Arafat's Poisoned Legacy

Arafat's Poisoned Legacy

Mini Teaser: Arafat's Palestinian nationalism denied the legitimacy of any Israeli state. His successors must shed this straightjacket if they want a state of their own.

by Author(s): Barry Rubin

Members of the other major Fatah faction, the young insurgents, have a worldview similar to that of the establishment but are even more supportive of continued violence. Their leader, Marwan Barghouti, currently serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail for terrorist activities, heads the terrorist Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and the grassroots Fatah group, Tanzim. The young insurgents view their elders with contempt for having failed to achieve victory and instead becoming corrupt bureaucrats. Although they were once severe critics of Arafat, their great enemy during the 1990s, they now opportunistically claim to be his true heirs. The Al-Aqsa Brigades have even incorporated Arafat's name into their own.

This faction's activists are great believers in the virtue of armed struggle. They argue that only violence will bring an imposed settlement on their own terms and force Israel to surrender the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem without getting much in return. They are ready to fight on for decades, picking up where Arafat left off. Abu Mazen wants to buy them off, but they intend to impose their strategy on him. Even if they do not try to oust him, they certainly mean to succeed him in power. When, for example, Abu Mazen campaigned in Jenin at a meeting of 2,000 people in a school auditorium on December 30, 2004, twenty Al-Aqsa Brigade gunmen took over the stage and fired dozens of rounds into the air to remind him of their power. At the moment he was being inaugurated in January, the group launched an attack on a Israel-Gaza border installation, killing six Israelis and disrupting negotiations between Israel and Abu Mazen.

From an institutional standpoint, the Palestinian movement is also going to be very difficult for Abu Mazen to control. He heads the PLO, but this is a paper organization with little influence and even less control over Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. In fact, it is these refugees who are the main lobby for a hard-line stance centering on a "right of return" to subvert Israel's existence. In Lebanon especially, they are also under the influence of such radical forces as Iran, Syria and the terrorist group Hizballah.

As for the other organization Abu Mazen heads, the PA, which nominally rules the West Bank and Gaza, it is merely a collection of bureaucracies, not a real power base. Fatah, controlled by the hard-line traditional establishment, remains the real locus of power.

The most important part of the PA, over which Abu Mazen will exercise little control, are the dozen armed security agencies, each divided between separate West Bank and Gaza commands. They are competing groups whose officers are virtual local warlords, collecting bribes and exercising arbitrary power over Palestinian citizens. Their commanders are likely to follow Abu Mazen's orders only when they feel like it.

Finally, there are the Islamist forces--Hamas and Islamic Jihad--and small, radical, pseudo-leftist groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, eager to continue the violence and stage large-scale terrorist attacks to subvert any peace effort. Hamas has a support base of 15 to 20 percent of the Palestinian public. In the first round of local elections, it won control over one-third of the councils. Whatever power Abu Mazen or other leaders offer to the Islamists will not convince them to acquiesce. On the contrary, they will do everything possible to subvert a diplomatic solution and will dare Abu Mazen to suppress them with violence.

It is important to remember that to this day, most ordinary Palestinians have no idea what was offered at Camp David or that, in the December 2000 Clinton Plan, the United States and Israel proposed a comprehensive negotiated solution including an independent Palestinian state in all of Gaza, the equivalent of all of the West Bank, most of East Jerusalem, and sovereignty over the Al-Aqsa mosque. Misinformed that Israel poisoned Arafat and told that it is a state with no right to exist and that it is offering them no solution except endless occupation, Palestinians will understandably see continued armed struggle as their only alternative. Told repeatedly both that total victory is just and that the whole world supports them, they are unlikely to opt for a comprehensive moderate rethinking of their worldview.

Thus, there is a wide gap between the prevalent Western image--a Palestinian movement ready for peace with Abu Mazen firmly in control--and the reality. This must be bridged if there is to be any hope for peace. The kind of dramatic gestures and difficult decisions required are unlikely. Abu Mazen knows that compromises or concessions, the end of anti-Israel hate propaganda, or a fully imposed ceasefire will mean that he will be branded a traitor by rivals while not even being backed by his own Fatah movement.

The obvious temptation for Abu Mazen is to preserve his rule and Palestinian unity at the price of giving up any major progress. This strategy is the best way to lower the political heat among Palestinians, avoiding the divisive debate over reassessing the movement's goals and methods that making peace would require. Going too far toward real moderation would alienate his backers in the Fatah establishment and would certainly bring him into confrontation with the young insurgents and Islamists. For Abu Mazen, building a false moderate image abroad while assuring Palestinians that he is sufficiently militant seems a more attractive option. At the same time, though, he knows that unless he successfully takes up this challenge to bring real--and risky--change, Palestinians will be condemned to additional decades of suffering and failure.

A period of turmoil, which could be quite extended, will be needed for a new leader with real power to emerge, whether that be Abu Mazen or someone from the next generation. Moderation will not be an asset for those competing in this contest.

In terms of domestic politics, Abu Mazen will not be able to install supporters--even if he can find them--to dominate decisively the PA cabinet, the Palestinian Legislative Council or the security services, since appeasing the Fatah establishment will use up most of his patronage. Even implementing the much-discussed plan to put all the security agencies under a single commander would turn the other officers against him.

It will be far easier for Abu Mazen, then, to make no changes in the movement's doctrine or command structure but rather to merely announce such changes, putting his emphasis on convincing the West that Israel must be pressed for unilateral concessions as a way of "helping" Palestinian moderates. For example, he can condemn terrorism and even say he is ordering security forces to stop it, without stopping attacks by force or really putting perpetrators in prison. By showing Western countries at least a general effort to implement the Road Map requirements, he hopes they will pressure Israel to move rapidly toward instituting a Palestinian state without major Palestinian concessions.

Abu Mazen and many within the Fatah establishment also know that a ceasefire is in their interests. Ironically, though, they will depend on the effectiveness of Israeli countermeasures to reduce the number of casualties and successful attacks on its own civilians. This failure of the attacks that Palestinians plan or launch would allow Abu Mazen to insist that the Palestinians are not fighting, without his having to kill--or credibly threaten to kill--Hamas and Al-Aqsa Brigade terrorists.

Aside from giving moderate-sounding interviews to the Western media, even the most basic steps by Abu Mazen cannot be taken for granted. Will Fatah members involved in terrorist attacks be punished? With the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades determined to continue the violence, this is especially unlikely. Will security services shoot or arrest Hamas terrorists firing missiles on Israeli targets? Abu Mazen says that while he would like them to stop fighting, he will not use violence against his own people.

Under such circumstances, however, the militants know they can sabotage negotiations at will. Even if they accept Abu Mazen's strategy for a period of time, they will be inclined to return to warfare unless it yields quick and dramatic results. Meanwhile, they can outbid their rivals by labeling them traitors, American or Israeli agents, or at least the perpetrators of a failed policy that must be abandoned.

Yet even the Fatah establishment has serious reservations about a real moderate approach. By refusing to make compromises on key issues--especially the so-called right of return or border modifications--or to live up to their commitments to stopping terrorism and incitement, Abu Mazen's own colleagues are likely to sabotage progress toward peace. They can then point to the fact that they have not yet achieved a state, an end to the occupation, or the dismantling of all Jewish settlements as proof that Israel and the United States are against peace.

Consequently, since he is unable to take the steps necessary to make peace with Israel, he will hope that the United States and Europe hand him a solution getting him a state with a minimal effort by his own side. He will explain that the best way to help the moderates is to obtain unilateral concessions for them from Israel. Ultimately, however, Israel will demand proof that he will make some compromises and implement his own commitments.

Essay Types: Essay