The Region: Fatah's ticking bomb

Although the Sixth Congress was considered a success, Fatah's next-in-line could be a disaster for Israel and the peace process.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
What happened at the Fatah congress? It was largely successful at maintaining the status quo, but the outcome is unlikely to be conducive to a comprehensive peace. And there's one terribly dangerous issue - the next Fatah leader - which could blow up everything. Once Mahmoud Abbas appoints four more officials to form a Fatah central committee of 22 people, at least two-thirds will be old-style Fatah bureaucrats, with almost all the rest members of the younger guard. Of the 18 elected, at least five are hard-liners who don't even accept the peace process and the Oslo Accords and the rest are Abbas's allies or lieutenants. The latter are not extremists by Palestinian standards; they are happy to negotiate with Israel and don't want to go to war, for now at least. But they will insist on having all Palestinian refugees who wish to do live in Israel, adherence to the 1967 borders, no recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and perhaps they won't support a formal ending of the conflict and will give very little, if anything, on security arrangements. Only two men can be called moderates: Muhammad Shtayyeh, a private sector reformist type who was last to get into the committee, making it by a single vote, and Nabil Sha'ath, a Fatah loyalist. And only one of the 18 men elected has been an important critic of the establishment: Marwan Barghouti, who is currently serving time in an Israeli prison. Call him a practically-minded radical who believes Israel must be driven out of the West Bank by force. THERE IS no question that the meeting was a success for the Fatah establishment and for the PLO, and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas in particular. But like many such successes, it will be paid for by an inability to move toward peace as well as Palestinian suffering. As Fatah continues the conflict and blocks a resolution for years, they face lower living standards and destructive violence. If Fatah becomes more radical, as indicated by Abbas's choice for successor, the Palestinian people will suffer even more. Yet despite the fact that rejecting peace will hurt their people more than those of Israel, on every issue where it had to choose between peace-oriented flexibility and intransigence, the Fatah leadership chose the latter. For example, Fatah has now officially adopted the al-Aqsa Brigades as its armed wing. The next time that group commits a terror attack, Fatah is going to have to take responsibility for it. That decision will make peace less possible and Israel-Palestinian clashes more likely. And what about the implications of the now-official conspiracy theory that Israel killed Yasser Arafat, when actually it was his own lifestyle (not enough exercize, poor diet) and inadequate medical care that did so? I want to stress that Fatah in its current form is not an extremist entity eager to tear up previous agreements and go to war (though that could happen), it is a group with which Israel must try to work to stabilize the situation, minimize violence and keep Hamas from seizing control of the West Bank. More importantly for Western governments, this isn't a leadership which will strive for a comprehensive peace agreement. Since achieving that often seems the number-one goal of US and European governments, it is of broad significance. But there's one more thing that should be the main headline. Fatah has apparently chosen as its next leader a man who rejects the 1993 Israel-PLO (Oslo) agreement and the ensuing peace process. Muhammad Ghaneim was so passionately opposed even to negotiating with Israel that he refused to go to the Gaza Strip and West Bank with Arafat in 1994. He also refused to participate in the PA as long as it was involved in the peace process. So can Ghaneim participate now because he has changed his mind, or rather - as seems more likely - that Fatah no longer takes the peace process seriously? This situation is equivalent to Russia picking a hard-line Stalinist as its next leader. Why did two-thirds of the delegates vote for him? Ghaneim got 33 percent more votes than Barghouti, who not only has a personal base of support but the chic of being a prisoner. GHANEIM IS not that personally popular. I speculate that he's the chosen candidate of hard-line Fatah chief Farouk Kaddoumi, a man close to Syria's radical dictatorship, who is popular but too old to run himself. The key reason is that Abbas and his colleagues told delegates to vote for Ghaneim. Why? Part of the answer might be that he has a good personal relationship with Ghaneim. In addition, Ghaneim seems able to bridge the two groups which make up the Fatah leadership: radicals who thought Arafat too moderate, and hardliners who supported Arafat and now back Abbas. Finally, the West Bank warlords and political barons find it hard, as so often happens in politics, to give up their own ambitions and accept one of their rivals as chief. It's easier to accept an outsider who hasn't been in the West Bank at all and with whom one hasn't personally quarreled or competed. Abbas may well retire in the next year, and Ghaneim would then become leader of the PA, PLO and Fatah, too. This is incredibly important, far more so than the minor changes which are monopolizing debate over the meeting. I'm reminded here of the last Palestinian elections, when I correctly predicted a Hamas victory. How? Simply by analyzing the previous local elections and looking at the candidate lists. The State Department depended, however, on opinion polls taken by a Fatah activist, a decent and moderate guy but nevertheless a partisan. Hamas won and later seized the Gaza Strip. This was a disaster for US policy (and also the Palestinians, the Arab regimes, Israel and the region in general). Should I mention the idea held by many in the West that it didn't matter when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini emerged in 1978 as the Iranian revolution's leader? This kind of mistake is not equivalent to predicting a complex, relatively unexpected event (say, the reformist turn and political collapse of the USSR) because here we have all the information we need to see the direction of events. If Ghaneim takes over, you can not only forget about peace - which doesn't look too promising anyway - but the status quo could also be jeopardized. The re-radicalization of Fatah might lead to a very big, even violent, sustained crisis. Attention must be paid to this development. When propagandists distort the facts, they fool only others. When Western policy-makers distort the facts, they fool themselves with ultimately devastating results.