HERZLIYA – The Sixth Fatah Congress, held recently in Bethlehem, was an important event for the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict and for the Palestinian movement. But a careful look at the results of the Congress’s elections to Fatah’s Central Committee yields a picture that is quite different from what many will conclude about the meeting.
The Congress seemed to demonstrate three main points: Fatah has moved toward peace with Israel; it has adopted democratic procedures; and a new generation, or even a specific group called the Young Guard, has assumed leadership. But this interpretation is in large part wrong.
In terms of its approach to peace, the new Central Committee is roughly the same as the old one. Of the 18 elected members (Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will appoint four more later), no more than two (Nabil Shaath and Muhammad Shtayyeh) are really moderate. At least four (Muhammad al-Ghuneim, Salim al-Zanoun, Abbas Zaki, and Nasser Kidra) are hardliners, and most of the rest follow pretty much the traditional Fatah line.
As for democracy, while the Congress was certainly a step forward from the past (when Fatah leader Yasir Arafat could handpick Fatah’s leadership), real limits remain. Depending on one’s definition, Abbas chose between one-third and one-half of the delegates. The majority of the Central Committee, not surprisingly, are Abbas’s close associates and supporters. The fact that only one out of 18 members will be from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which contains about half of all the Palestinians that Fatah governs, also skews the results.
But there is one aspect of this election so dangerous that it might outweigh everything else. The candidate who came in first, with two-thirds of the vote, was Abd al-Mahir Ghuneim, who is increasingly being spoken of as Abbas’s successor. Ghuneim is an unrepentant hardliner and an open opponent of the Oslo agreement, much less of a negotiated peace agreement with Israel. If he becomes Fatah’s leader (and hence leader of the PA and the PLO as well), any compromise with Israel would become unimaginable.
What about the transfer of power to a new generation? This is accurate in purely chronological terms – old leaders inevitably get older, after all. Yet, while almost all the old members of the committee were not reelected, at least 15 of the 22 members will be old-style leaders (presuming Abbas will appoint such people to the four seats that he controls). Many of the newly elected members, moreover, are veteran Fatah bureaucrats.
The most interesting additions to the Central Committee are three younger men, though they have played leading roles in the organization for 20 years or more. Marwan Barghouti, the leader of Fatah’s grassroots group on the West Bank, is now in an Israeli prison for organizing the bloody uprising that began in 2000, and for direct involvement in planning the killings of many Israeli civilians.
While some will point to Barghouti’s election as a victory for the younger generation, not one of his followers will join him. The other two younger men, Muhammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, built political bases of their own as commanders of security forces in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank, respectively. But Rajoub has many enemies, and Dahlan was responsible for Fatah’s humiliating defeat by Hamas in the fight that led to the expulsion of Fatah from Gaza.
In addition, all three of the younger men are rivals, not allies. In other words, there is no unified Young Guard. Indeed, far from being an electoral revolution, only two of those elected – Barghouti and Muhammad Shtayyeh, who has headed PECDAR, the Palestinian agency that promotes transparency and economic development – can be considered at all critical of the Fatah establishment.
But, while the election did not usher in a leadership eager for peace with Israel and a Palestinian state achieved by compromise, nor was it a prelude to a renewal of violence. There are several individuals in the new leadership who have many Israeli contacts, and who can pick up a phone and call or be called by their Israeli counterparts.
It is also extremely important that most of Fatah’s new leaders have a strong distaste for Hamas, which makes rapprochement between the two groups unlikely. Still, if Ghuneim takes over as the PA’s and Fatah’s leader, which could happen next year, a breakdown of negotiations with Israel and a new round of fighting would not be surprising.
The other interesting new face, though he has no chance of becoming a major leader, is Shtayyeh. A successful businessman, he could become an ombudsman and whistle-blower, which would be a real innovation. But, while it will be interesting to see whether he speaks out or is shut up, one shouldn’t read too much into his election: he finished last among those elected, beating by a single vote Tayib Abu Rahman, one of Arafat’s most trusted lieutenants and an old-school hardliner.
There is a wide range of views in the new Palestinian leadership. This is neither a group that will make peace with Israel nor one that will ally itself with Hamas. In other words, it is a group with which Israel can work on status quo issues, though not on a comprehensive agreement. But if Muhammad al-Ghuneim does indeed become the new leader, the prospects for any peace at all look grim.