Midway through an exclusive interview I had with Yasser Arafat in Tunis shortly before his return to Palestine, a year or so after the signing of the Oslo accords, I asked him to comment on some of the PLO factions wanting to become a political party.
“Why not?” was his quick answer.
I felt confident enough to pursue my idea with a follow up question. But when I posed the question about Fateh becoming a party, the earth shook. Arafat became extremely angry, he said that my interview was terminated, and his bodyguards confiscate my tape recorder. When I tried to find out what angered him, I was given a long lecture on what Fateh is all about.
“Fateh can’t become a party, it is a liberation movement. It represents all Palestinians wanting to be free. Amongst its members are left-wing communists and right-wing Islamists. We are not into ideology or a narrow political platform, we are a people’s movement.”
The interview with Arafat had been arranged by some of my friends who had been deported during the first Intifada. They were sitting in with me for the interview. They were Marwan Barghouthi, Samir Sbeihat and Jibril Rajoub. The first two had been presidents of the student body at Bir Zeit and I had known Rajoub from his days at Faisal Husseini’s Arab Studies Centre where he worked after his release from a 19-year jail term.
I later realised that Arafat was, of course, not interested in me but much more interested in sending a message to the three Palestinians from the occupied territories. The three, and especially Barghouthi, had been talking to me in the days before the interview about their idea that Fateh should become a party once they return.
I remembered this story as I followed closely Barghouthi’s on and off nomination. What I found interesting was the public and private negotiations that were taking place before Barghouthi’s final decision to withdraw his candidacy. Another interesting story for me was a 12-point political platform that Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is said to have drawn up and which the head of his election campaign, Tayeb Abdelrahim, told Fateh leaders will be available to them on Jan. 26, which is the official date for the starting of the presidential election campaign. Even the issue of a debate was not discounted.
When asked if he would agree to a televised debate, Abu Mazen said yes. Our television station in Ramallah, Al Quds Education Television, has quickly picked up on this statement and suggested a debate, on Jan. 28, for all the candidates.
In the first presidential elections, there was neither platform nor televised debates. And the period that followed reflected Arafat’s feelings that Fateh was still part of a liberation movement and that Palestine was not yet a free and sovereign state in which his movement can decide whether to convert to a modern-day political party with a specific ideological position on economic and social issues. This ambiguity between liberation methodology and national politics is perhaps the most telling difference between Arafat and the Israelis, and between Arafat and the present Palestinian leadership.
Barghouthi and Abu Mazen insist on the need for the Palestinians to continue some sort of resistance activity until Palestine is fully free and sovereign. Abbas’ consistent position, before he ran for president and during his presidential campaign, on the need to stop the militarisation of the Intifada can be compared by some as different from Barghouthi’s who feels that violent resistance might be necessary if the Israelis fail to quit their occupation of Palestinian lands.
As a strong executive president, Arafat had little time or room for a strong parliament. He was forced against his will to accept the concept of a prime minister, and soon after Abu Mazen was given this position, he was not very supportive (nor where the Israelis at the time) and finally Abbas resigned.
From the discussions we are hearing inside Fateh, there is still no consensus on the movement being converted (at present) into a political party. Certainly, with the hawkish Farouk Kaddoumi as its head, this will not happen any time soon. The question that needs to be asked is whether, once elected, Abu Mazen will make decisions and lead his movement in a direction that will prepare the grounds for it to become a party. Two important dates will answer that question. The legislative elections planned for next May and the convening of the sixth general assembly set for next August.
An Israeli withdrawal from Gaza by that time will also prove the need for political party-like economic and social policies, making them much more important and urgent.