negotiable." Wasatia calls for establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with east Jerusalem as its capital. It defines itself as an Islamic party, but seeks to foster a tolerant society in the territories that protects freedom of religion and expression. Dajani explains that he wants to achieve his party's objectives through "teachers, preachers and local leaders." In the six months since he registered his party, Dajani has held hundreds of meetings that he calls "roundtable" discussions. During these small meetings, often held in the living rooms of residents throughout the West Bank, he outlines his party's platform and looks for feedback from community leaders. He is also creating a new textbook for kindergartens in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. He is currently meeting with teachers to try to persuade them to adopt the new textbook in their classrooms. "The current system and the current books that they use espouse a philosophy that supports Hamas. It is a philosophy which supports a jihadist approach," he says. Dajani clearly sees that his appeal will largely be to young voters who haven't already committed themselves to their parents' political views. He has reached out to them at the discussions which he sometimes holds in trendy cafes, and through the Internet, where he has started a page on the Facebook Web site. Wasatia appeals to its Facebook followers - 403 so far - by citing everything from the Koran to former US president Bill Clinton's autobiography. Dajani knows, however, that this is not enough to help him win the next Palestinian Authority election. "I hope to put up candidates for the parliament, but I do not expect to win," he says, though his two young assistants disagree and say they will "show strong" in the next elections. THOUGH THERE are more than a dozen movements that currently campaign for the Palestinian vote, the two controlling parties - Fatah and Hamas - dominate the political stage. Challenging these parties is an ambitious project, which most political analysts don't give much chance of success. Centrist parties have found it difficult to take root in the crowded political landscape without ties to more established parties. In the last parliamentary election, centrist parties garnered just six of 132 parliamentary seats. Another newcomer on the scene, Munbi al-Masri, a former Fatah loyalist, recently launched Muntada as another third-party movement to establish what he told The Jerusalem Post is his dream of "seeing a two-state solution before I die." Masri and Dajani have a lot in common - both were educated in America, and both are wildly wealthy in an area where money equals power. But where Dajani's wealth is largely inherited - his family arrived in Jerusalem in the 15th century - Masri has earned a reputation among Palestinians for his keen business sense. After earning a geology degree in Texas, he returned to the West Bank to help establish the Paltel phone company and the Palestinian stock exchange. His Muntada Party will be run with the efficiency of a business, he boasts, a drastic change from the chaotic leadership of the current parties, which often dole out jobs based on nepotism and partiality. Dajani and Masri may have a hard time convincing the public that moderate leadership is what it truly wants. While analysts expected that the gestures made by the Western world following the Annapolis peace summit would bolster PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's leadership, recent polls reveal that the playing field is largely unchanged. A poll released in the first week of December showed that Annapolis had not affected support for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. If legislative elections were held today, Hamas would receive 31 percent of the vote, while Fatah would receive 49% - the same figures that the Palestinian Center for Police and Research, an independent polling agency, found in its September survey. Ahead of President George W. Bush's visit this week, Palestinians were not optimistic about the peace process's chance for success. Roughly two-thirds of those polled said that there was a "slim to nonexistent" chance for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the next five years, compared to 70% who said they felt that way last summer. Nicolas Pelham, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Jerusalem, said that centrist groups such as Wasatia face serious problems. "Political power relies on patronage," he said. "Those factions which do maintain some form of popular allegiance are those which can offer services and jobs and some access to the remaining centers of power or salaries." Dajani has no illusions of becoming such a faction. "What I really want to do," he says, "is influence the elections and change the tone of politics."