Palestinian Dilemmas
Palestinian Dilemmas
Planning Ahead: How the US May Recover Its Diplomatic Standing at the UN After the Gaza War
Planning Ahead: How the US May Recover Its Diplomatic Standing at the UN After the Gaza War
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

Palestinian Dilemmas

Even before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was removed from the stage by his latest stroke, the prospect that Palestinian legislative elections would be conducted as scheduled on January 25 seemed increasingly bleak. This had little to do with Israeli threats to block voting in East Jerusalem if the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) participates, or American and European ones to sever aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) if Hamas is included in the next Cabinet. While the Palestinian political system’s ability to function is deeply influenced by Israel by virtue of the occupation, and by the PA’s political and economic dependence upon foreign powers, the dynamics surrounding Palestinian legislative elections are primarily internal.

The coming elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) are part of broad reconfiguration of the Palestinian political system necessitated by the November 2004 death of Yasir Arafat. Because the legendary Palestinian leader over the years transformed this system into a reflection of his personality and tailored it to his methods of rule—meaning there was not much of a system and its operative  principles were divide, co-opt and rule—Arafat’s successors, lacking his stature as well as his acumen, were compelled to introduce structural changes in order to consolidate their position. Taking  stock of Palestinian realities, they opted to legitimize their leadership, both domestically and internationally, through a process of elections, institutionalization and power-sharing.

While attention has been focused on President Mahmoud Abbas’s efforts to integrate Hamas into the Palestinian political system, the most significant developments have been within the dominant yet  increasingly fragmented Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah), precisely because its hegemony over Palestinian institutions means their fate continues to rest within its hands. Furthermore, the cooperation of Hamas, so vital to Abbas’s attempts to achieve a ceasefire and resume negotiations with the United States and Israel, was never really in doubt; that of Fatah, without which power-sharing  cannot succeed, was by contrast never certain.

The Islamists’ calculations are relatively straightforward. Having experienced a surge in popular support during the current uprising, and with Israel’s unilateral evacuation of the Gaza Strip demonstrating their power as well as its limits, Hamas is keen to translate its success into institutional power. Recent municipal elections, in which the Islamists handily won control of most urban areas, including traditional Fatah bastions like Nablus, additionally suggest that Hamas’s current electoral appeal extends well beyond those who share its ideology and agenda. With a reputation for clean hands, effective service delivery and organizational discipline, it is emerging as the alternative of choice to a PA discredited by  corruption, chaos and a failure to realize its political agenda.

While few expect Hamas to emerge victorious in legislative elections, the prospect of its doing well enough to sit around the Cabinet table has opened a rift of sorts within the Islamist movement. To one side are those who continue to advocate a strategy of gradual integration irrespective of the voters’ verdict, meaning that in the next stage Hamas should operate as a parliamentary faction exercising effective veto power over a Fatah-dominated executive. To the other are those who maintain that Hamas’s role in the PA should reflect the election result, including, if it performs well enough, a commensurate role in the executive and, some suggest, the security forces as well. While the gradualists have thus far retained the upper hand, the euphoria of victory, should it come to that, has a way of affecting internal balances of power.

If anything, Hamas’s fear at this point is that it may do too well, and consequently be forced to exchange the benefits of opposition for the burdens of responsibility, and prematurely have to confront strategic issues such as relations with Israel and the demobilization of its armed wing. The only certainty is that Hamas would not have embarked so decisively on the path of political integration if it was  unprepared to accept—in substance if not as a matter of official policy—a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For Fatah, by contrast, the challenges are primarily internal. Even if the movement were to make a clean sweep of the elections, the Fatah Central Committee (FCC), which controls the levers of power within the Palestinian political system, would be the biggest loser; empowered and emboldened by a mandate from the people, the more ambitious members of Fatah’s parliamentary faction will effectively create a situation of dual power within the movement. They will seek not only a transformation of the PA and its modus operandi—if need be in alliance with Hamas and independents—but more importantly seek to  convene the Fatah General Congress (FGC). The latter institution, which pursuant to the Fatah constitution must meet every five years to formulate organizational strategy and elect the FCC, has not met since 1989. Given the unprecedented levels of discontent with the current FCC, few if any of its members are expected to survive the next FGC session.

This is, in significant part, precisely Abbas’s strategy: to have the electorate, Fatah rebels and Islamists remove his FCC rivals from power so he will not have to do the dirty work himself. Yet his passivity since assuming office has cost him dearly and threatens to overwhelm both him and his strategy. Indeed, the growing chaos in the occupied territories, and particularly the Gaza Strip, reflects his strategic failure to confront competing Fatah power centers before elections, and has produced the widespread conviction that Abbas is unable to implement the agenda he claims to uphold.

That the chaos increased markedly in November and December and prevented Fatah from conducting primaries, and has since surged to levels that may force a further postponement of PLC elections, is not coincidental. Many detect the hidden hand of the FCC in these events, acting in concert with militias claiming to represent the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, affiliated with Fatah, to block elections that will diminish their power relative to others in Fatah, and that of Fatah relative to Hamas. The combination of sclerotic revolutionaries and young militants joining forces to keep middle-aged activists on the margins—itself a vast oversimplification—also puts paid to the idea that this is a generational struggle between an old and young guard. The present reality is one of systematic fragmentation, in which multiple power centers engaged in a constantly shifting pattern of opportunistic alliances and petty rivalries have taken Fatah to the brink of disintegration. For its part, Hamas has warned that if elections are further postponed it will fill the streets with mass demonstrations to impose democratization from below. Should it fail, it is likely to abort the ceasefire it has observed to a greater extent than others (including both Israel and Fatah).

In the larger scheme of things, the destruction of the Palestinian national movement has been a consistent strategic priority of Ariel Sharon’s since the early 1970s; indeed, no explanation of its current seeming implosion is complete without an account of his contribution in this regard. Yet, whether Palestinians will be compelled to inherit the legacy of Sharon, reduced to fragmented communities behind concrete barriers and occupied by remote control, or eventually compel Israel to accept genuine self-determination for the Palestinian people will ultimately be determined by the Palestinians’ success or failure at reconstituting their national movement as an effective and purposeful political force. The answer to this critical question is likely to be provided in 2006, and Palestinian legislative elections—or not—form a central component of this dynamic.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.