FOR THE last nine years, the Israelis have argued that the peace process could not move forward because the Palestinian leadership was weak, governance was dysfunctional, and the capacity and willingness to deliver security were absent. Moreover, there was no clear honest broker willing to trade in peace. Now, all that may be about to change.
The Palestinian nationalist old guard has been democratically ousted from power; the day of the young guard has finally arrived. Fatah, the largest nationalist group, held its sixth party congress in August-the first such meeting in twenty years-and elected a new leadership. The new leadership is much stronger than the old one, made up of more powerful and more popular figures. They are younger. They are educated. They were born and raised in the Palestinian territories. They are determined to push for a more moderate Hamas and to work toward peace with Israel. Security and governance in the West Bank have never been better. The current Palestinian leadership enjoys full control over the security services, something that has not happened since the 1993 Oslo accords. This is no longer the fragmented, dysfunctional Palestinian Authority of old.
Sitting atop this new Fatah is Mahmoud Abbas. The question now is can this old-guard politician lead the party and the Palestinian Authority (PA)? Will the young leadership serve as a challenge rather than a bolstering force? And as the Palestinians approach a presidential and parliamentary election in 2010, will this reinvigorated party be able to wrest some control from Hamas in the Gaza Strip and reunite the Palestinian territories? With a functioning leadership so key to the peace process, Israel and the United States have a role to play in either undercutting the power and legitimacy of Abbas or finally securing a negotiating partner. Abbas and the new leadership of Fatah are the best chance for peace in a decade, and if the opportunity is squandered, we may well not see another one for the next ten years.
PRESIDENT ABBAS understood that Fatah was facing a crisis of legitimacy. Plagued by accusations of corruption, incompetence and mismanagement, the older leadership of Fatah took the movement from one failure to another. Fatah's inability to transform the Gaza Strip's chaos and lawlessness into order and prosperity in the aftermath of the unilateral Israeli withdrawal in September 2005, its electoral defeat at the hands of its Islamist rival Hamas in January 2006 and its subsequent loss of the Gaza Strip to Hamas's armed militia in June 2007 exposed what seemed to many to be a spent political force. The younger generation began calling for a fundamental change in direction-they were, and still are, seeking to reface the party, claiming to want to do this by solidifying it as a highly functioning, democratic, economic and social movement committed to peace with Israel. If these calls went unheeded, a revolt within the party was imminent. For Fatah to become a unified force once again and have a chance against Hamas in the 2010 elections, change was necessary. The time was ripe for a party congress.
The main goal of Abbas and the congress was to vote in eighteen new members to the Fatah Central Committee (FCC), the organization's executive body. Infighting ensued. Struggling to maintain their grasp on power, members of the old guard wanted the delegates at the congress (who would vote in the new leadership) to be members of their ranks, pushing to cap the number of invitees at around six hundred fifty. The younger generation called for thousands of delegates to be in attendance, in the hopes that new voices would push out the antiquated leaders. Abbas knew he needed a compromise or faced a coup. In the end, the FCC was voted on by some two thousand three hundred delegates, and the up-and-comers wrested control from the old guard.
The very nature of these delegates shows how different Fatah is today as a representational force; indicative of the future of the Palestinian territories, and what Fatah perceives itself to be. A survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR, an organization I head), in which a majority of the delegates were interviewed during the August meeting, found that the new leadership was elected by a congress unlike any other in the history of the movement. It was this development that allowed the dramatic shift in power. Delegates to all previous congresses came almost entirely from the diaspora. This time, more than three-quarters of the delegates came from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (WBGS)-in fact, 64 percent were born in the WBGS while about 14 percent became residents of the WBGS after 1993 when the Oslo agreement, the first direct accord between Israelis and Palestinians, was signed-and less than a quarter came from abroad, mostly from Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Only 9 percent of all delegates came from refugee camps.
The change marks a significant transformation of the movement, long in the making, away from the interests and concerns of the diaspora to those of the insiders, those who reside in the Palestinian territories themselves. Greater focus can now be expected on issues related to ending the Israeli occupation (such as freezing settlement construction) and state building (such as strengthening institutions, growing the economy and increasing good governance). It also means that now the people are being represented by those who have triumphed as well as suffered alongside them. Fatah becomes relatable to rather than apart from its constituents. And this applies too to the demographic makeup of the new power players.
The median age at the sixth party congress was fifty for males and forty-five for females. Although no women were elected to the FCC, about 13 percent of the delegates were female. This is a significant change from the past when very few women were able to take an active role in the movement's politics. And almost all the delegates had previous political or security experience in-country. In past congresses, delegates were mostly members of or linked to the movement's armed wing. Many also had connections to Fatah's military and political infrastructure in its days as a guerrilla group. This time, only 20 percent came from a military institution, and mostly from PA security services deployed in the West Bank, which are distinct from the armed wing of the movement's guerilla days. Another 30 percent worked in PA civil institutions while 8 percent worked in Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) institutions abroad. In other words, only 40 percent did not work for PA or PLO civil and military institutions. For these delegates, the future well-being of these institutions is a matter of personal, not just national, commitment. Delegates were highly educated; over 80 percent had a BA degree or higher, a level never obtained in any of the previous congresses. In a society that places a high value on education, Fatah can now present the public with a much more attractive leadership, one that can more easily win elections.
Since most of the delegates have been socialized in a context of pluralistic Palestinian politics under occupation, belief in democracy was significant. When looking at the appropriateness of various Middle Eastern political systems for application to Palestine, the overwhelming majority of the delegates (91-95 percent) rejected-saw as inappropriate-arrangements like those in Iran (where only religious parties compete in a parliamentary system), Saudi Arabia (where Islamic law is applied and no political parties or elections are allowed), and Syria (where a strong president rules with the support of the military, and party competition is limited or irrelevant). Instead, close to two-thirds selected as appropriate (and 12 percent selected as somewhat appropriate) a democratic political system, like the ones in Israel, Turkey and Lebanon, in which all types of political parties compete in free elections. The overwhelming majority of those who chose none of the Middle Eastern political systems selected instead a European or North American model. While delegates felt free to criticize and point out the existence of corruption in their movement, the majority expressed the belief that Fatah practices democracy inside its institutions. This is probably one of the most significant changes in Fatah. For the old guard, socialized in authoritarian Arab political culture, an Israeli model would have been rejected out of hand and a Syrian, or a similar Arab model, would have been embraced. Support for a democratic system is deepening.
Interestingly, neither support for peace nor commitment to violence was important in electing candidates to the Fatah leadership. The overwhelming majority of delegates indicated that the motivation for their vote was instead historic record, reputation, education, and known support for reforms and the fight against corruption. But the conflict with Hamas made a huge impact on the perception of the delegates and influenced their votes-hawkish opponents of Hamas did very well. While the official statement issued by the congress affirmed the commitment to a speedy reconciliation with Hamas and reunification of the WBGS, the PSR poll found an overwhelming majority expressing concern that Hamas's control over the Gaza Strip is entrenched and that geopolitical separation will become permanent. An overwhelming majority supported Abbas's demand that Hamas agree that a national-unity government must accept all agreements signed with Israel, a demand Hamas has steadfastly rejected. Ninety-three percent viewed Hamas as a coup d'état movement; only 5 percent viewed it as a "resistance movement" or a "partner in the struggle." The perception that Hamas is such a significant threat to Fatah did not lead the young guard to reject the movement as a political actor, but it did reduce the chances that Fatah would willingly allow Hamas to rebuild its armed militia in the West Bank. Fatah's determination to convince Hamas to accept existing peace agreements as a precondition for its integration into the Palestinian political system might eventually push Hamas toward moderation. The nondemocratic and exclusionist tendencies of the old guard would probably have denied Hamas a viable role in Palestinian politics regardless of its views on the peace process. Under such conditions, it would probably have been impossible to create a stable and democratic political system. This is no longer the case.Image: Pullquote: Let us not fool ourselves into believing this is just an internal Palestinian issue. The future of the Palestinian government has everything to do with the prospects for peace.Essay Types: Essay