What happened at the Fatah Congress? It was pretty successful as far as maintaining the status quo goes, but very bad for any chance at making progress toward a comprehensive peace. And there’s one terribly dangerous issue—the next Fatah leader—which could blow up everything.
I've analyzed this event in great detail on my blog, RubinReports (see particularly http://rubinreports.blogspot.com/2009/08/updated-fatah-congress-election-results.html>. But briefly here are my conclusions:
Once Abbas appoints four more to make a Fatah Central Committee of 22 people, at least two-thirds will be old-style Fatah bureaucrats, with almost all the rest younger Fatah bureaucrats. Of the 18 elected, at least 5 are hardliners who don’t even accept the peace process and Oslo agreement 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 want to do so being able to live in Israel, the 1967 borders, no recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, perhaps 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 the last one to get in, making it by a single vote, and Nabil Shaath, though he’s basically a Fatah loyalist.
Only one of the eighteen men elected has been an important critic of the establishment: Marwan Barghouti who’s 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 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 material suffering for the Palestinians. It also holds within it the seed for a future disaster: the worst possible choice to succeed Abbas himself.
On every issue where it had to choose between a peace-oriented flexibility and intransigence, the Fatah leadership chose the latter. For example, it officially adopted the al-Aqsa Brigades as its armed wing. The next time that group commits a terrorist attack will Fatah be forced to take responsibility or will this connection be ignored?
And what about the implications of the now-official conspiracy theory that Israel killed Arafat, when actually it was his own lifestyle (not enough time in the gym, fatty foods) and poor medical care that did so?
I want to stress that this isn’t right now an extremist Fatah eager to tear up previous agreements and go to war with Israel, though that could happen. It is a group with which—as Israel’s present coalition government understands--Israel must try to work in order to stabilize the situation, minimize violence, and keep Hamas from seizing control of the West Bank.
What’s most important for Western governments is that this isn’t a leadership which will make a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel. Since achieving that often seems the number-one goal of the U.S. and European governments this is pretty significant.
But there’s one more thing that should be the main headline.
Fatah has apparently chosen as next leader a man, Muhammad Ghaneim, who rejects the 1993 Israel-PLO (Oslo agreement) and the ensuing peace process. He was so passionately opposed even to negotiating with Israel that he refused to go to the Gaza Strip and West Bank with Yasir Arafat in 1994. He refused to participate in the PA and when he later decided to go to the West Bank—but without denouncing his previous view—Israel blocked it.
This situation is equivalent to Russia picking a hardline 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 candidate of hardline Fatah chief Farouq Qaddumi, a man close to Syria’s radical dictatorship, who is popular but too old to run himself. But the key reason is that Mahmoud Abbas, PA and PLO leader, and his colleagues told delegates to vote for Ghaneim.
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 about the last Palestinian elections when I correctly predicted a Hamas victory. How? Simple. I analyzed the previous local elections and looked 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 U.S. 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 any way—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 policymakers distort the facts, they fool themselves with ultimately devastating results.