Much has been said of late as to the reason for the internal Palestinian conflict, especially the struggle between Yasser Arafat and his Premier Mahmoud Abbas. While personality issues should not be discounted in any political struggle, one has to look much deeper in order to understand what lies behind this conflict. It erupted as a result of different readings of the international and Arab political map and the realities of Palestinian life. I believe that if they felt positive, clement international support for their cause, Palestinian leaders would be emboldened to adopt a more stubborn negotiating position, while weaker international support would lead to a much more flexible negotiating position. The same applies to how one reads the Palestinian public’s exhaustion factor. These issues reflect on the abilities of Palestinian negotiators to make demands regarding day-to-day issues, like the release of prisoners, checkpoints and improving lives of Palestinians.
In these areas, there are definitely some major differences between the views of the Palestinian president and the prime minister. Normally such differences can be easily justified and explained based on their differing positions. A president should be having larger, long-term vision, while the prime minister must deal with current day political issues and pressures. Politics as the art of the possible would apply more to the prime minister’s portfolio than to that of the president.
But in the current context, a much more troublesome difference seems to be behind the internal conflict. Roughly speaking, it has to do with the way the two leaders evaluate where the Palestinian issue is in terms of local and international circles. In this context, one has to answer a simple question: Who has emerged as the victor in Al Aqsa Intifada? While there might be no black and white answer to this question, attempting to answer it can be of extreme help in deciding a negotiating strategy and better understanding the dilemma facing Abu Mazen.
A number of Abu Mazen’s hardline opponents within the Fateh Central Committee are claiming that the prime minister is a defeated leader. They note his criticism of the militarisation of the Intifada as proof that he had given up on the Palestinian uprising even before the hudna was formally declared. Abu Mazen’s supporters reject these accusations, noting that criticising him was simply against the form that the Intifada has taken (the military one), which has weakened rather than strengthened the Palestinian position in the world and vis-é-vis Israel.
They insist that Abu Mazen’s negotiating posture reflects a realistic approach rather than the pie-in-the-sky approach which has repeatedly proved to be detrimental to Palestinian aspirations. They point to the way Palestinians have always made unattainable demands based on a mistaken reading of the political balance of forces and then, after some time, what was rejected became a new demand, but again the balance of forces would be different and therefore the new demand would not be reached.
Back to the question of the winners and losers of the Intifada. There is no doubt that Palestinians were badly bruised during the past two and a half years. The Palestinian economy is in ruins, the infrastructure in shambles and people’s faith in the leadership and in the eventuality of peace has been dealt a bad blow. The hard work of erasing the terrorism image of the 70s has been wasted as that image has returned to haunt the Palestinians. And the Israelis have not ended their occupation of Palestinian lands.
But for better or worse, the Palestinians have not surrendered, they have not thrown in the towel, and despite hurting all over, they remain standing.
Israelis are also bruised, their economy is also hurt (not as much as the Palestinians’) and their confidence in peace is still rather low. The powerful Israeli military machine has not won the battle on the ground, as Israeli soldiers, settlers and civilians continued to be killed and injured. While Israel can’t claim to have won the battle, it has not lost it either. Some would call the result a draw.
To be honest I would say that the Palestinians have lost the latest round in points rather than through a knockout, which means that they still have a chance to regroup themselves. This means that national unity must be preserved at all costs. Palestinians must be careful not to fall in the trap of a civil war or a leadership struggle and, at the same time, try to agree on an honest evaluation of what is possible in the current political landscape.
Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem. He is the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University which owns and runs Al Quds Educational Television. In May 2001, Mr. Kuttab received the International Press Institute’s award as one of fifty press freedom heroes in the last fifty years. He is a regular contributor to Media Monitors Network (MMN).