Shaking out of stagnation

Beyond a similarity of name and the fact that their creation is potentially hugely significant for the future, the two new parties recently established in Palestine and Israel have nothing in common.

In Israel, the split in the Likud party and the return of the Labor party as an active opposition, is bringing some dynamism to a stagnant political scene and engaging again a public that had become despondent and apathetic. The absence of any debate or opposition in Israel had given carte blanche to the right wing Israeli government to build material and psychological walls. Paradoxically, these walls created a kind of ghetto for Israelis as well as the cantons they created for Palestinians.

The return of dynamic and healthy politics in Israel will hopefully serve the political process to which a majority of Israelis still subscribe.

The recent developments on the internal Palestinian scene are no less exciting and have even more potential for creating change. The split in Fateh, which came as a surprise to nobody, was an inevitable outcome of a combination of the tribal and patriarchal nature of Fateh and the inability of Fateh’s leadership to respond to internal and external challenges.

The split became inevitable once Fateh decided to hold primaries in order to select candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections. With no fixed membership, something that used to be a source of pride to its leaders, it was a recipe for chaos. There was never a need for membership before, because decisions such as selecting candidates and leaders in the movement were always made by Arafat, the charismatic "father figure".

With the absence of such a father figure and the absence of any alternative institutional mechanism, it wasn’t possible to agree on who should represent the movement in elections, creating instead unbridgeable differences that produced the two lists of candidates we see now. Beyond a competition for power, it’s still early to understand the fundamental differences that led to the split. Generational differences, although a factor, are not enough to explain why this happened.

One thing certainly played its part. The Palestinian public, as evidenced in many ways including through public opinion polls, is not satisfied with the Fateh leadership. The loss of confidence in the performance of all government institutions led to a sense that Fateh, as the party in power, was to blame. This in turn led to the fear within Fateh that the party stood to lose power. Different sectors within Fateh have drawn their own conclusion as to how to find a way out.

Another significant aspect of Fateh’s crisis is that the peaceful approach of its new and promising leader Mahmoud Abbas, already controversial among the public and within Fateh itself, has been unsuccessful in moving forward the Palestinian cause. This is a direct result of the Israeli insistence to ignore him as a partner and deny him any political achievement that could have empowered him, both inside his party and with the public at large.

The international community and the United States, which were rightly excited about the election of Abu Mazen, apparently did not realize until very late that without energizing the political process and improving the Palestinian economy, the politics and the kind of politician that Abu Mazen represents might run into trouble. It was too late when the Quartet finally became properly active and helped nail down the agreement on the Gaza crossing points.

Adding to the woes of the Palestinian leadership is the challenge of Hamas and other hardliners in and out of Fateh and the insistence of Israel and recently the American Congress and the EU to keep doing and saying exactly the things that strengthen Hamas. The Israeli, American and European political targeting will only enhance the public standing of Hamas and improve its chances in the elections.

However you look at it, the new dynamics on both sides, and the way the international community will choose to interact with them, are going to be decisive in creating a new situation and new opportunities and/or dangers. At the very least, the conflict will be shaken out of the stagnation it has found itself in for the past year or two.