The shadow falling on Israel-Palestinian peace

I’ve written on several occasions that Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah can’t be expected to make a peace agreement acceptable to Israel or to deliver on one if it were signed. Today Barry Rubin explains exactly why this is true.

Fatah’s Politics Make Peace Impolitic

By Barry Rubin

T.S. Elliot wrote memorably in “The Hollow Men”: Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow

In the case of the peace process and all the great ideas for fixing everything in Arab-Israel relations, the Shadow has been Palestinian leaders’ unwillingness–and now also inability–to make a compromise agreement ending the conflict.

Close examination of the movement’s ideology, organization, and structure shows why this is true. Exactly forty years ago, in 1968, Yasir Arafat and Fatah took over. That same year he laid down two principles dominating the movement ever since.

First, in July 1968, he changed the PLO Charter from emphasizing the group was no longer a follower of Arab states but both independent and the struggle’s leader. But at the same time he stated, “We are an extension of the hundred million Arabs.”

It proved hard to have it both ways, though Arafat usually managed the tension adequately. Today, the Arab world’s real support for Fatah–and for the Palestinians generally–is minimal, though many in the West still don’t notice that. Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas recently said, “Our Arab relations are at their best. We do not have any problems with any Arab country.”

Well, not exactly. The remaining backing does not include financial aid (the West pays the bills), direct military involvement, or strenuous diplomatic effort. Instead, it mostly revolves around demanding that the United States solve the problem while the regimes focus on their own real priorities.

Second, back in 1968, Arafat mandated the goal as total victory bringing Israel’s disappearance. Thus, armed struggle was the main tactic intended to “maintain an atmosphere of strain and anxiety that will force the Zionists to realize that it is impossible for them to live in Israel.” Since then, Israel has prospered, the Palestinians have suffered, and Hamas has seized that slogan. But it also remains a central plank for Fatah.

Abbas puts the main emphasis on diplomacy today. But most of his colleagues and constituents are still focused on glorifying violence and insisting on ultimate, total victory. What he can do, or even say, is quite limited.

On January 13, for example, Abbas briefed the PLO Central Council in Ramallah about President George Bush’s visit and relations with Hamas. It was not a demagogic speech aimed at scoring points against Israel or attacking the United States–some things have changed–but rather a soberly presented, albeit steeped in wishful thinking, presentation.

Quite notable, however, is that Abbas said not a word showing readiness to compromise or preaching the virtues of peace with Israel. Nor has he changed anything in the schools or the PA-controlled mosques and media, whose virulence and enthusiasm for violence is unchanged. Fatah’s symbol, displayed next to Abbas, still shows all of Israel as Palestine. Abbas dares not challenge his constituents’ fervent beliefs.

He merely insists that the PLO is still “the Palestinian people’s sole legitimate representative,” despite the fact that Hamas is not in it. To conciliate Hamas he offers it a large minority share in the PLO, which Hamas rejected even when it was weaker. In addition, the PA will spend 58 percent of aid money on salaries for its employees in the Gaza Strip thus subsidizing Hamas’s bureaucracy. Ironically, money given by Western donors to strengthen Fatah and weaken Hamas will help the latter, and no one will complain about this reversal of their intentions.

Abbas discusses the Annapolis conference and Bush’s visit only in terms of Palestinian demands without mention of Palestinian obligations. Without telling his people that violence is outmoded, coexistence with Israel necessary, terrorists attacking Israel must be punished, and refugees need be resettled in a Palestinian state, he cannot build popular support for doing these things. On the contrary, such concepts are still seen as treason to the cause. He knows this and as a result takes none of the steps needed to achieve peace.

Abbas does present a softer line, up to a point. He opposes shooting rockets from the Gaza Strip at Israel as well as Israeli retaliatory raids. Abbas even recounts that when Israel offered to let people leave the Gaza Strip freely for study, work, or medical treatment abroad, Hamas refused and even fired “on any crossing that was opened [in order] to close it.”

But his treatment of Hamas’s “coup” in the Gaza Strip seeks to evade the problem. Israel, he complains, holds him responsible for what happens in Gaza, claiming this is an excuse. And he shows nationalist solidarity with Hamas against Israel, in effect giving the Islamists veto power over any strategy or solution.

Yet how can Abbas, Fatah, and the PA claim to be sole representative when they don’t control over half the land and people supposedly represented? How can Abbas do anything when most of Fatah is closer to Hamas than to his more moderate impulses?

His regime, then, simply cannot deliver an agreement ending the conflict. Not only cannot Fatah regain control of the Gaza Strip, it will be lucky to hold onto the West Bank.

“Fatah is now convalescing,” Abbas assures colleagues, “and, God willing, you will witness that it will fare very well” in future. Yet nothing has changed in Fatah. The Arafat crowd, veteran leaders from decades of PLO intransigence, still rule. Whatever Abbas’s personal views, there are few moderates among them, nor would they back their supposed leader if he actually tried to stop cross-border attacks, punish terrorism, end incitement, clamp down on internal anarchy, or make a deal with Israel.

This leadership is being challenged by the “young guard” which decries the “old guard’s” corruption and suggests it has become too soft. The new generation is by no means more moderate. Its reference point is not the 1990s’ peace process but the 1980s’ intifada.

Many or most of the young guard prefer a deal with Hamas, rather than one with Israel, and a return to systematic armed struggle. At best, they believe a peace treaty can only come after Israel is expelled from the West Bank, a task that would take decades and if ever fulfilled would whet their ambitions for total victory.

Abbas is trapped. He can neither defeat nor make peace with Israel; neither defeat nor make a deal with Hamas in which the latter would accept Fatah’s leadership. Nor can he control his own organization, end the chaos in the West Bank, or implement an economic development program. That’s his Shadow. His only asset–though a considerable one–is that both the West and Israel will ignore all these problems and pretend otherwise.

It is important, as well as amazing to note that since I wrote a column on Fatah politics in November 2004 (click here to read it) literally nothing has changed, During more than three years of crisis, during which Fatah lost power to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, not one detail of Fatah leadership, organization, structure, discipline, ideology, or effort to control corruption has improved. This is the group that is now going to get $7 billion in aid without any conditionality.

Here is some additional, more detailed, evidence for that assertion.

The PLO and the PA are governed by Fatah. There are 20 members of the Fatah Central Committee, that organization’s highest body. No new members have been added since 1995. None of these people lived in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip between 1967 and 1994 and most of them were in exile from 1948 to 1994. This means that in many ways they do not represent the actual people they are governing.

On this committee, there are only three people who could be called relative moderates: Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil Shaath, and Ahmad Khuri (Abu Ala). Abbas and Khuri have a very bad relationship so the Palestinian Authority leader can only really count on three votes: his own, Shaath, and his national security advisor Nasir Yusuf.

At least six members are very hardline, openly hostile even to the 1990s peace process. These are all very important people:

  • Farouq Quddumi, the head of Fatah.
  • Sakhr Habash (Abu Nizar), chief of the Fatah Revolutionary Committee which is the group immediately below the Central Committee.
  • Salim al-Zaanun, head of the Palestine National Council (PNC), the legislative wing of the PLO.
  • Muhammad Ghana’im (Abu Mahir), Fatah’s veteran representative to Kuwait.
  • Abd al-Hamid Ha ‎ ‘yil, who led one of the main terrorist organizations in Fatah.
  • General Muhammad Jihad, former Palestine Liberation Army officer.

The remaining ten members are all Arafat-era bureaucrats who have never expressed any view that could be considered moderate. I could easily put many or most of them into the hardline group listed above.

Thus, the Fatah leadership can be said to be:

  • Institutionally hostile to Hamas, viewing Fatah as the only acceptable leadership for the Palestinians.
  • Opposed to any changes including real anti-corruption drives, an end to incitement for anti-Israel terrorism, a real effort to use aid money to raise living standards for the general population, or shifts in ideology toward greater moderation.
  • Hostile to bringing in new leadership and unwilling to add the voice of the younger generation.

If Abbas were ever to propose a realistic peace agreement with Israel he would be lucky to carry one-fifth of the Central Committee. Knowing this, he will never try.

. . .

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA). His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

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