Broken Ranks in the Palestinian National Movement

The long-awaited shakeup has finally come to Fatah, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority and the largest component of the Palestine Liberation Organization, though not in the way that champions of internal reform had hoped. Having failed to push their agenda from within, Fatah rebels formed a separate list for the Palestinian Legislative Council elections scheduled for January 25, 2006, calling on the public to arbitrate their disputes with party elders. With defeat looming for senior officials of the Palestinian Authority, President Mahmoud Abbas moved to reunite with the rebels, but backroom politicking has not been able to quiet the tumult within the party.

Fatah today is a fractured amalgam of coalitions and personal networks without a clear head or a transparent decision-making process. The Fatah General Congress — the supreme body within the movement empowered to select the two governing party organs, the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council — has not met since 1989. As a result, the most powerful elements of the formal party apparatus have remained the preserve of those who, prior to the formation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, directed the PLO from exile in Tunis. During the long tenure of Yasser Arafat as head of Fatah and the PA, the party’s various committees and councils, with no real authority, were reduced to instruments of personal gain. Arafat again and again put off convening the Congress in the name of national unity, despite vociferous demands from the Fatah Higher Movement Committee, led by the veterans of the 1987-1993 intifada.

More than a year after Arafat’s death, Fatah has yet to take action to rebuild the structures that sustained the Palestinian national movement over long years in exile. This institutional weakness has been cast, misleadingly, as generational competition between the party’s elders and the “young guard” who, having spent all of their lives in the West Bank and Gaza, earned their political capital through on-the-ground activism. Interpreting the conflict as one between rival leaderships — with the former exiles pitted against the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti and PA Minister of Civil Affairs Muhammad Dahlan — misses the point. In fact, this ballyhooed rivalry is merely a byproduct of Arafat’s personalized style of rule and the consequent institutional anemia of the party. The struggle to remake the movement’s internal architecture should not be confused with or by the personal struggles among the leadership.

As Mouin Rabbani, senior Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, points out, “The battle within Fatah is waged by multiple antagonists, not two, meaning that rather than the possibility of a neat split, the fragmented party is facing the prospect of disintegration.” This state of affairs has turned the negotiations over the Fatah electoral list into an exercise in revolving-door diplomacy: even as Abbas succeeded in returning the most prominent of the Fatah rebels to the fold, other party affiliates bowed out. The catholic umbrella that is Fatah is growing increasingly unable to accommodate all who have previously sought its shelter, thereby eroding the party’s status as the flagship of the Palestinian national movement. More broadly, given Fatah’s preeminence on the Palestinian political scene, the disarray in Fatah’s ranks has had profoundly destabilizing consequences for the PA and the Palestinian national movement as a whole.

Losing Ground

Since assuming power, Abbas has followed in Arafat’s footsteps, delaying changes in party and PA governance in the name of national unity. Indeed, his confirmation as acting president and PLO head in November 2004 generated widespread complaints about process, which were tabled in the interest of a quiet transition. Barghouti’s on-again, off-again presidential bid in the runup to the January 2005 election won by Abbas was more of the same, as the robust competition and mass mobilization necessary to energize the party’s base was headed off by the dual obstacles of Israeli occupation and the unity imperative. Procedural reform was ritualistically invoked, but endlessly deferred. Unlike Arafat, however, Abbas has also used elections to diminish the clout of the party structures that benefited from Arafat’s patronage and, in turn, acquiesced in his autocratic methods. The president’s bet is that he will still emerge on top.

Meanwhile, Abbas’ party has lost significant ground to its main political rival. Highlighting Fatah’s weakness, Hamas racked up impressive gains in four rounds of municipal elections. This trend reached its apogee in December 2005, when Hamas captured a whopping 73 percent of the vote in the traditional Fatah bastion of Nablus. The success of Hamas’ well-oiled political machine confirmed suspicions — and, in some quarters, substantiated fears — that the Islamists will take a sizable number of seats in the upcoming Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections.

Hamas’ approach to electoral contests starts well before election day, with careful construction of candidate lists. The party has attracted some of Palestine’s best talent by offering financial and institutional backing to reputable persons and — taking a page out of Fatah’s book — by forming coalitions with independents of sterling quality without imposing ideological litmus tests. Fatah, by contrast, has offered voters only “the same old, same old,” in the words of one wistful Fatah-affiliated observer.

Once in power, the Hamas affiliates have delivered on many of their promises from city hall. The day after the December election in the Gazan town of Dayr al-Balah, the newly elected Hamas mayor turned out his supporters to clean up the long-neglected streets, leading to another wistful appreciation: “You don’t need money to do right by the people.” International consultants, for their part, report smooth working relations with the Hamas-run localities.

Fatah’s partisans have been banking on the assumption that the Islamists’ reputation for effective local management will not necessarily translate into victory at the national level. Polling results tend to confirm that many of the same Palestinians who cast their votes against corruption and for efficiency in the municipal elections will look for other qualities, including diplomatic savoir faire, in the legislature. Moreover, the future of international donor assistance, widely recognized as the barrier between solvency and bankruptcy for the PA, was already at issue in the municipal campaigns. In Gaza, loudspeakers blared the message that only Fatah could ensure the continued flow of international aid.

Some observers blamed the poor Fatah showing in the municipal elections not on Hamas’ better reputation, but on Fatah’s faulty tactics. By fielding a surfeit of candidates, these critics say, Fatah divided its base and opened the door to the Islamists. But in the runup to the PLC elections, Fatah has not demonstrated that it has learned from its mistakes.

Broken Ranks

Former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad was the first of the PA mainstays to strike out on his own. His efforts to impose donor-demanded “fiscal discipline” on the PA were undermined when Abbas, responding to international pressure, attempted to buy quiet in the Occupied Territories by incorporating Fatah’s young militants into the security services and hence adding them on to the PA payroll. The demand for additional salaries, ironically, provoked donor complaints that grated on Fayyad, a former World Bank official who had long been the darling of Western donors for his attempts to rein in spending. With his room for maneuver constrained and his legacy as a reformer imperiled, Fayyad was loath to damage his reputation further by placing his name next to the unpopular “Tunisians” on a slate of candidates for office. Instead, he formed a new list, at first dubbed Freedom and later called simply the Third Way. The mere fact of a party by this name indicates another stage in a profound transformation in Palestinian politics. In sharp contrast with earlier periods, almost half the Palestinian electorate today describes itself as unaffiliated, freeing independents to strike out on their own rather than seek the patronage of a large party. Hanan Ashrawi, among others, has signed on to Fayyad’s list.

Should Fatah lose its legislative majority or need to form a coalition with other secular lists, Fayyad is the odds-on favorite for prime minister. Fayyad’s credentials would win back some of the diplomatic capital squandered by the PA’s lackluster performance in 2005, though on the Palestinian domestic scene, his tightfistedness has cost him some credibility. Some less affluent Palestinians question his priorities, accusing him of squeezing the poor as he worked to reform the PA bureaucracy. “People say Salam Fayyad is the IMF’s man,” offers one dissenter. “When a high official needs to get paid, it happens fast and efficiently, but families of prisoners and the poor have to wait for months for a piddling amount of money. Is this reform? Holding onto the money of the poor? The elites like him, because he shows the seriousness of the reform effort, but for ordinary people, the situation is worse now.”

More important than Fayyad’s list was the formation of a breakaway Fatah list calling itself the Future. The Fatah rebels, unable to force the General Congress to convene in advance of the legislative elections, settled for party primaries that were to have been held in early December. But the primaries were aborted due to the concerted efforts of Central Committee members fearful of losing their sinecures and Fatah dissidents who felt the vote would be rigged against them. The attempt at an ad hoc solution thus backfired, stoking the anger of the dissidents whose demands were once again frustrated.

Without official results to rely on, the Fatah electoral slate was formed in backroom deals, in an atmosphere of distrust that was even more intense than usual. Abbas tried to negotiate a unified Fatah list with West Bank party chief Marwan Barghouti, who was jailed by Israel for his intifada activity in 2002. Negotiations broke down when Abbas acquiesced in the Central Committee’s demand to retain widely reviled names on the national list. But when Abbas submitted the official Fatah list, Barghouti’s name appeared at the top, a move that also backfired since Barghouti felt it aimed to capitalize on his good name and to appeal to his ego even as it marginalized his political agenda. In anticipation of failure, Barghouti had meanwhile struck a separate bargain with the other leading “insiders” who came of age during the first intifada. When the deadline for declaring candidacy passed, the Palestinian Electoral Commission found itself in possession of two separate lists, each headed by Marwan Barghouti.

Fuel for The Fire

A decisive split within the Fatah ranks could have proven catastrophic for the party. To understand why, it is necessary to know something about the changes to the Palestinian election law passed in the wake of Arafat’s death in November 2004. Previously, representatives to the PLC were chosen in winner-take-all elections in the West Bank and Gaza’s 16 districts. This practice encouraged the formation of patronage networks based partly on the extended family. Abbas, recognizing the need to bring greater legitimacy to the PLC and thereby the PA, tried to push through a system of proportional representation, in which the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza would comprise a single electoral district. Voters would vote for a party list and legislative seats would be meted out in proportion to vote totals. This system, it was thought, would encourage an issue-oriented national politics, diminishing the importance of parochial interests. But the current crop of incumbents, whose seats depend mainly on their local standing, filibustered to prevent passage of the proportional system. Abbas could not break the filibuster, and the PLC elections, originally scheduled for July, were postponed. In the end, the president was compelled to agree to the compromise scheme that Hamas and the other factions had already signed on to in Cairo in March: half the seats would be apportioned through a national proportional representation system, while the other half would be allocated according to the old rules.

The problem for Fatah, in light of the new electoral scheme, would have been twofold. In the national portion of the elections, the fracturing of the party apparatus would have complicated efforts to get out the vote. It also would have cemented the popular impression that Fatah is mired in endemic feuding, which Nablus voters cited as one reason for spurning the party at the polls. In the district elections, multiple divisions among the secular forces would have been even more crushing. The district rolls initially included independent Fatah candidates; if Fatah had split its base, the party would have been trounced in the winner-take-all voting by the highly disciplined and united Hamas. Hamas faces no competition from its Islamist rival, as Islamic Jihad is boycotting the election.

As the full ramifications of the looming split became clear, senior PA officials saw the writing on the wall and unsuccessfully endeavored to convince the rebels to withdraw from the race for the sake of the party as a whole.

When negotiations over the national list fell apart, senior PA officials contacted Washington to sound out the White House’s reaction to postponing the PLC elections, but the Bush administration, disappointed by the PA’s track record over the past year, was not inclined to go out on a limb to save its crumbling rule. Moreover, everyone is concerned that with both the Fatah rebels and Hamas primed for legislative gains, any initiative by the PA leadership to delay the elections could precipitate an unprecedented wave of civil unrest. In the words of a former PA advisor, “They’re worried that all of Palestine will burn.” The Israeli army, for its part, is girding for an increase in militant attacks, not only because the temporary truce concluded in Cairo in March expired at the end of December, but also because when Palestinian factions feud, Israel is often dragged into the fray. With Israel continuing its operations against not only Islamic Jihad but also Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, an armed offshoot of Fatah, the stage has been set for a return to the free-for-all violence of the intifada — this time complicated by a more intense intra-Palestinian struggle.

Opposed to Hamas participation in the elections, the Israeli government has announced that it will not allow East Jerusalem residents to vote on the grounds that the entirety of Jerusalem is sovereign Israeli territory. Israel has taken this stance despite having countenanced Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem on previous occasions, including the 1996 legislative elections and the January 2005 presidential election. As a means of combating Hamas, the Israeli decision will be counterproductive: Hamas has limited support in Jerusalem, but the arbitrary measure exposing the PA’s weakness vis-à-vis Israel will likely increase the proportion of the national vote that goes to the Islamist party. The move, rather, seems motivated by domestic considerations: as Israel heads into its own election campaign, the government wants to look tough on Hamas. The embattled PA leadership immediately seized upon Israeli obstinacy as a potential pretext for postponing the vote; both Hamas and the Fatah rebels, by contrast, insisted that the vote go forward. Given the prevailing atmosphere of chaos, Marwan Barghouti even recommended that the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades be pressed into service to protect election commission bureaus and polling stations.

With few other options for staving off an overwhelming defeat at the polls, Fatah set about reuniting its ranks. The Central Election Commission refused, on procedural grounds, to accept a revised Fatah list after its deadline had passed, but the Palestinian High Court agreed to briefly reopen the electoral rolls to compensate for hours lost when gunmen forced the suspension of registration during the primaries. For a time, it appeared that Abbas might succeed in suturing the party together. Future was returned to the fold, and senior party and PA figures such as former Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei were convinced not to run against the unified Fatah list, as was important West Bank politician Husam Khader, who had also considered striking out on his own. Yet tensions remain. When the news leaked out that party stalwarts such as Intisar al-Wazir and Nabil Shaath retained prominent slots on the unified Fatah list, violence again flared. Another breach opened with the announcement by Fatah’s Jerusalem candidates that they plan to withdraw their names in protest at their low ranking on the list.

Toward International Trusteeship?

Meanwhile, the question of how the US and Europe would respond should Hamas capture a majority of seats has come to the fore. This question circulated in diplomatic circles throughout 2005 without any resolution. So long as the dilemma was confined to the municipal level, the PA’s donors and diplomatic backers could equivocate, but with substantial national gains for Hamas potentially on the horizon, they will have to take a position. For the European Union, the quandary posed by the municipal elections was somewhat less severe, since member governments have the option of funneling money directly to the PA. This adjustment, in fact, meshes neatly with the plan to give the Palestinian Ministry of Planning a more prominent role in aid coordination. The US government, however, cannot send aid directly to the PA without a presidential waiver.

As the January 25 elections approach, donor governments seem to be hardening their stances. Congress was first out of the blocks, calling in a non-binding resolution for Hamas to be excluded from the elections and threatening to cut off Washington’s subventions to the PA should Hamas participate in the government. Given existing constraints on US aid, however, the vote was largely symbolic. Of potentially greater import was the announcement by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana: “It would be very difficult for the help and the money that goes to the Palestinian Authority to continue to flow [if Hamas won a majority]. The taxpayers in the European Union, members of the parliament of the European Union, will not be in a position to sustain that type of political activity.” The PA relies on the EU for approximately one third of its annual budget. Given that even this subsidy does not save the PA from its perpetual financial crisis, an abrupt halt to EU funding could sound the death knell for the Authority. In a December 28 press release, the main Western backers of the PA, the so-called Quartet of the US, the UN, the EU and Russia, tried to fine-tune the rhetoric, calling upon the PA cabinet to exclude any “member who has not committed to the principles of Israel’s right to exist in peace and security and an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism.”

The EU threat may prove to be bluster, an attempt to influence the votes of Palestinians who appreciate the importance of donor assistance. If the EU does follow through on its threat, member governments may find a workaround, as a European Commission official in Jerusalem has informally suggested. Instead of going directly to the PA, EU monies would be channeled to the World Bank, which would in effect become a stand-in paymaster for PA accounts of all kinds. The Bank already disburses the salaries of PA employees so as to reduce corruption.

In the words of the European Commission official: “The Bank knows as much as the minister of finance does about managing the public finances of PA. There are a number of trust funds, and with the four or five that exist, it could run the emergency services. As I see it, the Bank is already preparing for this, though if you ask anyone who works at the Bank, they’ll tell you that they are here to support the PA. But you have to admit that the structure is in place. The Bank plays a much bigger role than I have seen it play anywhere else.”

Should the Bank take over, Palestine would be well on its way to becoming a full international trusteeship. The UN Relief and Works Administration already meets the basic needs of Palestinian refugees in camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; the Bank would henceforth do the same for the non-refugee population. With the “peace process” in the “formaldehyde” of unilateral Israeli initiatives, the PA would exist only as an institutional fig leaf to mask the brute reality of Israeli occupation, administered by international organizations. Hamas, for its part, is trying to head off this possibility by multiplying the signals that it may pursue a more accommodationist line — including negotiations with Israel — should it join the government.

Such a shrinking sphere of Palestinian self-governance would owe at least something to the pattern of deferred promises of reform of the Palestinian Authority and its ruling party. The big losers, of course, have been the Palestinian people. Donor pressure has given a certain impetus to long-standing Palestinian demands for reform, but until there is sufficient internal pressure as well, change will remain cosmetic. In this respect, Hamas has much to contribute, having been energetic in pursuing efficiency and clean governance.

Checks and Balances?

By bringing Future back into the Fatah fold, Mahmoud Abbas hopes to shore up his party’s base of support and, by extension, the PA. Will he succeed? And if so, what might that mean for party reform? Marwan Barghouti is a truly popular figure — he polls higher than any other politician in Palestine — but not all rebels enjoy the same reputable standing in the eyes of the Palestinian public.Yet even the less popular among them have sought to reinvigorate the movement’s governing institutions. Barghouti recently apologized for Fatah’s past failures, opining, according to the Palestinian daily al-Quds: “The coming elections constitute a new democratic intifada that will lead to the rejuvenation of the Palestinian political system. They will produce a new framework and new institution that will represent all the most vibrant centers of power among our people.” Intra-party wrangling offers an opportunity for change, despite the reservations that some have about the process and the names behind it.

The prospect that the January 26 balloting will be delayed seems to have faded, despite Israel’s vow, which stands as of this writing, to block voting in East Jerusalem. The Quartet’s December 28 press release expressed its disapproval of Israel’s stance, saying: “Both parties should work to put in place a mechanism to allow Palestinians resident in Jerusalem to exercise their legitimate democratic rights, in conformity with existing precedent.” Israel may not want to lock horns with Washington on the issue. Al-Quds has reported that the Israeli government has indicated some willingness to compromise.

In any event, Abbas seems determined to hold the elections on schedule, partly because the PA’s global reputation can ill afford the blow of cancellation, but also because the erstwhile Fatah rebels insist upon it and because he is not averse to seeing the entrenched leadership of the PA eased out. The dilemma faced by the Palestinian president is that those whose gains he hopes to exploit may end up weakening his own position if they perform too well. Palestine could very well emerge from the January elections with internal checks and balances on the power of the PA executive, but because they will have come about through ad hoc politicking rather than serious institutional reform, they may produce a paralyzed Palestinian Authority rather than a more democratic one. Indeed, the multiple fractures within Fatah and the challenge posed by Hamas may necessitate the reimagination and fundamental reorganization of the Palestinian national movement writ large.