The Best Chance Towards an Enduring Settlement

Alastair Crooke

Whilst the Western press have been focussed on the imminent challenge to Fatah from Hamas — the Islamic Resistance Party — the Israeli press has been more engaged with the struggle within Fatah.  Danny Rubenstein of Haaretz has argued that the sweeping win in the recent Fatah primaries by Marwan Barghouti and by the younger generation presages what he described as the prospect of a ‘militant’ Palestinian Parliament in which this more radical younger Fatah generation of the Intifadas will be sitting beside Hamas.  He suggests that this will transform the Palestinian landscape.  This is right.  Post the free and reasonably fair parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories, which have gone ahead as scheduled for 25 January, we are witnessing a profound transition of power.  A transition that reflects the demise of the Palestinian constituency of ’93 (the Oslo Accords constituency) that effectively awarded one Palestinian faction with a monopoly of power and of armed force in return for dismembering and disarming their major political rivals.  The Palestinian voters who overwhelmingly endorsed this empowerment of one Palestinian faction to the detriment and potential demise of its rivals, however, are far from the Palestinian constituency of today.

The erosion of this earlier constituency and, and in parallel, of the credibility of the Oslo arrangement itself, was already very apparent in 2001 when I served on the staff of Senator Mitchell’s Fact Finding Committee which was convened to inquire into the causes of the Intifada.  It was clear that Palestinians broadly had lost faith in the incremental Oslo approach, faced by the insidious growth of settlements, settler-only roads, increasing numbers of checkpoints and of army posts that seemed to be salami-slicing away their prospective state rather than advancing its realisation.  Now both the polls and the primaries confirm that the earlier scepticism has been transformed into a deeper disillusion that is manifest in the overwhelming support for Hamas and of the younger generation of Fatah.

It is common in the West to see these two elements portrayed in the press as deadly rivals and to cast the parliamentary elections as a struggle by Fatah, renewed by an influx of younger candidates, fighting to ward-off the “spoiler” challenge posed by Hamas.  This widely held perception is wrong on two counts.  Many of the younger generation of Fatah are closer to Hamas in politics than they are to their own Fatah leadership; and the elections may be viewed as offering a validation for a political process. This election, if the new actors have their way, may be a step towards real national “inclusiveness” rather than the Oslo-entrenched divisiveness of the ’93 era.  It has been clear for some years that a genuine grass-roots validation by the Palestinians of their aspirations and objectives would be the only route to de-escalation of violence and to provide the foundation for any enduring political settlement.  This is why these elections are so vital.

During the negotiations in Cairo in 2002 and 2003 between the Palestinian factions and Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian minister, designed to find common agreement for a truce or hudna, I was often puzzled by the long pauses when nothing seemed to be happening.  On asking the Hamas leadership the reason for the delay, I would be told that Hamas was awaiting the views of the young Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti.  As Marwan was in an Israeli gaol at this time, the views of the “engineer” of the Intifada, as he is dubbed in the Palestine press, took a little time to reach Cairo!  It was striking that Hamas would value his opinion so highly that they would refuse to proceed without it, leaving the official Fatah delegation to twiddle their thumbs.

It is of course Marwan Barghouti, still in gaol, who won the Ramallah primary by a landslide and who heads the Fatah list of candidates.  The close relationship of mutual respect between Hamas and Marwan has long roots that pre-date the Intifada.  Neither, as far as I am aware, has made a policy statement of substance without advising the other in advance.  During the last Intifada, Hamas units in the West Bank worked almost in joint formations with their Tanzeem and al-Aqsa colleagues.  This close interaction between Hamas and the younger members of Fatah in the West Bank was not replicated in Gaza however, where hostility and distrust of the Palestinian Security Chief Mohammad Dahlan exacerbated friction between the two movements.

This strong relationship between younger Fatah and Hamas is still in place. The relationship between the Fatah younger generation and their “old guard” (largely Tunis exile) leadership, on the other hand, borders on mutiny and open hostility. The outcome of the recent Fatah primary elections exacerbated this. The primaries were non-binding, and when the Old Guard saw the landslide towards the new generation, they chose simply to ignore it when drawing up the official candidate list — save for the unavoidable inclusion of Marwan Barghouti at its head.  It was clear that the old guard was fearful of opening the process to real primary elections that would sweep them from power.

The younger generation responded with their own list that would have split the Fatah vote. Bitter wrangling followed. The outcome has been a presentation of an official Fatah list that enjoys limited popular appeal, even though it has been spiced-up with a few well-chosen popular figures – like Marwan Barghouti.

It was increasingly plain that Fatah, despite their “united” list, would not do well at the polls. One knowledgeable Israeli journalist estimated that Hamas may win some 70 seats of a total of 136 seats in the new parliament, even before the elections.  The Old Guard had reacted by seeking any pretext to postpone the elections.  The worsening security situation in Gaza largely had been deliberately engineered by the Fatah leadership and their security arms as a pretext to postpone or cancel elections.  Even some hostage incidents had been staged by those whom the West supports both politically and financially — all this in a desperate effort to cancel elections.

If the Fatah leaders have failed to find the pretext to cancel, the outcome of the vote has been the result of the inevitable passing of the “Generation of ‘93” — and its replacement by an alliance between Hamas and the younger generation of Fatah leaders. This outcome offers a serious challenge to the old guard and to Palestinian President Abu Mazen. Because of this, there is a tendency to portray the new parliament as a “spoiler” of Abu Mazen’s vision. This is a misperception.

It is the purpose of Hamas not to “spoil”, but to build a new and stronger political consensus that has been validated by popular elections. Hamas has been consistent in their objectives over many years.  Their primary aim will be to bring about a return to inclusive Palestinian politics –- in contradistinction to that of Oslo which was based, as they perceive it, on the politics of division, demonisation and destruction.  Hamas will aim to rally as many of the factions to agree on Palestinian national objectives. They will lay out the means to achieve those objectives and designate a popular leadership able to bring them about.  This was the same message that they carried at the various Cairo negotiations.

More recently, Hamas spokesmen have emphasised the possibility of a complete cessation of violence to be agreed, and reciprocated by Israel, that would last a full generation, and which would deal with all the outstanding issues that can be resolved in a long term period of calm.  The negotiation that they envision, and Hamas has already said publicly that they are ready to participate in a broad-based Palestinian negotiating team, would proceed from the basis of withdrawal from the lands occupied in 1967 and a Palestinian State with Jerusalem as its Capital.

Hamas is not a “spoiler” movement — it is a political movement that is interested in shaping political solutions to political problems. Proof of this is evidenced by their broad support from all segments of Palestinian society. Two years ago, who in Israel would have forecast that Hamas would successfully contest the parliamentary elections, that it would have expressed a willingness to assume government posts in the Oslo created Palestinian Authority, that it would have publicly accepted participation in a broad-based Palestinian negotiating team, and that two prominent Hamas leaders would announce that not only is the Hamas “Charter” not sacrosanct — it can be changed?

A re-invigorated Palestinian polity may yet offer an unexpected window for political agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Engaging in talks with a revived Palestinian political leadership may well be more difficult for Israel, but the prospect that the results of such talks would actually be implemented by a disciplined movement with a mandate from its own people — and with support from other factions — offers the best chance for an enduring settlement.

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