Understanding Palestinian Politics

Who will be the key players and factions in post-Arafat Palestinian politics? There are unfortunately far too many of them. Arafat’s legacy will be fought over by at least five major factions, three separate institutions, and fourteen different security agencies in his own group Fatah alone. That leaves aside the Islamist organizations and smaller PLO groups, and individual rivalries or ambitions within all these groups.

“Factions” is probably too precise a word. No real parties exist: there are no disciplined groupings or generally recognized charismatic leaders,. The structure is loose and rapidly shifting. Ideology is virtually non-existent; there is no meaningful Left, Right, and Center. In general, too, connections between local leaderships in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are weak, and there is no clear hierarchy or chain of command. Arafat’s most likely legacy will be a kind of quiet anarchy in which different groups, local warlords, and security agencies operate on their own and ignore instructions from the “top.”

There is no single leader who will replace Arafat, for several reasons. Arafat designated no successor, and no potential successor enjoys a broad base of support. Each is limited institutionally and geographically, strong either within the West Bank or Gaza but not both. Some of those who receive the most extensive coverage in the Western media are quite unimportant within Palestinian politics.

Then there is the “crabs in a barrel” factor. The old saying has it that if a crab tries to climb out of a barrel, the other crabs pull him back down out of spite. There are many who see themselves as the appropriate future leader who will cooperate with others to prevent anyone else from becoming Arafat’s successor or letting any faction get too much power.

Of the at least five factions in Fatah, none has loyal hierarchies or close alliances. They are merely interest groups. Each of them has serious weaknesses and only limited support. Even where leaders have similar viewpoints, they will not necessarily cooperate. For example, former Prime Minister Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and current prime minister Abu Ala (Ahmad Qurei) are both relatively moderate, but they are more likely to sabotage each other than to work together.

The Groupings

The post-Arafat leaders of the Palestinians will come from within Fatah and that organization has at least five interest groups which can be identified based on career path, institutional interests, and political viewpoint:

Traditionalist, Outside Hardliners. These are Fatah veterans of the PLO who spent years openly demanding total victory, no peace agreement, and Israel’s complete annihilation. They see no reason to change that standpoint. These include:

Faruq Qaduma, a member of the PLO Executive Committee who remains in Tunis. He is popular with the Fatah rank and file, rejected the Oslo accords, and is close to Syria. If Damascus wanted to control the PLO, he would be the person for them to support.

Sakr Habash, secretary of Fatah’s Revolutionary Committee, head of the Ideological Mobilization Department and a member of the Fatah Central Committee, was in 2000 the author of a major Fatah paper explaining in detail why the Palestinian movement would never make real peace with Israel.

Salim al-Zanun, head of the Palestinian National Council and a member of the Fatah Central Committee, who claims that the legislative body he heads never even changed the PLO Charter to drop the passages calling for Israel’s destruction. Although Arafat repeatedly insisted the contrary to President Clinton, he never contradicted or disciplined Zanun, who has become more and more a favorite of his in recent months.

Of the nineteen members of the Fatah Central Committee, exclusive of Arafat, at least seven fall into this group.

Arafat’s Entourage. These are people whose entire political existence depends on Arafat. After Arafat they might quickly disappear from the scene, but they do have experience and bureaucratic status. They include Hakam Balaoui, Tayyib Abd al-Rahim, and perhaps Nabil Shaath and Hani al-Hasan. They have at least four seats on the Fatah Central Committee.

In addition, there are many officials in the Palestinian Authority and cabinet whose main asset is Arafat’s patronage. This bureaucratic party is unlikely to risk angering the people with guns, sticking their necks out in support of dealing with Israel. At the same time, however, they are often criticized by the grassroots faction for alleged corruption and a lack of eagerness for struggle. All these factors push them toward the traditionalist hardliners.

Moderates. This is the group that receives by far the most attention in the West, but they are fewer in number than the other factions. They have had enough of Arafat’s leadership and believe that the Palestinians would benefit by negotiating with Israel to establish an independent state. Significant moderates include:

Abu Mazen, whose profile is very much that of a traditionalist hardliner based on his career path and ideology, but whose keen intellect, along with mistreatment by Arafat, pushed him in a different direction. Abu Mazen is in a strong position in formal terms, having been the secretary of the PLO Central Committee since 1996. He is most frequently mentioned as Arafat’s successor. However, he is 69 years old and lacks charisma or any organized base of support. His moderation as prime minister made the hardliners and grassroots factions view him as being too soft on America and Israel. Thus, while he might become the closest thing to a Palestinian leader, he will be so restrained that it would be difficult for him to achieve anything.

Abu Ala, a career PLO bureaucrat, was perhaps the most enthusiastic among Palestinian leaders for the Oslo process. If it had been up to him, a peace deal would have been made in 2000 at Camp David. But he is also timid and, at 67, has had some health difficulties.

Muhammad Dahlan, 43, is the only moderate with control over armed men and could be among the top leaders-or even the top leader-when the next generation finally takes power. Once Arafat’s protege, he fell out with Arafat while leader of the Preventive Security Force in the Gaza Strip. He has been bold in challenging the Fatah mainstream. Yet he also has numerous enemies and probably could not take over even Gaza, where he would not only face Fatah hardliners but also the enmity of Hamas.

Grassroots Radicals: These new radicals are mainly from the West Bank, and many were active in the first intifada. They feel they represent the movement’s true revolutionary spirit. Both the Tanzim (the grassroots Fatah organization on the West Bank) and the al-Aksa Brigades (the Tanzim- linked and Fatah-backed terrorist wing) are now the most active radical group in Fatah. They believe it is necessary to drive Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by force and are strong advocates of long-term armed struggle.

The radicals have no representative on the Fatah Central Committee. They are alienated from the traditional hardliners and contemptuous of the PLO-PA bureaucracy (including the official security agencies), which they view as greedy, corrupt, and worn-out. Their leader is Marwan Barghuti, 44, the key architect of the current intifada, who is now in jail in Israel for terrorist activities. Barghuti has taken the exact opposite career path of Dahlan, perhaps his leading rival for leadership in the next generation. Having started out as a harsh critic of Arafat, Barghuti came to portray himself as the leader’s great protege.
Barghuti’s base is, like others’, limited geographically (in his case largely to the northern West Bank), and his enemies are numerous including the traditional hardliners, PLO-PA bureaucrats, security agencies, and moderates. Accordingly, he has sought a political alliance with Hamas. This relationship may be the single most dangerous development in Palestinian politics. If a Fatah-Hamas alliance becomes locked in place it could become the hegemonic force for the next generation. In this case, Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects might be pushed back by twenty years.

Security Services. The fourteen security services (which in most cases have separate branches in the West Bank and Gaza Strip) have always reported directly to Arafat. There is no military high command and no institutional relationship between the various agencies. They operate on their own, often in competition with each other. These groups’ officers are unlikely to stage coups, but they are important factors in the post-Arafat political jockeying. They are Fatah members and hence participate directly in that organization’s deliberations and maneuverings. Two members of the Fatah Central Committee are military men (and one more was a leader in the terrorist apparatus).
The security agencies will probably act separately and largely function as fiefdoms headed by warlords, following orders only if they wish to. There is a great deal of antagonism between them and Tanzim/al-Aksa Brigades and at least some violence might erupt between them. In the short run, they will probably support the Fatah establishment, but in the longer term they could overcome their fragmentation to become a political power in their own right one day.

There are other groups and individuals that are of virtually no importance, even if they receive disproportionate Western media coverage. These include independents such as Hanan Ashrawi and Saeb Arikat, intellectuals who advocate more democracy, the smaller PLO groups and Islamic Jihad.

But there is one other important force: the larger Islamist group, Hamas. Hamas has no chance of taking over Palestinian politics, since it enjoys only about 20 percent support, which would shrink rapidly if it were held responsible for starting a Palestinian civil war. Its significance is as a potential ally for other groups and an advocate of extremism and violence whose tone will pull Fatah and public opinion in general even further in that direction.

As Fatah leaders compete for power and rule, many will be tempted into an alliance with Hamas. Indeed, this process has already begun with the close cooperation between Tanzim/al-Aqsa Brigades and Hamas. The alliance represents not ideological convergence but a tactical and strategic agreement on the primacy of long-term armed struggle. Hamas explicitly states that its goal is to destroy Israel; its partners in Fatah say they are merely trying to drive Israel out of the territories. But clearly Hamas’ attitude is affecting its colleagues, making them more extreme. If Barghuti were to come to power, it is entirely possible that Hamas would have a veto power over negotiations, which means that peace would be impossible, or one might better say even more impossible.

This relationship horrifies many Fatah leaders, both moderates and the traditional hardliners, all those who have a strong institutional loyalty to Fatah and do not want to see its leadership diluted or threatened.

The Institutions

There will also be major institutional tangles to sort out. Arafat heads three different Palestinian organizations, each of which will need to find a new leader, and the same person might not wear all three hats.

The PLO. Arafat is chairman of the PLO Executive Committee; Abu Mazen is its secretary. Qaduma is the third Fatah representative. The other members represent pro-Fatah independents or other groups. Abu Mazen could probably be elected to replace Arafat, especially if no other candidate opposed him, but various groups could walk out or try to block him. The PLO purports to represent all Palestinians, but a new leader might not be able to control these different communities, especially in Lebanon and Syria. The result might be a split between Palestinians inside and outside the territories.

The PA: In theory, the head of the Palestinian Legislative Council would be an interim chief and call elections. But he is not an important figure. This arrangement was made before Arafat had a prime minister, and the Palestinians are not generally sticklers for procedural legitimacy. Unless there are elections-something the leadership is not eager to happen-the Fatah Central Committee might just choose Fatah’s leader and impose him on the PA. An alternative, however, would be the selection of someone to run the PA and another person to lead Fatah and the PLO.

Fatah: The new leader will be chosen by the Central Committee, though the lower-level Revolutionary Committee may also have a role.

Prospects

Even if there is one titular head of the Palestinian movement , it is extremely unlikely that a single person will in fact act as leader, at least for some years to come. If there is a collective leadership, it will include leaders of very different viewpoints who will be unlikely to agree to any new or different direction. With no single leader or chain of command, it is going to be hard for anyone to make policy or take actions such as ending the violence or engaging in serious negotiations.

Given the intense rivalry for power, leaders are likely to avoid a dangerous moderation. Offering compromises or concessions, acting too friendly to the United States, countering terrorism, and seeking to quiet incitement are likely to bring down the wrath of numerous well-armed militants.

In a sense, Arafat has poisoned the atmosphere to such an extent that it might take years to clean it up. Arafat made moderation synonymous with treason, established the cult of total victory, extolled the gloriousness of violence (including terrorism and suicide bombing), and promoted passionate hatred of Israel. Mosques, the media, and the educational system has engrained these attitudes even among the youngest children. These are difficult legacies to reverse.

Some leaders understand the difficult situation into which Arafat has led the Palestinians. They know that a compromise peace is the only way out of the current dead-end. Unfortunately, there are even more activists who believe in revolution until victory and believe that the struggle should go on until Israel is destroyed, or at least defeated enough to make massive unilateral concessions. Still others are opportunists and careerists who will go along with the consensus—which is still an extremely radical one—to preserve their privileges.

Nevertheless, the chances of a Palestinian civil war are very low. In part this is because it is hard to have a civil war when there are so many sides. No one has enough power to believe he can win. If anyone tries to take over by force, all the other groups will align against them. More likely is a quiet anarchy in which different groups operate on their own and ignore instructions from the top.

The Palestinian movement could very well disintegrate to a large extent on a number of lines: between Palestinians inside and outside the West Bank/Gaza Strip area; among Fatah factions; between the West Bank and Gaza Strip; between different towns; between nationalists and Islamists, and so on.

The most likely outcome is that no one will be authorized to make decisions. With Arafat in power there was no one with whom Israel or the United States could talk who would make a deal or implement his promises. After Arafat, at least initially, there will literally be no one to talk to who is in charge. But at least-if one wants to find an optimistic note—there will be the possibility of change for the better, a situation which does not now and never has existed with the Palestinian leadership.

Palestinians are disorganized, divided, and—insofar as moderation is concerned—intimidated. It will be very difficult to establish a single leader or authoritative leadership capable of taking any tough decision. The idea of a new Palestinian leadership negotiating in the near future and making compromises over territory, ending the conflict, Jerusalem, and the return of refugees is thus extremely unlikely.