Mahmoud Abbas’s home in Ramallah is a palatial villa spread on a hillside. Marwan Barghouti’s is a second-floor flat in a six-story apartment block overhanging a gorge. It is not the only contrast between the two men, who until Barghouti’s recent withdrawal from the race for the Palestinian presidential elections on January 9 were seen by Palestinians as the only real heirs to Yasir Arafat.
Ever since he was anointed official candidate by Arafat’s Fatah movement, Abbas (a k a Abu Mazen) has been treated as president-elect. Outgoing US Secretary of State Colin Powell and a string of other foreign dignitaries have visited him, eager to capitalize on the “new opportunity” afforded by Arafat’s death and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw unilaterally from most of the occupied Gaza Strip and dismantle four small Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank.
Unlike his predecessor, Abbas has been allowed to travel, trying to thaw the frigid relations between the Palestinian Authority and Arab countries like Syria and Kuwait, still smarting from Arafat’s decision to side with Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War.
Barghouti has been in jail, serving several life sentences for what Israel charges was his role in attacks that left four Israeli civilians and a Greek monk dead. For twenty-three hours of every day he is in a solitary cell, with one hour for exercise. December 1 was the first time his wife, Fadwa, had been allowed to see him since his arrest in April 2002.
In the space of one month Barghouti submitted his presidential candidacy twice–only to withdraw twice. His final change of heart came on December 12, when he endorsed Abbas “out of the higher national interests of the Palestinian people.”
Perhaps. But Barghouti’s on-again, off-again candidacy says much about the current state of Fatah, the leading Palestinian national movement, and the forces that will shape it as it steps, gingerly, into a post-Arafat world. It says even more about a new Palestinian mood in the occupied territories that–after the trauma of Arafat’s death and four punishing years of armed revolt–is seeking unity rather than division, moderation rather than radicalism and peace rather than war, especially among Palestinians.
It was a different reality that, over the past decade of peace and then war, had nurtured Barghouti as the most inspiring leader of Fatah’s so-called “insider” leadership: activists native to the West Bank and Gaza who came to the fore in the first and second Palestinian intifadas but who are underrepresented in Fatah’s leadership institutions. Their main Palestinian adversary is the “outsiders,” Fatah officials who returned with Arafat from exile in the 1990s and derived their legitimacy from him but who are widely charged with malfeasance in government and inadequacy in the national struggle against Israel.
Throughout the seven years of the Oslo peace process, the main rivalry between the insiders and outsiders was over democracy within Fatah, as the former tried to translate their strength on the ground into influence, or at least accountability, at the top. With the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, it was between those (like Abbas) who viewed militarization of the uprising as threatening the PA’s survival because of the overpowering Israeli punishments it incurred and those (like Barghouti) who believed armed resistance, combined with negotiations, was the only way to realize Palestinians’ core demand of national self-determination.
Throughout, the two wings were held in check by Arafat, who was adept at “siding now with this stream, now with that, while remaining immune from criticism,” says Palestinian political analyst Khalil Shikaki. With Arafat’s death, the expectation–and fear–among many Palestinians was that what had been a struggle for leadership within Fatah would degenerate into a factional war. It didn’t happen. Barghouti quietly backed Abbas as a transitional candidate acceptable to all wings of the movement. The only complaint was over the way he had been chosen: It was the prerogative of Fatah’s Central Committee and Revolutionary Council, ruling institutions whose last elections were in 1989 and, for that reason, are the last redoubts of the outsider leadership. Barghouti insisted that Fatah’s presidential candidate should be chosen by primaries throughout the movement. On November 25 he sent word via his lawyer that he intended to run for president, a protest “not so much against the man [Abbas] as the method,” says Qaddura Fares, a PA minister and Fatah activist.
But a trade was made. In return for Barghouti’s standing down, Abbas agreed to new Palestinian parliamentary elections in May and, critically, new elections within Fatah in August, where “the old guard will be thanked for their contribution to the cause and told goodbye,” says Fares. Barghouti endorsed Abbas. A week later he changed his mind. Why?
According to Fadwa Barghouti it was in response to “hundreds of messages urging him to stand from the Fatah grassroots and other Palestinian organizations.” She was less frank about their tenor. Most charged that in abandoning the field to Abbas, Barghouti had lost his only leverage for forcing reform on Fatah and getting himself and the 7,600 other Palestinian political prisoners released. It is difficult to overestimate the emotive and political power of that charge. Throughout the Oslo process, Abbas and the other outsider leaders were widely accused of ignoring the plight of the prisoners in the negotiations with Israel, one of several grievances that ignited the uprising in 2000. During his brief tenure as Palestinian prime minister last year, Abbas likewise failed to extract any but the most miserly releases from Israel. The fear was that history was being replayed, especially as Abbas has conspicuously failed to predicate a return to negotiations with Israel on the prisoners’ freedom, or on any other national issue.
“As soon as he backed Abu Mazen, Marwan realized he had made a mistake,” says Fatah activist and PA deputy minister for prisoner affairs Ziad Abu Ein. “When Marwan was considering running for president, he saw the PA exert all kinds of pressures on Israel and the Americans to have him freed. But once he endorsed Abu Mazen, the pressures stopped. He realized he had played his last card without getting anything in return–that while he was strong with the grassroots, he was weak with the leadership.”
That leadership continued to thwart him, but it was strengthened by a new Palestinian consensus that drew back from the prospect of replacing a besieged leader with an imprisoned one. The fear was that such a choice would renew the Palestinians’ diplomatic isolation and, above all, pit Fatah against Fatah. The fears were not unfounded. Barghouti’s candidacy was opposed not only by the Fatah establishment but also by the world. Colin Powell called the candidacy “problematic”; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak demanded that Barghouti stand down; and Britain conditioned a scheduled conference in support of the PA on Abbas (and only Abbas) being elected its president.
Barghouti presumably anticipated this opposition, though not perhaps the scale or venom. What he may not have expected was the degree of hostility from what had been his core constituencies in Fatah: parliamentary deputies like Fares, prisoner leaders and militias like the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which, in 2002, had declared him their leader. All accused him of divisiveness; some called for his resignation, including West Bank AMB leader Zacharia Zubeidi. His and the prisoner stances are not as surprising as they appear. In the garrison realities that now prevail in the occupied West Bank, many detainees and fighters see Abbas, and the international and regional legitimacy he commands, as perhaps their only hope for an early release or general amnesty. For others, Barghouti’s candidacy was unwelcome because it conflated the demand for reform, which commands near unanimous support in Fatah, with the demand for resistance, which does not.
“Marwan supports negotiations with Israel only if they end the occupation,” says Abu Ein. “Otherwise the intifada must continue. Abu Mazen is against any kind of struggle. He believes only negotiations and international pressure will force Israel to accept a Palestinian state. In running for the candidacy Marwan was saying to Abu Mazen: ‘Fine: you have your way and I have mine. Now let the people decide.'”
Fares says it was the wrong choice at the wrong time: “I know Palestinians will tell you they support the martyrdom [suicide] operations and the armed struggle, but believe me, they don’t. The punishment is simply too great.” Rather, he says, most seek a reprieve from the exhaustion of war and the occupation and are hungry for normalcy, reform, institution-building and, above all, unity. “We don’t need Marwan to stand now. We need Fatah united behind one candidate so that elections can take place without giving Israel any pretext to refuse to negotiate with us.”
There is one exception to the emerging consensus. On December 1 the Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas called on its supporters to boycott the presidential elections. It also reaffirmed its commitment to armed resistance in the teeth of pleas by Abbas for, if not a cease-fire, then “quiet” during the voting period. The ostensible reason was the PA’s refusal to announce a date for parliamentary elections, which the Islamists may contest. There were others.
One is Israel’s ongoing raid, arrest and assassination policies, which in the weeks after Arafat’s death on November 11 killed more than forty Palestinians, many of them Hamas men. Another is that Hamas is raising the stakes in negotiations with Abbas over the terms of a Palestinian cease-fire, its participation in the parliamentary elections and its role in a future Palestinian government. But the main reason is Hamas’s strategic aim of casting Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza as a south Lebanon-like flight rather than a “coordinated” disengagement. On December 12 Hamas and Fatah guerrillas killed five Israeli soldiers courtesy of a 500-meter-long tunnel packed with explosives that erupted under their outpost on the Gaza-Egyptian border. It was “the most lethal of its kind since the start of the conflict,” said one Israeli commentator.
Few Palestinians believe such resistance will end–elections or no elections–unless Israel, through Abbas, meets Hamas’s fundamental terms for a truce: an end to the assassinations, incursions and arrests, and the freeing of prisoners.
Would Barghouti have won, running on a platform with virtually identical demands? Most polls showed Abbas commanding solid majorities, particularly among Palestine’s urban middle class: merchants, businesspeople and intellectuals who, after the chaos, decline and isolation of Arafat’s rule, view with relief Abbas’s opposition to the armed intifada, his advocacy of law and order, and his support for economic development and sound relations with Israel, America, Europe and the Arab world. But the same polls showed Barghouti drawing considerable support from women, the poor, the young, villagers and the refugees, whose right of return to their homes in what was Mandate Palestine but is now Israel he defined as the most “fundamental” of Palestinian rights, along with sovereignty in East Jerusalem.
For Shikaki, whose research center has long tracked Barghouti as the most popular leader in the occupied territories after Arafat and whose latest poll had him running even with Abbas, Barghouti could have won had he stayed “until the end.” At the very least, his candidacy would have given Palestinians a long-needed referendum on “continuing or ending the intifada, which he helped to instigate,” Shikaki says.
With Barghouti’s retreat they will be denied that choice. Instead, they will be faced with a candidate whose sole policy is the hope that negotiations and an end to the militarized intifada will force the Israeli government to reciprocate and, should it refuse, for the world and the Israeli people to intervene. The challengers are past such intervention. They are in jail or mining tunnels in Gaza.