SOUTH ASIAN NEWS-FEATURE SERVICE
In search of Arafat’s successor
By A.H. Jaffor Ullah
Chairman Arafat passed away on November 10, 2004, in Paris, France and buried three days later by his frenzied followers in Ramallah complex, where the beleaguered leader was interned for the last four years. A week later on November 19, 2004, I read in the Internet Yahoo news site that an internal strife has already started amongst Al-Fatah members, which is roiling the vote for Arafat’s successor. The party decided to hold the election on January 9, 2005 for Arafat’s successor; however, political posturing has started already. Some supporting a member of the old guard while other supporting a jailed hardliner Fatah member, Marwan Barghouti. The entry of an outsider who is a rich Palestinian is jazzing up the race. There is no telling what will happen next. Knowing the volatile nature of Palestinian people it is hard to say who will come out victorious in January election. The expert Palestinians do not think so. Nonetheless, the in fighting gives us an opportunity to observe the election development in Palestine. So much is at stake vis-à-vis the future of Palestine that world cannot sit idle to watch who comes out the winner.
Mohammed Daraghmeh, an Associated Press writer, dispatched a piece from Ramallah, West Bank, which was published in the Yahoo news site today (Nov. 19, 2004). The writer thinks that a power struggle is brewing out there amongst the ruling Fatah party leaders well ahead of the Jan. 9 election to replace Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority. Besides the old fight between the moderate and the extremist faction of PLO, a newcomer businessman whose fortune is said to be over a billion dollar is seriously considering entering the race. This rich Palestinian may bring with him Islamist movements into PLO. Does this development bode well for Palestinians who are at crossroads now? Who know?
According to many reports filtering out of West Bank and Gaza strip, younger Fatah members prefer an extremist leader, Marwan Barghouti, who is languishing in an Israeli jail, to fill the void left by Yasser Arafat. The old guards of PLO, however, like Abu Mazen, the 69-year-old lieutenant of Arafat who is better known as Mahmoud Abbas. As per Mr. Daraghmeh’s report, the opposition groups would like to take advantage of this internal strife amongst PLO rank-and-file to “oust Fatah as the dominant Palestinian force, though chances of that are seen as slim.”
It is noteworthy here that Yasser Arafat was one of the founders of Fatah, which was formed in the early 1960s; he made Fatah the “preeminent force” in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Needless to say, the Fatah group dominated Palestinian politics under Arafat’s leadership for over four decades. Now that Arafat died on November 10, 2004, the Palestinians are formulating a plan to divide the “sweeping authority” he held. Immediately after the passing of Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas was picked to lead the PLO; he also plans to run for president, but he lacks both the political strength and quirkiness of the late chairman. Besides, many Palestinians view Abbas as a moderate leader. To them, a leader has to be shrewd, fast thinking, and quirky enough to be confrontational to deal with the political leaders of Israel.
In the last four years, the younger Palestinians who waged “Intifada 2” against Israel rose to prominence. These are the third generation Palestinians who grew up in the squalid camps in West Bank towns and Gaza strip. These younger Palestinians view the old guard of PLO with disdain and they are considering a challenge. The Palestinians who grew up in camps felt that they were underrepresented in the main Fatah decision-making committees. In fact, party workers loyal to Arafat and who were taken to Tunisia in 1982 and who remained there for a decade and finally brought back to West Bank and Gaza strip from Tunisia in 1992 dominate the PLO leadership. The younger generation took control of Intifada 1 and Intifada 2 movement. These Palestinians do not trust the older generation of politicians who they think to be tainted by corruption and out of touch with the masses. The AP writer, Mohammed Daraghmeh, thinks “all that raises the possibility of a split.”
The sentiment of frustrated young generation could be sensed from Qadoura Fares who said, “If the Fatah Central Committee wants to restrict choosing the Fatah candidate to itself and the Revolutionary Council, we, the young generation in Fatah, will choose our own candidate.”
We learned from the press that the 16-member Central Committee and the 126-man Revolutionary Council have shown their preference for Mahmoud Abbas, the 69-year old former Palestinian prime minister. The old guards of Fatah think that Mr. Abbas is the strongest candidate within the movement (PLO). To counter the view of older generation PLO, Qadoura Fares said that they would nominate the name of jailed uprising leader, Marwan Barghouti, as their preferred candidate unless members of the younger generation were given a say in the decision.
In the event there is a split in the Fatah election on January 9, 2005, it could open the door for a third candidate to win the election, and if that happens, then this will be the first time that the Fatah candidate will be sidelined for the first time.
Now, who will be the third candidate? According to Mr. Daraghmeh’s recent article Monib al-Masri, 66, a billionaire industrialist and longtime friend of Arafat is considering running. An ambitious Masri says he believes a successful businessman could be just what the Palestinians want now to revamp their already ruined economy. After four years of violence, maybe, the Palestinians will be looking for a new leader, according to businessman Masri. This is a wishful thinking of Mr. Masri. When push comes to shove, the Palestinians will select one of the old guards such as Mr. Abbas as their leader.
Masri is very optimistic, however, about his candidacy; he has a trump card. Popular Islamist groups, while not fielding their own candidates, would be very eager for the opportunity to bring down Fatah by voting for an independent candidate. A Palestinian political analyst by the name Hani al-Masri who is not related to industrialist al-Masri has opined that the Islamists and the secular radical camp “will have a chance to topple Fatah and Fatah rule by supporting an independent candidate like Monib al-Masri.”
The extremist political groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad do not plan to nominate any candidate for Palestinian Authority president; these political factions have long rejected the interim peace accords with Israel that established the Palestinian government in the first place. This time around, the groups have said that they will not boycott the election.
Mr. Abu Rdeneh, the spokesperson of the old guards, think in the event of a split decision on January 9, 2005, the Fatah rebels will back down eventually. The logic behind such claim could be found in Mr. Rdeneh’s state: “Yes, Fatah has differences and disagreements. But at the end of the day, Fatah leaders and activists are aware of their common interests, and their common interest is to find one candidate and support him.”
In summary, a political discord is brewing out there amongst Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza strip over the electability of various candidates for the position of president, PLO authority. The old guards have their preferred candidate as they chose Mahmoud Abbas to run for the position. The younger generation loathes any of the inner circles from Arafat. They, however, like Marwan Barghouti, a 45-year old radical PLO member who is serving time in an Israeli jail for inciting Intifada movement. In the event an impasse develops over the choice between these two candidates, the young generation and the Islamists may bring the third candidate, an industrialist, who is new to politics but who was a personal friend to PLO chief, Yasser Arafat. Some veteran political observers however think that in the end, Mahmoud Abbas will be elected as the head of PLO. Come January 9, 2004, there will be a new Palestinian leader. The bigger question, however, iswould the new leadership resume the peace initiative abandoned by Yasser Arafat in late 1990s with the Israeli government? That remains to be seen. Therefore, stay tuned.-SAN-Feature Service
Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA.
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