Dim prospects for new Palestinian Authority leadership

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by Gerry Foley

The apparent sudden reversal of Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader jailed for life by the Zionist rulers, who has now allowed his relatives and supporters to register him as a candidate for president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), is a new upset in the tumultuous search for a successor to Yasir Arafat.

Barghouti had announced Nov. 25 that he would not run. But after a visit with his wife and brother on Dec. 1, the last day for submitting candidacies, he apparently agreed to let them file papers for him.

In its report on this development, the Dec. 1 issue of the Israeli daily Haaretz commented that the jailed leader’s candidacy threatened to turn the elections scheduled for January upside down. That certainly seems to be true, since it would pit a leader linked to the armed struggle against the figure chosen by the Fatah leadership who openly favors conciliation with the Zionist state. Of course, it is not certain yet what Barghouti will finally do.

The process of selecting Yasir Arafat’s successor as president of the Palestinian Authority could hardly have begun in a more dramatic way. On Nov. 14 gunmen from the Abu Ammar Brigade broke into a mourning tent set up for dignitaries to pay their last respects to the departed Palestinian leader and opened fire, killing a bodyguard of Abu Mazen, Arafat’s designated crown prince, and a bodyguard of Mohammad Dahlan, the other principal conciliationist figure in the PA.

According to Haaretz on Nov. 15, several hours earlier this same group had unveiled a new rocket, named the Yasir I for Arafat, that was capable of hitting targets in Israel, and had shouted that Abu Mazen and Dahlan were “collaborators” and “traitors.” Abu Ammar was Arafat’s nom de guerre, and the group operating under this name is pledged to continue what it considers to have been Arafat’s militant line.

The Palestinian leadership maintained that the shooting was some kind of mistake, that the gunmen had no intention of assassinating Abu Mazen and Dahlan. Whatever the truth is, this incident could not help but highlight the tensions involved in choosing a successor for Arafat.

The problem is that the deceased historic leader of the Palestinian movement had two faces. One face was that of a fighter. It is obviously that aspect with which the Abu Ammar group identifies. But the other face was that of a negotiator, a conciliator with the Zionist state. It is not so easy to combine these two faces in a new Palestinian Authority leader.

That explains the attempt to put forward the candidacy of Marwan Barghouti, the jailed leader of the El Aksa Brigades, a guerrilla offshoot of Al Fatah. In its Nov. 11 issue, Haaretz reported: “Security detainees and Barghouti associates hope that Israel will scrutinize the public opinion surveys, which they feel prove that Barghouti alone can compete with Hamas representatives planning to run for election….

“Prisoners and confidants expressed hope yesterday that Barghouti will be released, perhaps through understandings with Egypt, because only his return to the political arena can thwart the strengthening of Hamas. They believe that Barghouti is the only person who can provide Mahmoud Abbas with the legitimacy of grassroots support.” The Islamist organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad have announced that they will not participate in the elections for the presidency of the PA.

Haaretz reported Nov. 24 that Barghouti was going to run and that the Israeli government was prepared to release him so that he could serve. It cited an account in an Arab source to support the rumor of a deal: “The Kuwaiti daily Al Qabas reported several weeks ago that a deal was being formulated under which Barghouti would be released from prison in exchange for the release of Azzam Azzam, an Israeli citizen who was arrested and imprisoned by Egypt in 1997 on charges of spying for Israel. ”

On Nov. 25, however, Barghouti withdrew his name from the race, and came out in support of Abu Mazen, who then seemed certain to be chosen in the elections scheduled for Jan. 9. Barghouti announced this decision after a four-hour discussion with Jamal Zahalka, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament. Zahalka probably told Barghouti there was no chance that the Israelis would release him and pointed out that Barghouti could not lead the PA from prison. Dealing with Barghouti would have similar advantages for the Israelis to those they had with Arafat.

Because of the jailed leader’s identification with armed struggle against the Zionists, he would have credibility with militant-minded Palestinians. But at the same time he is committed to compromise with the Zionist state.

The Israelis could huff and puff about Arafat’s “responsibility” for terrorism, but no other Palestinian leader could have won acceptance for the Oslo Accords. Nonetheless, he could not stop the guerrilla campaign against Israel and was obliged apparently even to give it some support. In reaction, the Zionist rulers talked about expelling him or even assassinating him. That indicated they were not going to accept any PA president who kept a line open to the militants.

Nonetheless, the attempt to impose a more conciliationist line on the PA under the premiership of Abu Mazen collapsed in disarray in 2003 after just four months. There is no reason to expect that he will be more successful as president unless there has been a significant increase in war weariness among the Palestinian people.

Yet Abu Mazen did lose his hand the last time he gambled on that. Now, he is preparing to assume the presidency of the PA by talking out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, he is making a bow toward Israel by promising to disarm the Palestinian militias. On the other, he is saying that he will never renounce the right of return for Palestinians driven from the territories now incorporated in the state of Israel, which is a taboo for the Zionists.

The question of the right of return, however, is a long-term one. Supporting it in principle does not impose any immediate obligations on Abu Mazen. The decisive question remains whether he can or will try to use the Palestinian security forces to stop guerrilla attacks on Israel. The Israelis and their U.S. backers will not accept him as an interlocutor unless he tries to do that. But if he does, he would start a Palestinian civil war, which he would probably lose.

As for the Palestinian people, the question arises more and more forcefully whether they have anything to gain by supporting a bourgeois mini-state bound hand and foot by the Zionist rulers. Growing doubts about the future of any such “Palestinian state” are reflected in polls showing that more and more Palestinians think that the only solution to the conflict is the creation of a single entity in all of Palestine in which Arabs and Jews could live together on the basis of equality.

There is a widening debate about this in Haaretz. Some contributors argue that increasing Palestinian support for a “single state” solution reflects Arab determination to destroy Israel, while others point out that the Israeli actions have left no prospects for any “two-state solution.”

In the meantime, it is obvious that the PA cannot provide the sort of leadership the Palestinian people need. Such a leadership would have to be based directly on the mobilized population, united by a single-minded commitment to the interests of the great majority of Palestinians and broad enough to accept free debate among all the political tendencies that are fighting for the liberation of the Palestinian people.

The refusal of the Israeli rulers to release Barghouti and the almost certain installation of a recycled opportunist like Abu Mazen as president of the Palestinian Authority are new indications that the mini-state option represented by the PA is dead.

It is likely that the Palestinian people will draw the conclusion from this that they need a different type of leadership and a new political formula for unity. The question is: when will a political organization arise among them that can offer what they need?

*This article first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Socialist Action newspaper.

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