Palestinian Politics at a Crossroads
Palestinian politics

While the Palestinian elections in January did not, as many have claimed, automatically signal the beginning of a new era, there is no doubt that crucial changes in Palestinian politics are underway. What is at stake is the transformation of the Palestinian political system (and its accompanying mindset) from that which prevailed in the diaspora to the one that will characterize Palestine in the new stage, which will effectively begin with the conclusion of the final status negotiations and the holding of new general elections. It is during the transitional stage (from now until that time) that the political map of Palestine will be reshaped. There is every reason to believe that this transformation will be painful for the leadership, the political factions, and society in general.

Ali Jarbawi is associate professor of political science at Birzeit University. 

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While the Palestinian elections in January did not, as many have claimed, automatically signal the beginning of a new era, there is no doubt that crucial changes in Palestinian politics are underway. What is at stake is the transformation of the Palestinian political system (and its accompanying mindset) from that which prevailed in the diaspora to the one that will characterize Palestine in the new stage, which will effectively begin with the conclusion of the final status negotiations and the holding of new general elections. It is during the transitional stage (from now until that time) that the political map of Palestine will be reshaped. There is every reason to believe that this transformation will be painful for the leadership, the political factions, and society in general.

A New Political Map

The features of the slowly emerging system are far from clear, but four main trends-with significant implications for Palestinian political life in the future-have already begun to take shape.

The first of these trends concerns the shift of the center of Palestinian political life from the "outside" to the "inside"-that is, from abroad to Palestine itself. Given Arafat's long-held position as the key factor in Palestinian politics, the center of gravity follows him. Thus, having ceased to move from one Arab capital to another, the center has come at last to rest in Palestine, and more specifically in Gaza, at least for the moment. The Palestinian institutions generated by the peace process, notably the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the elected Palestinian Council, are both "inside." Their legitimization by the international system has only increased the inside's weight vis-a-vis the outside.

The PA and the council will gradually occupy the preeminent place in the Palestinian political arena, while the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestine National Council (PNC), primarily diaspora organizations, will lose their effectiveness in the practical, though not necessarily in the theoretical, sense. This shift entails a reconfiguration of the basis of the political process, which will henceforth derive from the reality and constraints of life inside Palestine. Thus, although Palestinian political discourse will remain faithful to the issues of primary concern to the diaspora, such as the fate of the refugees, it is understood that sentiments and words are no longer capable of translating themselves into concrete political form. Palestinian political movements and factions must undergo a similar redirection: indeed, most of the factions not organically bound to Syria, even those opposed to the Oslo accords such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), are already attempting to adjust their actions (though not necessarily their ideological stances) to the changing realities. The return of some of their leaders to Palestine (seizing upon the opportunity offered by the convocation of the PNC session in Gaza in April) is an example of this accommodation. At the same time, the shift to the in- side has put these movements in the schizophrenic position of maintaining their anti-Oslo rhetoric while de facto accepting its results.

Another aspect of the power shift to the inside is a qualitative trans- formation in the relationship between the Palestinian leadership and its constituency, both inside and outside. During the exile years, the relationship was by definition unsteady, not only because the leadership was on the move, but also because of the very nature of its goals-the return to Palestine of leadership and people alike. Moreover, because the residence abroad was "transitional," little attention was paid to the formal qualities of the political process. When the leadership moved inside, it entered into a permanent relationship with its constituency: for the first time it came face to face with the Palestinian people on Palestinian soil. The old reliance on a vague future when "everything will be better after the liberation of Palestine" no longer held, and there was no choice but to deliver on promises, both economic and political. In this "permanent" setting, democracy, rule of law, and the formal properties of the political process-the basis of permanent relationship between authority and people-acquired great importance.

The second trend in the new phase, also emanating from the move to the inside, is the growing conflict between the formulas governing Palestinian politics in exile and those appropriate to the new situation in- side. Thus, while Palestinians inside are demanding new bases for their political life, the leadership continues to manipulate factionalism under the larger umbrella of "national unity," using political patronage to maintain the balance of power. During the last session of the PNC in Gaza, for example, the old quota system was again used to allocate seats for the participating factions (both old and new). Many Palestinians immediately criticized this method as authoritarian and obsolete, reminiscent of the patriarchal politics of favoritism and nepotism and no longer viable for organizing the political process in Palestine. The increasingly overt complaints-a contrast to the "whispering campaigns" that have traditionally served as the vehicle for such criticisms-about the hegemony of political factions in public life signal that a new political dynamic may be developing. Demands are on the rise for democracy, accountability, and the rule of law within a parliamentary system that allows individuals to express their views with impunity. One example of the incipient reformulation of Palestinian political life is the fact that most of the candidates in the January council elections either ran as independents or downplayed their political affiliations, emphasizing instead their personal qualities.

The third characteristic of the new political map is a shift in goals and means. Moving the center of political power to the inside has underlined the shift from the "greater Palestinian goal" of recovering all Palestine to more modest goals. Certainly, the demands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have always been modest when compared with the demands of the Palestinian people as a whole ("modest" especially when one considers the harshness of life under occupation and the cancerlike epidemic of Israeli settlements on their land). The demands of the Palestinians inside constituted the minimum acceptable solution. For them, a suitable beginning was the lifting of the occupation, if not all at once, then at least in stages; their continuing support of peace-in-stages should be seen in this context. The shift in objectives from maximum to "minimum acceptable"-from insisting on the achievement of the Palestinians' legitimate national rights in all Pales- tine to accepting the building of a national entity on only a part of Palestine-parallels the shift in means from revolution to incremental improvement.

The shift in goals and means is particularly painful insofar as it rep- resents a kind of schizophrenia in the Palestinian collective psyche. Palestinians are constantly subjected to the contradictory double-talk of the prevailing political discourse, which continues to employ the revolutionary slogans and rhetoric of the past, even while efforts are under- way to establish a national entity within the limits of Israeli constraints and the realities on the ground. It can be expected that this schizophrenia will diminish during the transitional years. If the peace process brings positive political and economic results, Palestinian political positions could gradually become more aligned with the scaled down nationalism that will grow out of the realities of the situation. If, on the other hand, the process fails to produce the incremental positive changes expected by Palestinians on the inside, and if the PA fails to deliver on its earlier promises, the entire process might fail and a new intifada could ensue. This time, however, it would not only be directed against Israel, but against Arafat and the PA.

The fourth change underway relates to the effective structure of the Palestinian political arena. The definitive end of the "revolutionary" stage and the structure that accompanied it will affect all political groups, now in a state of flux. The factions and movements that currently hold sway, formed during the "armed struggle" and "resisting the occupation" stages, cannot survive if they continue to preach the same ideologies. Some of these groups, having lost all ideological credibility, will undoubtedly disappear in the next phase. In general, the coming years will witness a departure from the improvisational-type factions and movements to political parties with clear political platforms; ideology will thus gradually give way to the concrete policies and programs that will serve as the basis for new Palestinian parties. The rumblings inside the existing groups during the recent elections clearly indicate movement in this direction.

The Parties in the Aftermath of the Elections

In thinking about current trends in Palestinian politics and their implications for the future, it makes sense first to consider the factions and movements that currently occupy center stage, assessing how they might react to the winds of change set in motion by this reorganization.

Dynamism and Stasis in the Islamic Movement

There are two effective Islamic political groups in the Palestinian political arena-Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Islamic Jihad, small and with a limited impact and influence, has remained essentially unchanged in the current stage. In the coming transition from "ideological" to "political," it is likely to become increasingly marginal, especially if it maintains its ideological stance. Although it will probably not lose its existing, albeit limited, support, especially in the Gaza Strip, its popularity is unlikely to increase even if it does form a political party and allow members to run in local and municipal elections.

The situation of Hamas is completely different. Hamas is a broad- based, popular movement with a vast network of social organizations throughout Palestine. Indeed, Hamas is Fatah's chief rival and a major contender for political power. Appearances notwithstanding, it is ideologically flexible and politically pragmatic. Operating in an environment still highly receptive to its message, it cannot be discounted that the movement, despite recent developments, will be able to grow in the future.

The continued militancy of Hamas has placed it in direct confrontation not only with Israel but also with the PA, which has been clamping down on the organization's programs and activities as it widens its control over Gaza and the cities of the West Bank. The movement's hard- line position has also indirectly drawn the ire of many Palestinians resentful of the Israeli closures and the consequent economic deterioration, especially in Gaza. Suffering from a decline in popular support even as its social services network is being threatened with dissolution, Hamas is very much in need of bringing its ideological rhetoric and political positions in harmony with the unfolding realities on the ground. At the same time, it must take care not to compromise to the point of losing the credibility that enabled it to occupy a central place in Palestinian politics. Only in this way can it continue to be a viable alternative to the Fatah-led national movement.

Hamas embraces a range of outlooks, and its leaders are scattered across Palestine and abroad. In the lengthy debates concerning future directions, the organization's internal polarization has intensified: Divergent approaches between the military and political, and between the moderate and militant, branches of the movement have emerged. It is interesting to note that the political branch in Gaza became the most accommodating with regard to the PA; during the months preceding the elections, it cultivated a stable working relationship with the Authority, influencing the outlook of the movement as a whole. Thus, despite the Hamas leadership's call for a boycott of the elections, the pragmatic branch continued to work on reformulating its political position. The establishment of the Islamic Salvation Party by certain Hamas members and sympathizers, for example, even though it did not in the end participate in the elections, suggests the direction in which the pragmatists had been leading the movement. It is also significant that the elections were not declared "forbidden" (haram) from a religious standpoint. Dis- array over elections was evident in the fact that a number of leaders of the pragmatic current registered as candidates before pulling out at the last minute so as not to damage the movement's cohesion. And, when a number of former Hamas members and supporters did run (several won seats in the council), it was rumored that Hamas indirectly helped them in order to show the movement's power and send a message to the PA about its new political direction.

The suicide bombings against Israeli targets starting in late February were the result of increased tensions among the movement's various branches. Reeling from the blow of Israel's assassination of Yahya Ayyash ("the Engineer"), Hamas militants were beset by fears that the pragmatists would steer the movement into Arafat's camp, while the leadership as a whole feared declining influence as a result of their failure to participate directly in elections that had been judged a success. The bombings led to the immediate breakdown of the relationship-in- the-making between Hamas and the PA. Under the intensity of Israeli pressure, Arafat was obliged to abandon his traditional balancing act in favor of an all-out effort to emasculate the movement.

Despite the massive crackdown directed against Hamas (including widespread arrests, particularly of the political wing), the movement can be expected to survive as a significant political force in Palestine. It is safe to conjecture that the bombing campaign was a temporary deviation from the path charted by the pragmatists. Assuming that the PA will relax its repression, Hamas can be expected to resume its policy of accommodation and dialogue with the PA. It is possible that the bombing campaign will lead to a new relationship between the two sides: Hamas wants to survive as a political player and save its institutional network, while Arafat wants to bring Hamas into the Authority's sphere of influence. Indeed, the bombings and repression may in fact have been the heavy but necessary price for the transformation of Hamas into an internal rather than external opposition, and for the establishment of a lasting reconciliation between the religious and national components of the Palestinian body politic.

The movement, or the new political party that may represent its interests, will in the future enjoy a stable position in Palestinian political life. That position will be determined by a variety of factors, including the future of Fatah and the Palestinian left.

Fatah and the Future Ruling Party

For over thirty years, Fatah has been the backbone of the Palestinian national movement. This is partly because its loose organization, absence of a disciplined party structure, and lack of a clearly defined ideology enabled it to be all things to all people. Historically, Fatah has always been willing to encompass a spectrum of views, even at the cost of internal strife and bloodshed. Indeed, the political debate or discord within Fatah reflected the broader debate in Palestinian politics, some- times exceeding it in sharpness of tone. From its inception, Fatah has reflected Palestinian society and expressed that society's will, with all its differing views and contradictions.

The creation, in the wake of Oslo, of local PA agencies in Palestine and the decline of the PLO agencies abroad has had major effects on Fatah. The return of Fatah members to Palestine created a period of instability: the unification of the movement's "external" and "internal" wings and the PA's establishment of an organizational structure led to a serious shake-up within the ranks, especially at the elite level. Restructuring also unleashed an intense struggle over the distribution of the spoils-positions, salaries, and goods-among competing factions.

The rivalry was exacerbated by the initial refusal of the opposition groups, both nationalist and Islamic, to participate in the PA's governing apparatus. By the time the opposition's boycott waned, the various Fatah currents had come to believe that PA positions were reserved for them and that the quota system that had formerly obtained among the various PLO factions had disappeared by default. Thus, during the last PNC session in Gaza, the Fatah rank-and-file loudly demanded an even larger share of seats in the PLO Executive Committee and, later, in Arafat's cabinet.

In Fatah's internal power struggle, three groups have distinguished themselves. The first includes Fatah returnees who had preached and practiced armed struggle during the years of exile. The second represents the new Fatah leadership inside Palestine, men who had gained prominence during the intifada and who believed that, having faced imprisonment and expulsion, they should now have priority within the movement by virtue of their knowledge of the situation on the ground. The third group, on the fringes of the movement, comprises intellectuals and businessmen (the latter looking for investment opportunities and possessing special skills, primarily financial, at a time when most Palestinians were inclined to reject the political factionalism and favoritism so prevalent in Palestine). It should be noted that these groups are divided and weak, opening the door for possible cross-alliances among elements of the three groups. These intra-Fatah rivalries have weakened the organization's structure, leaving Arafat as the only "glue" holding the fragile mosaic together.

Another effect of the rise of the PA and marginalization of the PLO relates to the growth of the civil service. The growth of the PA bureaucracy, mainly funded by donor countries, has given rise to a new privileged class and new political loyalties. This has led to a split within Fatah between the haves and the have-nots, with political power shifting gradually from Fatah to this new bureaucratic elite, which will progressively replace it as the ruling political party.

The general elections also had important implications for Fatah. The fact that a number of Fatah members ran against the movement's official list, ignoring the party leadership's calls to pull out of the race (some won stunning victories), proves that Fatah's electoral success came at the expense of its coherence. Indeed, the elections saw the final division of the movement into different centers of power.

Still, for all Fatah's internal disarray, there are numerous motivational factors that keep it together. Most important is the position of its chairman, who represents Fatah's strength and guarantees its continuity. Arafat's penetration of the apparatuses and services of the PA assures Fatah its continued prominence in Palestinian politics. But political infighting and a lack of ideology and organizational structure will ultimately turn the movement into a random collection of factions with conflicting interests and ambitions. The situation inside Fatah could worsen during the transitional phase, especially if the movement is unable to reap the benefits of running the PA and if, as seems likely, the nonsatisfaction of Palestinian demands on the central issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict-the right of re- turn, settlements, self-determination, and the status of Jerusalem-becomes more apparent. Many Palestinians see Fatah and the PA as one and the same, just as they consider the peace process a "Fatah project." If the process fails, and if the internal situation continues to deteriorate, Fatah will be blamed and the average Palestinian will be more apt to turn to new political parties. Needless to say, the disappearance of Arafat from the political scene would lead to the fragmentation of the movement.

On the other hand, Fatah will be able to retain its political effectiveness and power in the future if it is able to transform itself into a political party, with a clear organizational structure and political program. The age of Palestinian political movements with vague ideologies is re- ceding, especially because the current stage, unlike the one of national liberation, requires precise, action-oriented solutions. This process may already have begun. Fatah's election platform, while perhaps merely campaign rhetoric, did display a strong grasp of reality, with pragmatic social and economic proposals. This represents a small step forward. What seems clear is that if the movement is unable to continue moving ahead, and if it is unable to overcome its factionalism, it will face its demise in the next general elections.

The Palestinian Left: Time to Rebuild

Since the 1967 war, the Palestinian Left (with the exception of certain currents in the Communist Party [CP]) has suffered from a disjunction between its ideological positions and its practical actions, which has contributed to its failure to attract a wide following: Indeed, the Left has never been able to gamer support commensurate with its prominence on the political map. One of the major reasons for this paradoxical condition (characteristic for most of the third world) is the tendency to remain aloof from everyday life, preferring instead to dwell within the abstract realm of ideas. It was thus that most of their actions have been marginal, not affecting the majority of Palestinians: The Left was an opposition lacking a real capability to oppose. This situation resulted in a lack of equilibrium not only within the Left itself, but for Palestinian political life in general. Until the rise of Hamas, Fatah had no real opposition.

It was as a result of the 1967 disaster that the Palestinian Left abruptly embraced Marxism. The change lacked solid foundations, a protest against the devastating Arab defeat. Most of the Left never got beyond the contradiction between their political Marxism (espousal of Marxist jargon) and their social and economic contexts-the fact that they were Arab, traditional, and frequently from the middle and upper classes.

The PFLP was the pioneer in embracing Marxism. Its transformation from Arab nationalist to Marxist can be seen as one of the most serious tactical errors affecting contemporary Palestinian political life. With virtually the entire Left-the CP as well as the PFLP and its offshoots, notably the DFLP-following imported ideologies at odds with the general orientation of Palestinian society, Fatah had the field to itself as the only "genuine" Palestinian movement in the nationalist camp. The sympathy Hamas enjoys in Palestinian secular circles is another indication of the Left's failure to offer an acceptable alternative to Fatah in the Palestinian political arena.

By adopting Marxist doctrine, the leftist factions in effect consigned themselves to a perennial opposition. As such, they began to see themselves as the moral guardians of the nationalist camp, a role that began to take precedence over their political performance: Keeping their positions consistent became more important than meeting realistic demands on the ground. These factors-a dogmatic attachment to Marxism despite a changing situation worldwide, a determination to prove their dedication to the nationalist cause, and a refusal to deal positively with changes on the ground-kept the leftists isolated from the attitudes prevalent among Palestinians. This gap has become even more apparent with the shift of the Palestinian political center to the inside, where the leftist groups appear unable to comprehend the changing mood.

Two manifestations of the crisis of the Palestinian Left are the trans- formation of the CP into the People's Party, which amounted to a change of name without any parallel change in the party's methods, and the split within the DFLP, which led to the creation of a new party, FIDA. The fact that the DFLP and its offshoot have virtually the same ideology (though different politics) makes the split-as indeed most divisions on the Left-completely counterproductive. Similarly counter- productive is the Left's predisposition to boycotts and rejections as a way of differentiating itself from the organization-Fatah-it is incapable of effectively challenging on the ground. The boycotts have never induced Arafat and Fatah to move one centimeter from their course, and the Left is forced ultimately to drop its boycott and return to the fold, embracing the position it had previously rejected. In the meantime, Fatah would have moved another step forward, leaving the Left always a step behind in a perpetual game of catch-up. These tactics also have a negative impact on Palestinian popular opinion. As recently as the PNC session in Gaza, for example, the PFLP and DFLP were widely accused of hypocrisy after they boycotted the PNC session, at which the vote concerning the charter was cast, but then agreed to be included in the newly formed PLO Executive Committee. In short, while the leftist groups are structurally intact and operational, they have no real effect.

The general elections gave the leftist groups a chance to resume effective political activity. If they had formed a joint list as a united bloc with other opposition groups, they could have made a mark on the coming stage of Palestinian politics. Instead, the PFLP and DFLP chose not only to boycott the elections but called upon their followers to do likewise: The high voter turnout can therefore be seen as a repudiation of their policies and a clear indication, of their limited impact; in effect, they banished themselves to a state of total marginalization. The People's Party and FIDA, on the other hand, did run in the elections, though not on a united slate. While no People's Party candidate was elected, FIDA did manage to win a single seat on the Palestinian Council. However, because of its de facto alliance with Fatah, FIDA can no longer be considered part of the Palestinian Left.

As the political transition proceeds with the legislative council and the consolidation of the move of the political center to Palestine, there is little room for optimism concerning the Palestinian Left. The People's Party, as the successor to the CP, will retain its structure as well as its tiny place on the political map, but will be unable as in the past to build a solid popular base for the future. FIDA may well be swallowed up in the coming stage. Both the DFLP and the PFLP were rent by fierce debates during the election campaign, with party members, especially in the PFLP, breaking ranks; neither has been able to regain any kind of internal cohesion. Their leaders' return to Palestine for the PNC meeting changed nothing. Not even Arafat's decision to allot additional seats to the leftist organizations can reverse the decline.

The space reserved for the Left in Palestinian politics thus remains unoccupied and is open to whoever takes the initiative to create a new leftist party. Such a party must be Palestinian in its root and Arab in character, left of center on the Palestinian political map, progressive and liberal. The need here is not for a new leftist framework, but for a qualitative overhaul of the Left as we now know it; a completely new- not renewed-Left must take shape in order for equilibrium to return to Palestinian political life. Until a party of this sort crystallizes, Palestinian politics will continue to stagnate.


The Palestinian political system continues to be characterized by patriarchy, with one man at the center of the political process. It was hoped that the election of the legislative council would change that, introducing checks and balances, greater accountability and transparency.

Although it is too early to predict the council's future role, it is already apparent that the executive branch is trying to undermine it by keeping it out of the final status negotiations and by curtailing its ability to hold the government financially and politically accountable. One indication of Arafat's plans is his appointment of a large cabinet of about thirty members, many from the council itself, and including members of the People's Party, FIDA, and independents. Deputy ministers will also be appointed. The size and broad base of the cabinet seems designed to assure that the legislative branch will become an appendage of the executive.

With the beginning of final status negotiations, Palestinian political life enters a new and difficult stage. By the time this transitional stage ends, a new political map will have been drawn. While the present situation remains in flux, the general shape of that map can already be gleaned from the changes currently underway.


Ali Jarbawi is associate professor of political science at Birzeit University. 


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