Volume 4, No. 3 – September 2000
THE FUTURE OF PALESTINIAN POLITICS: FACTIONS, FRICTIONS, AND FUNCTIONS
By Barry Rubin
Editor’s Summary: This article surveys Palestinian leaders, factions, goals, and debates. It suggests that Yasir Arafat’s governing style is both pluralistic and autocratic, combining a wide latitude in decisionmaking with restrictions based on a need to maintain his political base and national unity. The Palestinians are capable of creating a stable state that can meet its commitments in a peace agreement. But the extent to which a Palestininian state may be democratic will be determined by a post-independence, and probably post-Arafat, political process.
The 1993 Israel-Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) agreement, subsequent peace process, and creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) have brought a far-reaching transformation of Palestinian politics. These developments marked a sharp break in the history of the Palestinian national movement and the views held by the Palestinian public. Today, however, these factors are entering a new stage, involving potentially a peace treaty with Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state. If the Palestinian leadership is unable to make the compromises required in this period, it will obtain neither a diplomatic solution nor real, viable independence.
This essay analyzes the current situation of Palestinian politics, and how they will react as talks with Israel move closer to an agreement and independence. It is intended as a supplement to the author’s books, Revolution Until Victory?: The Politics and History of the PLO and The Transformation of Palestinian Politics: From Revolution to State-Building, which contain more detailed information and documentation.
THE TRANSITIONS OF THE OSLO ERA
Merely listing the key changes undergone by the Palestinian leadership and people during the last decade shows the extent and complexity of this transformation.
-From a revolutionary movement toward a state trying to meet the needs of over 2.5 million citizens. The PLO had engaged in a wide range of welfare, economic, diplomatic and other activities. But its power had been in armed, radical guerrilla groups that fought Israel and sometimes each other. Now the PA must function as an administrative body, building roads, collecting garbage, and running huge education and health systems.
-From a PLO that was a loose coalition of independent groups to a government that needs to enforce discipline and monopolize power. PLO leader Yasir Arafat had never made a serious effort to impose his will on a PLO splintered by ideologies, fiefdoms, and loyalties to different Arab states. He often conceded veto power over PLO policy to the most militant factions. While this pattern has continued in the new era in the form of Arafat’s pluralist style, the PA is better able to reduce that anarchy. Indeed, it must do so in order to survive and make progress in building a state.
-From dependence on violence, which often meant murdering civilians, to taking responsibility for stopping Palestinian terrorism against Israel. Total war aimed at eliminating Israel had been replaced by negotiating toward peace and co-existence. After 1993, there were virtually no armed attacks on Israelis by Fatah members or PA supporters. After 1996, Palestinian assaults steadily declined. People who had believed for their whole lives that no compromise was possible and almost any tactic was acceptable against a totally evil enemy now cooperate with those they blamed for all their problems and sufferings.
-From the dream of total victory–a Palestinian state encompassing all the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean–to a new goal of creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in east Jerusalem.
-From dispersed exile to restoration in its claimed homeland, reuniting a people scattered for almost a half-century. While the PLO had won support from most West Bank and Gaza residents, its leadership and policy had always come from the refugees of 1948. Now, West Bank/Gaza residents predominate, and returning PLO cadre must integrate local people into the leadership.
-From viewing the United States as a chief enemy to becoming a virtual American client. The PLO had seen itself as part of an international struggle against Western imperialism, allied with the USSR, and sought to expel U.S. influence from the region. Now Arafat visits Washington, shakes hands with members of Congress, and depends on Western donations mobilized by the United States. The situation’s irony is embodied by the resume of a senior official handling U.S. aid at the PA Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, which lists his “educational experience” as “explosives engineer.” (1)
-From relying on Arab countries and a Pan-Arab nationalist ideology to implementing a separate, Palestinian nation-state nationalism. While Palestinians still believe in Arab solidarity, they have now embarked on building their own independent state. In addition, their expectations were constantly disappointed by the limited help or aid received from their “brothers” in the Arab states.
-From expecting to create a utopian society that would be a shining model of Islam or socialism, democracy, and rapid development to facing the unpleasant realities of slow progress, limited resources, and accommodation to an imperfect situation. (2) As long as building a Palestinian state was only an idea, it was possible to imagine that it would solve all problems and fulfill every dream. Now no one can avoid confronting the future country’s small size, poverty, and relative weakness as well as elements of corruption, incompetence, and greed.
-Having made all of these transitions, reaching a successful peace agreement will require at least two more changes relating to the precise borders of a Palestinian state and to the refugees’ claimed “Right of Return.” Regarding the former issue, the Palestinian leadership will have to accept some territorial compromise on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As for the latter, whatever allowance is made for an agreement’s wording or for a token number of returnees, the vast majority of refugees will be left with some alternative for compensation and a “Law or Return” to a Palestinian state.
Such a dramatic change will not be easy for the Palestinian political system or leadership to accept. Yet, after all, the role of a political leadership is to organize, guide, and order such changes. Yasir Arafat has presided over two equally dramatic transformations already–the choice of Palestinian nationalism in the late 1960s and the acceptance of partition in 1993–and many secondary ones as well.
While Arafat has overwhelming decision-making powers, he also makes choices and sets priorities in order to maintain his strong base of support, avoid serious internal clashes, and maximize his ability to win over as much of the opposition as possible. Another debate among Palestinians regarding dictatorship, democracy, and human rights will also affect the way in which parties and people adapt to the new situation and conduct their affairs in a future state
LEADERS AND FACTIONS
The PA can claim a number of accomplishments in the six years since it began functioning as a government. These include the taking over or establishment of many institutions, the assembling of a state bureaucracy and police forces, and the development of new lines of loyalty and authority. There have also been many shortcomings within the PA, notably corruption, inefficiency, and limits on democracy. Still, given the obstacles to be faced, the achievements have been impressive.
At the same time, Arafat has gained two important victories in domestic politics. First, he has won acceptance for the Oslo-era framework. Even when groups do not willingly endorse the agreements with Israel, they have been forced to operate within that context which, in political life, means increasingly extensive acceptance in practice. Second, he has defeated Hamas and the other violent opposition groups. They do not agree with Arafat’s policies but they must also refrain from trying to overturn them. Armed attacks on Israel have steadily declined and the radicals know they can only lose in a direct confrontation with the PA. This has been the outcome for many reasons, including Arafat’s legitimacy and broad base of support, cooptation, repression, and fear of a Palestinian civil war. Also essential in this situation has been Arafat’s ability to sustain enough progress so that Palestinians believe that his strategy will lead to an independent state.
Of course, Arafat has never taken the internal situation for granted. A key factor for the PA’s governance strategy has been the need to manage a large sector that has questioned the PA’s basic legitimacy, opposed its policies, and used violence to sabotage the peace process. He has also managed extremist forces in his own camp. For example, up to 20 percent of the Fatah Central Committee is comprised of important activists who still advocate the PLO’s traditional goals of destroying Israel and establishing a Palestinian state on all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Although these people will not act against Arafat or actually take any steps to try to implement such a policy, they voice such views in their propaganda work. Many other Fatah officials and activists criticized Arafat’s policies and urged him to take a more militant posture toward Israel.
Yet this dynamic in Palestinian politics regarding negotiations with Israel was a natural division of labor. The PA leadership, acting as a government and needing to make progress through successful bargaining, adopted a relatively pragmatic stand. The opposition demanded more and faster Israeli concessions in exchange for little or nothing in return.
While the PA’s supporters accepted the Oslo framework partly due to the fact that Israel is relatively stronger, they often interpreted this strength to mean that Israel would not compromise. Concessions that Israel did make were quickly taken for granted and deemed inadequate. These factors meant that the heated rhetoric of the Palestinian debate–which the PLO thought provided peace at home and leverage against Israel in talks–remained far more demagogic or militant than were the PA’s actual policies. Again, though, it should be stressed that while it is easy and popular to demand a great deal in exchange for very little, Arafat and other leaders had to operate in the realm of the possible. They knew that nothing–including a unilateral declaration of independence–could succeed without an agreement with Israel.
These debates became entangled with arguments over the PA’s methods and structure. Demands for more democracy and human rights came from Fatah militants, Democratic and People’s parties’ supporters, and independent activists. Hamas also used such slogans at times. The Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) often tried to reduce Arafat’s power. Even many of Arafat’s supporters in the PLC, who totaled more than two-thirds of the membership, supported this effort. But Arafat always outmaneuvered these forces. In response, Arafat insisted that the situation necessitated his semi-dictatorial structure. Critics responded with two arguments: that this approach would inevitably lay the basis for a future dictatorship in Palestine and that the lack of democracy made it harder for Palestinians to reach their goal of independence.
Despite the PA’s shortcomings, it is misleading to overstate popular unhappiness with the PA’s behavior or, at least, its likely effect on the political situation. While it is easy to sympathize with demands for greater democracy and human rights, Arafat’s assessment of political reality makes sense. He does prefer pluralism–though not, of course, a transfer of power to the opposition–and Palestinian society is quite open compared to its Arab counterparts. In addition, the PA faces a real need to restrain an armed opposition bent on actions that would destroy the PA’s very basis.
At any rate, and even as his critics admit, most Palestinians accept Arafat’s viewpoint. Some Palestinian scholars have noted that while they personally prefer a more democratic society, their people’s social structure, political culture, and history make this unlikely for some time to come.
THE PA AND ITS SUPPORTERS
THE ARAFAT LOYALISTS
One of the greatest ironies of Palestinian politics is that Arafat is increasingly portrayed as a dictator internationally at a time when he has been unwilling to impose his views at home. The PA has certainly exerted strong pressure on the media, disregarded legal procedures, and ignored bills passed by the PLC. The police have kidnapped, tortured, and even killed people. Yet by the norms of Arab states, the PA has maintained one of the most open and relatively democratic systems that has ever existed. Arafat has not expelled anyone from the leadership for disparaging his policies. On the contrary, he has worked hard to keep all of his supporters on the team. Arafat’s use of tolerance, even toward Hamas, has been a control technique as important–arguably even more important–than repression.
It is also important to keep in mind that most Palestinians support Arafat, or at least recognize that they have no viable alternative leadership. Arafat’s credentials as leader of the movement for over 30 years are essential to this point, but so is his ability to bridge gaps and build united fronts. Arafat’s personality and doctrine favor a pluralist system, along the lines of Egypt or Jordan, rather than a dictatorship patterned after Iraq or Syria.
Beyond this lies a logical belief among Palestinians that only Arafat can maintain the PA’s unity and stability, negotiate successfully with Israel, and father a Palestinian state. When Arafat dies, he will have to be replaced. Until then, the question of succession will never get onto the Palestinian agenda. Since candidates for succession have been unable to campaign or organize, they have no active personal factions
Thus, it is no mystery that most of the Palestinian political elite support Arafat and have done so for many years. They see no alternative leader or system at present, and fear chaos and their own loss of power without Arafat at the helm. Arafat himself enhances this view by dispensing favors such as apartments, jobs, and contracts, or excluding people from such benefits. Being on good terms with Arafat opens doors to making money, legitimately or through corruption. Yet these material factors merely enhance the overwhelming sense that support for Arafat is a patriotic duty.
Even accepting the basic system, though, Arafat’s political supporters do not have to endorse everything he does. They can communicate their views through holding cabinet posts, running PA departments, participating in Fatah bodies, organizing demonstrations, and giving speeches and voting in the PLC. The courts and the media are partly controlled from above but can also be used to express dissent. Non-government organizations are better developed and more active than in any Arab state. For example, even strong supporters of Arafat have voted in the PLC for resolutions he opposed and bills designed to limit his powers.
Fatah group discipline has only rarely been used to threaten party dissidents. Several Fatah members even ran for the PLC–despite that group’s objections–after Arafat left them off the official Fatah slate. Nevertheless, six of the 10 people so elected became consistent Arafat supporters. Moreover, Arafat did not fire people from his cabinet despite open dissent, though he also did not implement their demands. Only four members of his cabinets resigned during the PA’s first six years of existence.
Arafat’s leading supporters are by no means restricted to the wealthy or to those who returned from a long exile abroad. Few people are part of the Palestinian political leadership because they are wealthy, except perhaps among mayors. The key criterion is past service to the revolutionary cause. In some cases, people hold key positions because they possess special skills, notably in the finance and development sectors. Many members of the elite belong to large and influential extended families, which often have members scattered throughout the political spectrum. More than a few PA officials have brothers who are militant members of Hamas, for example.
Equally, there are many Insiders (Palestinians who were never, or only briefly, in exile abroad) and intifada activists who support Arafat. The fact that not many intifida activists are in leading positions today is due largely to their relative youth. In other revolutions, too, the specialists on violence and agitation, so useful during the revolutionary struggle, did not make an easy transition to the institutionalized stage or state bureaucracy. If Outsiders (Palestinians returning from abroad) tend to favor Arafat, then it is partly because of the selectivity inherent in deciding to return. PLO and other Palestinian activists who opposed the Oslo agreements deliberately did not return to demonstrate that they reject Arafat’s path. Also, returnees often came back specifically to take jobs in the PA, thus strengthening their allegiance to Arafat and his policies.
In short, Arafat has a very strong base of support that will remain steady. While his popularity fluctuates in public opinion polls, there is a huge gap between his rating and that of any other potential leader. He has outmaneuvered Hamas and his other opponents alternatively using permissiveness and repression. Even critics acknowledge his power and popularity, openly agreeing that any attempt to confront him would lead to their own defeat or, at worst, a disastrous civil war.
Arafat does control the Palestinian scene to a large enough extent to negotiate an agreement with Israel. He has never been in danger of falling from power nor even of facing an upheaval that he could not control. More important than any negative effect of Palestinian impatience has been Arafat’s ability to consolidate power and create institutions that will produce a more stable polity, and eventually a state.
There are two identifiable dissident groups–the Outsider radicals and Fatah militants–within the PA and Fatah networks, as well as one individual–Faysal al-Husayni–with a considerable personal base of support. Although at first glance, the two groups seem to have parallel views and interests, they are quite different and do not cooperate.
THE OUTSIDER RADICALS
This is a small, but well-positioned, group of veteran PLO and Fatah officials who basically continue to hold to their historic radical positions. Many of these people–most importantly Faruq Qaddumi–have remained abroad because of their opposition to the Oslo agreements. Others did come back and work closely with Arafat.
While Arafat removed the most vocal dissidents from PLO and Fatah bodies, he kept those willing to cooperate with him, old comrades with whom he had strong personal connections such as Abbas Zaki, head of Fatah’s operations; Sakr Habash (Abu Nizar), chief of the Revolutionary Committee (the body below the Central Committee) and Fatah’s Ideological Mobilization Department; Salim Za’nun, the PNC’s head. (3) This group is friendly toward Syria and is responsible for much of the anti-Israel incitement and extremist statements coming from PA and Fatah sources. While their words might influence PA citizens, their main constituency remains the 1948 refugees still abroad.
Rather than cooperate with the Insider Fatah militants, the Outsider radicals look down on them for two reasons. First, they feel that the Outsider, full-time PLO cadre made the main historic contribution to the movement. Second, they view the Insiders as too willing to compromise with Israel precisely because a West Bank/Gaza state would more fully satisfy that group’s interests. In the succession process, this group–perhaps 20 percent of the Fatah Central Committee–would favor Qaddumi to replace Arafat. Despite Qaddumi’s popularity, his continued exile and this group’s weaker links with the indigenous population means their influence will decline.
In the final analysis, though, they have chosen to subordinate their personal views to hold office under Arafat. Most of them will continue to do so in the future, especially if they believe that an agreement will benefit their Outsider refugee constituents by allowing them to return to a Palestinian state.
THE FATAH MILITANTS
Some members of Fatah, including leading figures and former intifada activists in the West Bank (but less so in Gaza), have also criticized Arafat and confronted elements of the PA security establishment. The Fatah militants include several of the most articulate, energetic cadre such as Marwan al-Barguti, secretary of Fatah’s West Bank committee; Husam Khadir, a leader in the Balata refugee camp; and Asad Abd al-Qadir (Salah Ta`amri), a veteran Fatah officer. Arafat kept these three off Fatah’s PLC slate in the 1996 elections but they won PLC seats any way. This group seems most significant in the Nablus-Ramallah area.
This group’s main base of support is among Fatah cadre who feel excluded from the PA’s leadership. On a local level, they also find themselves in competition with Arafat-selected mayors and security officials. They respond by strengthening their base in the tanzim (organization), an active grassroots grouping of Fatah people in refugee camps and towns. They do not oppose the Oslo agreements but are much more doubtful of Israel’s willingness to compromise. Thus, they propose more militant–but not terrorist–methods to confront Israel. Such views are in line with their own interests: showing themselves to be more militant than Arafat is a way to enhance their leadership credentials. A strategy of mass mobilization and demonstrations would give the grassroots Fatah movement more importance, while a government-centered strategy makes them redundant. By the same token, they advocate democracy as a way of giving them more leverage against the government. They have also used the PLC in this campaign, linking up with Ahmad Khuri (Abu Ala), the PLC’s speaker and scion of a wealthy family who spent many years abroad as a PLO technocrat but has also been critical of Arafat’s policies.
The fact that Fatah functions neither as a ruling party nor as a disciplined, centralized organization makes it easier for critics to function. Fatah has resisted change in order to avoid accusations that the PA is a Fatah dictatorship. While Arafat has tried to replace Barghuti as Fatah’s West Bank leader, he has generally tried to maintain good relations with these critics.
Despite the fact that these people have often criticized Arafat, the great majority has also identified itself with the future of Fatah and the PA. Once it appears clear that a state will be established, whatever complaints these critics have about the specific compromises, they will focus on trying to obtain maximum influence within that state and will not break with Arafat.
The PA’s leader can also count on a number of other forces to cooperate, or at least not to fight against an agreement with Israel:
–The fact that potential successors to Arafat–Abu Mazin, Qaddumi, Abu Ala, Faysal al-Husayni and others–have been prevented from campaigning for his job keeps them from organizing a support base. They will accept his decisions lest they wreck their chances for succession. Indeed, they have an advantage in letting Arafat make the most difficult decisions–and take the criticism for them–so that they would not have to do so in future.
–The leaders of PA security forces, including Muhammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajub, heads of the Preventive Security Forces in Gaza and the West Bank, respectively, are very loyal to Arafat and will back his decisions.
–Two smaller parties, the People’s (Communist) Party and the Democratic Party (ex-DFLP cadre), can be described as critical supporters of Arafat. To survive politically, they too must find a way to maintain their political identity and avoid being overwhelmed by Fatah’s hegemony. Only in a democratic environment can they be secure against the possibility of a one-party dictatorship and even hope to take power themselves some day. Yet they, too, have participated in the PA’s executive branch, including accepting cabinet ministries. While they would complain that they could have made a better deal, they will accept the outcome of negotiations. Their main priorities will be demanding more democracy and seeking their own niche in the new state.
–Finally, an often-ignored factor is the support for Arafat from a large sector of people whose self-image is strongly Islamic. Indeed, opinion polls consistently show this group to be as large or larger than Hamas’s base of support. These include preachers, teachers, and others dependent on the PA for employment. They often sound like Hamas in terms of their anti-Israel, even anti-Jewish, doctrine. But they will back Arafat if he delivers an acceptable compromise with Israel.
As has always been true in the peace process, the more benefits the PA can deliver–in terms of both material gains and hopes for the future–the more control it will have over Palestinian domestic politics and the more support it will receive from public opinion. But whatever demagoguery will come out of Arafat’s camp regarding the terms of a peace agreement, there will be very few defectors.
Hamas remains by far the most important single opposition group. While opposed to the peace process and favoring continued violent opposition, Hamas faces major strategic problems.
First, the PA and Arafat have grown more confident of their hold on Palestinian society. While not seeking a confrontation with Hamas, they are willing to arrest its leaders and put more pressure on the organization than in previous years. At the same time, PA security forces have grown more effective in blocking terrorism. While support for various groups in public opinion polls fluctuates, Hamas’ popularity has fallen steadily.
Second, if the peace process seems to be advancing, Hamas does not want to be held responsible for sabotaging the creation of a Palestinian state. Certainly, Hamas acted aggressively–most notably in early 1996–to wreck the peace process. But that was at an earlier stage, when the PA was weaker, Hamas had a stronger military apparatus, and Palestinian expectations for success were more distant.
Hamas is not going to change its hardline doctrine, embrace peace with Israel, or join the PA. But the Hamas leadership must calibrate the extent of active opposition based on the political situation, Arafat’s willingness to repress it, and Palestinian public opinion. Arafat has followed a complex mix of policies toward Hamas, consisting of pressures and toleration. Arafat’s miscalculations led to the disastrous wave of terrorism in 1996 and an attempt to use Hamas terrorism as a way to pressure Israel, which backfired in 1997. He seems to have learned a lesson from these experiences.
Arafat’s tools regarding Hamas include sticks and carrots. Sticks include:
-Political pressure aimed both directly against Hamas and at Palestinian public opinion, arguing that Hamas’s activities jeopardize Palestinian interests and could bring civil war.
-Arrests, beatings, trials, and imprisonment of Hamas activists.
-Periodic attempts to disarm Hamas units, close or harass Hamas institutions, suspend or close newspapers, and keep Hamas from controlling mosques.
-Efforts to recruit Hamas cadre. This includes pressure on Hamas employees of mosques and other religious institutions to support the PA. Hamas leaders are also encouraged to join the PA or to establish an independent party. Hamas prisoners held for terrorism are released if they agree to join the PA security forces.
-Permitting Hamas institutions to function, sometimes with PA subsidies.
-Permissiveness toward Hamas armed units, at least up to the moment of attacks.
-Offers to incorporate Hamas in the PA as a coalition partner.
-The release of Hamas prisoners, including those sentenced by courts.
Arafat also exploits the factional situation within Hamas. The PA’s efforts at cooptation and pressure have had some results. Certainly, Hamas has sought to avoid confrontation, even after mass arrests and killings. The group’s leaders know that the PA would win any clash, that Hamas would be criticized for instigating civil war whose results would only “benefit Israel,” and would thus lose support.
Six different tendencies can be recognized in Hamas:
–Those working with the PA: This includes a few political figures, notably Imad al-Faluji who has served in PA cabinets. Such figures see their main goal as reconciling the PA and Hamas.
–The Gaza doves: A few significant Hamas leaders who favor accepting the PA’s basic approach–that is, the existing peace process–in working toward a Palestinian state. These people have already made the transition to a “loyal opposition” for the future state.
–Hardliners in Gaza and the West Bank: This group comprises the majority of the Hamas leadership that sees no need for basic programmatic change. At the same time, however, there are internal differences as to how much effort should be made to launch attacks and to accommodate to the PA.
–The Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades: The armed units tend to lobby for “military” action though divisions on this issue exist even among its ranks.
–Shaykh Ahmad Yasin: Hamas’ spiritual leader. By throwing his weight behind the hardline position, he has inhibited the Gaza doves and held Hamas to its historic positions.
–The Outside leadership: This group advocates a hardline stand, because it does not benefit from improvements in the situation within the PA territories and would not directly gain from a West Bank/Gaza Palestinian state. This group is more influenced by its Iranian and Syrian sponsors and is farther away from daily reality in the PA territories, including the costs incurred by terrorist attacks. It is, perhaps, also farther away from a more realistic assessment of Israel’s staying power.
While progress toward a Palestinian state could erode Hamas’s tough position, only its actual creation would begin to challenge Hamas’s basic stance, forcing it to adapt to new conditions. At the same time, though, Hamas will not be willing or able to launch attacks against the kind of political settlement that Arafat would conceivably accept.
While the Palestinian left includes many vocal, visible intellectuals, teachers, and professionals, it remains small. The term “left” can also be misleading, because nationalist doctrine was usually more important for such “leftist” groups as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). They have continued to oppose the peace process and employ violence against Israel. But the DFLP has moved in the direction of accepting the peace process.
If they have a candidate to succeed Arafat it would be the popular Haydar Abd al-Shafi, an elderly Gaza politician who resigned from the PLC to protest Arafat’s dismissive treatment of that institution. Yet Abd al-Shafi and these parties have failed in several attempts to create a broad alliance, and divisions on the left further limit its appeal.
DEMOCRACY AND HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATES
This is a disparate group of moderates, professionals, and intellectuals who argue that progress on these issues will benefit the Palestinians both directly and by helping them in the peace process. These non-government organizations have received massive support from Western foundations and groups. They remain small, however, and have limited influence within Palestinian politics at present. If they have a candidate for succeeding Arafat, it would be Abu Ala though many of these activists, as noted above, are supporters of the PP and DP. While some of Arafat’s supporters who counsel patience are uninterested in democracy, others who use democracy as a slogan are mainly interested in gaining power for themselves. At any rate, in the event of an agreement, these forces would quickly shift their attention to the struggle over defining the nature of the embryonic state.
In short, Arafat has strong control over Palestinian politics, which are becoming institutionalized in an organized ruling group. Such a process could be completed only within the framework of a state.
PALESTINIAN POLITICS AND THE FINAL STATUS NEGOTIATIONS
What is the impact of Palestinian politics on negotiations with Israel?
The needs to maintain favorable public opinion ratings and to avoid furnishing critics with ammunition are factors that seem to constrain Arafat in the peace process. But it is likely that he would be following the same path even without these limitations. The demand for an independent Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem is one shared throughout the leadership. Similarly, opposing the presence of Jewish settlements, demanding freedom for prisoners are consensus issues in Palestinian politics.
At the same time, though, the context of Palestinian public opinion has changed. For many years, these consensus views were largely frozen, or at least moved very slowly compared to the pace of events. Over decades, the goal of destroying Israel through armed struggle remained constant; there was relatively little interest in compromise or negotiation. But the Israel-PLO peace process cracked this system and now change occurs more easily and quickly. Hamas has reproduced the old ideological situation, yet even in its case, internal debate exists regarding flexibility in adjusting to developments.
The great divide in Palestinian politics for the past few years has revolved around whether or not to accept the peace process. It is now shifting to question how to evaluate any final peace agreement. Up until well into the year 2000, the PA stuck to its original demands–a completely independent state in all the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, the return of all refugees who wanted to go to pre-1948 homes in Israel, and the dismantlement of all Jewish settlements–and there was no debate over details or potential alternative stands. There were only occasional remarks hinting a compromise on some points, but any open departure from that official position was carefully avoided. (4)
The paradox for Arafat, as for his Israeli counterparts, has been that while large elements of the public and many political leaders oppose concessions, there can be no peace agreement without compromise beyond each side’s historic red lines. The choice, then, is simple. Either Arafat must go beyond the public consensus or there will be no deal, and hence no viable Palestinian state nor the return of any Palestinian refugees to a Palestinian country. A third alternative–postponing some decisions–poses a way of easing these contradictions but would not entirely eliminate them.
One popular Palestinian argument against further compromise is that by recognizing Israel and accepting the 1967 boundaries–in effect, giving up claims to most of mandatory Palestine–Palestinians have given enough. This claim will certainly not suffice as a negotiating strategy.
How does this relate to Palestinian politics? While critics can complain, and demagogically demand everything for nothing, the PA has to negotiate. Ultimately, it will be judged more on its ability to reach an agreement creating a state than on secondary concessions, as long as the concessions are limited and justified by the results.
There are at least four main points in the final negotiations about which Palestinians feel strongly:
1.All of East Jerusalem must be part of a Palestinian state.
2.All of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank must be part of a state.
3.All Jewish settlements in the territories must be dismantled.
4.All refugees must be able to return to their pre-1948 homes now in Israel.
Obviously, these demands will not all be met. In fact, it will be extremely difficult for the Palestinians to fully obtain even a single demand. This is very difficult for the PA leaders to agree to in the talks, difficult for their constituents to accept, and even more difficult (especially point 4) for Palestinians abroad to endure. However, other advantages–the right to a fully independent state, prisoner releases, the right of immigration for exiled Palestinians, etc.–would soften such a blow.
Regarding points 2 and 3, current Israeli proposals already hand the Palestinians more than 90 percent of their demands. This is explicitly true regarding Israel’s offer on territory. On the settlement issue, for example, the prospect of Israel annexing some settlements and offering monetary compensation for others, as well as the settlers’ opposition to living under Palestinian rule, would leave relatively few people behind.
The issues of Jerusalem and the refugees evoke far more emotion, and each has its own Palestinian constituency. About 10 percent of the future Palestine’s population resides in East Jerusalem. The city is not only an important religious and historical symbol for Palestinians, but would also be a key commercial and cultural asset for the state. It also provides a card that could be effective in promoting a future Palestine’s role in the Arab world, and its ability to attract aid from various Arab states.
But the most controversial item of all in internal Palestinian politics is the question of a Palestinian “right of return” to Israel. Obviously, Israel will not accept the migration of hundreds of thousands of 1948 refugees and their descendants. Compensation is an alternative, but it is neither the problem nor solution in terms of Palestinian politics.
For most Palestinians, Return was their struggle’s whole purpose and essential outcome. To abandon one’s vision of the return, explained a Palestinian writer, “is to rip up the tree on which his history and raison d’etre grow [and] rush headlong on a trip to madness.” How, asked PLO leader Abu Iyad, could he tell someone originally from Nablus that he can go home but not someone from Jaffa or Haifa? (5)
To accept that the Return will never take place would be a wrenching psychological phenomenon equal or even greater than the original 1993 Oslo agreement. It would affect Outsider Palestinians the most, for they would have to decide whether to stay where they are–the preferred solution for the majority who live in Jordan–or return to a Palestinian state that does not include their historic home.
Refugees living in the West Bank and Gaza will need to re-think their situation, as they will have the opportunity to move out of their camps and start building normal lives. But many will find this change difficult, and their dissatisfactions will be a prime issue on which the opposition will build in a future Palestinian state.
The transition from a local focus to a national orientation is a natural one and, in effect, something the entire Palestinian movement has been advocating for decades. Yet this transition is so difficult that even high-ranking PA officials, whose career is based on nationalism, still speak wistfully of a bi-national state rather than face this transformation of their worldview.
But discussions on the refugee issue usually miss two important points. First, most of the refugees living in the West or in Jordan will likely want to stay put. The current situation allows them to postpone making that decision. Second, over the last half-century, the refugees have had a choice only between the “Right of Return” to pre-1948 borders and staying in their current, unpleasant circumstances. Ever since the start of the Oslo process, they have feared being marooned forever where they currently live. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon faced the worst situation, and it is no accident that they have been the most radical as a community, who had no future at all between their homelessness and the eagerness of Lebanon to get rid of them.
The refugees’ concern was that either there would never be a Palestinian state or that they would not be welcomed there. But if Arafat can declare a state to which he can invite the refugees, along with compensation, he could create a political and psychological shift. Indeed, the “Right of Return” would be replaced by the Palestinian “Law of Return”.
The fact is that if Arafat did obtain a state on the great majority of the territory the Palestinians claim, his opponents could neither stop nor effectively mobilize public opinion against such a process. The very existence of a state would undermine their critical argument that Arafat had achieved nothing. After all, the demands for all of mandatory Palestine or an Islamic state, while powerful, no longer enjoy a practical place on the agenda of Palestinian leaders or citizens, especially for those living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The principal reason for Palestinians in the PA territories to support the radical opposition is fear that Arafat will not succeed in negotiating for a state and that the Israeli occupation will continue. Once that fact is reversed, his authority would be further consolidated. The specter of Arafat’s failure–not anger at his “betrayal” in being too moderate–is the key factor fueling support for an alternative route.
SCENARIOS FOR STATEHOOD
How would Palestinian politics be changed by the establishment of a Palestinian state and by the choice of Arafat’s successor? (6) Obviously, the order in which these two events occur would be all-important.
A critical issue in Palestinian domestic politics would be Hamas’ reaction to a deal creating a state. A change in its strategy will have a big impact after the final status negotiations.
The opposition in general, and Hamas in particular, has five choices. Some factions within groups will undoubtedly take up one of these options or try to blend them:
–Resistance: Considering a negotiated agreement with Israel as a sell-out and a “small” state as the end of their hope for total victory, some Hamas activists might try to wreck the process with massive terrorist attacks. But such a strategy is not likely to appeal to many within Hamas, for a real effort to subvert a deal would isolate those who adopt it, plunge the Palestinians into civil war, and destroy any chance for obtaining a state. But, a terrorist campaign could be conducted by the Islamic Jihad group.
–Rejectionism: Without trying to overturn the agreement, others in Hamas could simply refuse to recognize it. However, while Hamas would probably reject any negotiated settlement in rhetoric, at some point, it would have to deal with the fact that boycotting the state would make the organization politically irrelevant and hand their rivals a stronger monopoly on power.
These first two scenarios are unlikely. Even those who advocate suicide bombings are not eager to embrace political suicide.
–Revolutionary Opposition: This approach would accept a Palestinian state but try to use it over a protracted period of time as a launching pad for cross-border attacks on Israel. Such a stance would inevitably bring such groups into collision with the PA, which would have to pay a political price for such behavior, whether it worked to prevent attacks or not.
In addition to radical action against Israel, extremist Islamic factions could also try to overthrow the PA itself, probably with material assistance from regimes in Iran and Syria, and possibly Iraq or Libya. Yet the transition from a long and difficult struggle to an internationally fragile state would discourage many from towing such a political line.
While such violence could trigger a large international crisis, the various Western, Arab, and Israeli pressures that would be brought to bear on a Palestinian government–as well as its own desire for survival–would work against such actions. Whatever emotional support Palestinians might have for this strategy, violence would be unpopular as it would the state and severely damage its economy. For their own part, the radicals desire to avoid triggering a civil war that would destroy their popularity and induce severe repression, giving them an added incentive to avoid such acts.
–Revanchist Opposition: This is the most likely outcome, and would certainly involve more activists and a larger support base within Palestine than the previous options. Hamas and other opposition groups would follow a two-pronged policy. They would criticize the government for having given up too much and demand that the “rest of Palestine” be regained, and that Israel be destroyed. But at the same time, they would seek to make Palestine more Islamic.
This would be a longer-term, largely verbal strategy similar to that used by their colleagues in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Jordanian groups. While these groups could promise change if they achieved power, they would be very much aware that the prospects of obtaining any real governmental influence would be limited.
In reality, then, this approach would also be part of an implicit deal in which the opposition groups were left alone by the government and even given a share of power in exchange for not violating certain rules. They would not be allowed to engage in violence or go beyond a tolerated level of criticism of the government and the national leader.
–“Loyal” Opposition: This category does not necessarily describe an opposition that supports the government but one that accepts the existing system. Thus, Islamic and leftist groups could campaign for a more Islamic society or for more democracy and human rights. At the same time, they would not engage in direct incitement against a peace agreement with Israel and demand its revision. In other words, they would accept the context of the existing Palestine and its basic international status, struggling instead to change that society through legal political action and social activism.
Most likely, however, the role of the “loyal” opposition would be played by a handful of small leftist parties while a Hamas-based Islamic party would function as a revanchist opposition.
The leftist parties might enter into government coalitions, though the main Islamist party would be less likely to do so. Arafat or his successor would work to pull defectors into the government party, and sponsor satellite Islamic parties to round up support that otherwise would go to Hamas. Small groups would break off on both ends of the political spectrum to join violent organizations, probably subsidized by radical Arab states or Iran.
A Palestinian political system would probably resemble that of Egypt or Jordan. Civil and human rights would be broader than in other Arab states but less than the norms of Western democratic societies. The government party would manipulate elections to always win, but would also give a portion of seats to the opposition, providing them with a vested interest in participating in the system. The government would subsidize mosques and Islamic schools in order to have some role in choosing their personnel and influencing their practices. It would respect Islamic sensibilities in setting social policies in order to reduce tension and broaden its own base.
What would the governing party look like? Clearly, it would be based on Fatah, drawing in as many nationalist, intellectual, and Islamic figures as possible to give it the shape of a national front. One key question would be whether the Fatah militants would remain inside such a party, leave, or be driven out by a successor less tolerant than Arafat. They could live with either Abu Mazin or Faysal al-Husayni without too much trouble.
Five different potential heirs–with varying degrees of likelihood–can be identified with various factions, though with overlapping support from other forces as well:
Abd al-Shafi: Non-Islamic opposition groups, though also popular with those who see him as a courageous veteran struggler.
Abu Ala: Fatah militants, democratic activists.
Abu Mazin: PA establishment.
Faysal al-Husayni: PA establishment, Fatah militants.
Faruq Qaddumi: Outsider radicals, though popular with up to 20 percent of the PA population
Abu Mazin is the most likely immediate successor, but he is also a man of Arafat’s generation. Abd al-Shafi is even older. Qaddumi is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and Abu Ala is also older and does not have a sufficient base to emerge as ruler. Husayni is probably the most impressive and probable longer-term candidate.
In the short to medium run, no military official or Islamic opposition leader is a likely successor to Arafat. The security forces are also divided, both in terms of personal loyalties and competing agencies. The great majority of Fatah is opposed to any soldier succeeding Arafat, and on this point the opposition groups agree. In the long run, a military coup is possible. But observers have overrated its likelihood. Compared to historic Egypt, Syria, or Iraq, the armed forces have played a relatively smaller role in Palestinian history. The multiple forces, lack of a coherent officer corps, focus on national unity, conflicting institutional loyalties, and the absence of any one dominant figure make the Palestinian military relatively marginal in political terms. Serious meddling by soldiers in politics would probably take a decade to develop.
Arafat’s degree of control over Palestinian society and his hold on power have often been underestimated. A protracted, even paralyzed peace process or economic stagnation did not bring about his fall or a revolt against him. At the same time, Arafat needs progress as well as steadfastness on Palestinian demands. He can make difficult compromises if the rewards are deemed sufficient and immediately clear.
Arafat’s vision is the same as that of most of his constituents. To obtain a Palestinian state, he will have to make some concessions. If he produces the desired result, he can persuade his people to accept compromises, but only if the immediate result will be a viable state on almost all the West Bank and Gaza, which can quickly start repatriating refugees and have a role in East Jerusalem.
1. Nidal Ismail, “Is Corruption the Problem?” Palestine Report, November 28, 1997.
2. See Ahmad Harb, “Cultural Impact of the Declaration of Principles,” [Arabic], al-Siyasa al-Filastiniyya, Vol. 1, No. 1-2 (Winter-Spring 1994) and Manuel S. Hassassian, “The Transformation in the Political Attitudes in the National Movement,” [Arabic], al-Siyasa al-Filastiniyya, Vol. 2, No. 7-8, (Summer-Fall 1995).
3. On Zaki’s return, see Voice of Palestine, September 7, 1995 in FBIS, September 8, 1995. For his criticisms of Arafat and Khuri, see Financial Times, April 26, 1994. Like Qaddumi, Zaki was welcome in Damascus and among the anti-Arafat Palestinian groups there. See al-Bilad, July 12, 1995 in FBIS, July 12, 1995. On opponents of Oslo in Fatah, see also Jerusalem Times, February 3 and September 15, 1995; al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 5, July 23, and October 22, 1995; Mideast Mirror, March 23, 1995; al-Hayat, March 23 and November 18, 1995.
4. The so-called Beilin-Abu Mazin agreement is the sole exception here. The author is convinced–after extensive interviews with Israeli and Palestinian figures–that no such agreement exists. The paper was merely a proposal by Yossi Beilin, a leader of the Labor party’s left wing.
5. Fawaz Turki, “The Future of a Past: Fragments from the Palestinian Dream,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Spring 1977, p. 68; Abu Iyad, interview with author in Tunis, August 1989.
6. For the author’s views on succession, see “After Arafat: Succession and Stability in Palestinian Politics,” Middle East Quarterly, January 1998 and a different version appearing in MERIA Journal, Vol. 2 No. 1, March 1998.
Barry Rubin is deputy director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies and Editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA). His books include Revolution Until Victory: The Politics and History of the PLO and The Transformation of Palestinian Politics: From Revolution to State-Building (Cambridge, Ma.,: Harvard University Press, 1994 and 1999).