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Saturday, June 2, 2007

By Barry Rubin Saturday, 02 June, 2007

Given the Middle East's grim circumstances and poor prospects for
peacemaking, it is tempting to see the Palestinian scene as a struggle
between good-guy moderates, Fatah, and bad-guy extremists, Hamas. If so, the
best policy seems simple: support Fatah against Hamas in hopes of
strengthening those favoring peace and compromise.

It would be good if this were true but unfortunately it is not. Fatah is not
better than Hamas because even if it is slightly less extreme, Fatah itself
is the core of the problem. Only by recognizing reality can policymakers be
freed to find better ways to ameliorate the situation - including reducing
the Palestinian people's suffering.

Why does this conflict remain unsolved? If the issue is merely a wish by
Palestinians, led by Fatah, to create a West Bank-Gaza Strip state, the
issue would have been settled long ago with such a solution. But despite
Western media interviews in which the Palestinian Authority (PA) leader
Mahmoud Abbas expresses such ideas, this is not Fatah's line. The problems
are legion:

--Abbas is a weak leader incapable of restoring order or making the
compromises necessary to achieve peace.

--Abbas himself is not so moderate, having a strong personal dedication to
the demand that all Palestinians who so wish can go to live in Israel rather
than a Palestinian state, both a deal-breaker in itself and a sign of a
higher priority on destroying Israel than creating a viable state for the
Palestinians or ending the remains of the occupation.

--Abbas lacks support within Fatah itself, which remains overwhelmingly
hardline, seeking a total victory in which Israel would be wiped off the

--Fatah is so riddled with corruption, factionalism, and incompetence that
it has earned the disdain which many Palestinians have toward it.

--Fatah's strategy is not to offer a peaceful alternative vision but to
compete with Hamas in maximal demands and the glorification of violence.

1. Weakness as leader

--Abbas lacks political skills, having literally never even made a public
speech before becoming the PA leader.

--He has no personal base of support within Fatah. Being a behind-the-scenes
bureaucratic intellectual by nature and experience he is timid.

--Nor is he particularly moderate, only being so in comparison to others in

--To some extent, the only reason he remains leader is that he is a useful
front man for the real power-brokers in convincing the West that Fatah is
not so

--He has failed completely to advance negotiations with Israel, solve the
PA's problems, fix Fatah's ailments, take control of the Gaza Strip after
the Israeli withdrawal, or stop Hamas' growing power. Abbas has raised and
dropped plans in quick succession without making any attempt to implement
them. His skills are more than overmatched by his colleagues' radicalism,
the younger generation's challenge, the security forces' assertive
independence, and Hamas' rivalry. Even within Fatah, his personal support
was far less than 20 percent, and his few backers fought with him and among

There is no possibility that he will take a strong hold over the movement
or the PA and he is incapable of defeating Hamas or taking decisive steps
toward compromise and peace.

2. Fatah's Shortcomings

--Widespread corruption. The movement has done zero to clean up its
reputation in the 18 months since a humiliating election defeat. Even the
highest leaders are badly corrupted, even by regional standards, including
Abbas's closest advisors. This means, for example, aid money is not used to
help the people but goes into their bank accounts.

--Incompetence: Fatah did a terrible job of running the PLO for 40 years and
the PA for 12 years. It was indifferent to building a good infrastructure or
running successful institutions. Health, education, economic progress and
social welfare took a back seat to armed struggle against Israel.

--Factionalism: Fatah's official leader is not Abu Mazin but the hardline,
popular, pro-Syrian Farouq Qaddumi who opposed the Oslo agreement. Fatah
leaders know Abbas is too weak to challenge their power but is valuable in
presenting a more moderate face to the world, better able to retain Western
support and funding than an openly hardline leader.

--Hardly one member of the Fatah Central Committee is personally committed
to Abu Mazin or known for taking a moderate stance. Fatah is still in the
hands of Arafat loyalists who see no reason to change their view that the
conflict's only acceptable outcome is a Palestinian state in place of

--Factionalism makes Fatah incapable of acting decisively or changing
course. The dissident younger generation is led by the terrorist al-Aqsa
Brigade, which is an integral part of Fatah, and Fatah's grassroots' Tanzim
group. The main leader is Marwan Barghuti, serving a life sentence in an
Israeli jail as organizer of the 2000-2005 terrorist campaign. Barghouti's
strategy is an alliance with Hamas, not more moderation. Since the election
defeat, Fatah has made no reform or leadership change to resolve the
factionalism which caused it.

--Fatah and the PA under its rule has never interfered with, arrested or
punished those launching terrorist attacks against Israel. There has never
been a single case of a Fatah member being sanctioned for such behavior. In
short, Fatah has not lifted a finger to stop terrorism or educate toward

3. Fatah's Strategy

In 2000, Fatah rejected a peace agreement that would have quickly ended the
Israeli presence, created a Palestinian state, made possible repatriation of
refugees, and provided more than $23 billion in international payments.
Instead, it launched a disastrous five-year-long war based mainly on
terrorism, and ending with Hamas taking over control of the PA.

Moreover, the group insists on the return of all Palestinian refugees to
Israel-rather than their resettlement in a Palestinian state-as a way of
subverting Israel. Abu Mazin is personally strongly wedded to this demand
which is absolutely critical in Fatah's thinking. Qaddumi explained, "The
Right of Return of the refugees to Haifa and Jaffa is more important than

Equally, Fatah favors a two-stage process-in which any Palestinian state
would immediately be used as a base for a renewed conflict to conquer
Israel--not a two-state peace. It remains loyal to the 1974 program
proclaiming that any Palestinian state is only a way-station to total

One might expect Fatah leaders to take a pragmatic stance along the
following lines: We are in a terrible situation and have no state because of
our incorrect strategy. Violence, radicalism, and maximalist demands have
not brought benefits. We must instead try a strategy of compromise, peace,
and moderation. Let us accept Israel's existence; get our own state; bring
home the refugees to become productive citizens; and focus on economic,
social, and cultural development to benefit our people.

This would have required a new program based on self-criticism of the past
and a sense of reality about the present. Fatah could have made a deal with
Israel to end the conflict and obtain a state. It might have focused on
raising living standards; convincing refugees to return to a Palestinian
state (rather than demand they move to Israel); gaining credibility with
Israel as a peace partner; creating a strong economy, schools, and health
system; and other such steps. There is no evidence that the leadership of
Fatah or the PA--except for a handful of people--ever seriously considered
such a program.

Refusing to acknowledge the situation means Fatah rejected the usual
response of those being defeated: changing course, being cautious, reducing
expectations, and offering compromises. Instead, it tells its own members
and people: Our armed struggle is winning. Continue the battle, produce more
martyrs, make no concessions, gain international support by projecting an
image of moderation, and we will win in the end as Israel collapses or
surrenders, no matter how many years are required, lives it costs, or
resources must be spent.

Fatah has never told Palestinians that in 2000 the United States and Israel
offered a comprehensive negotiated solution including an independent
Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem. Misinformed that
Israel poisoned Arafat and told that it wants to wipe out the Palestinians,
that Israel is the enemy of Islam, has no right to exist, and offers them
nothing, Palestinians understandably see long-term armed struggle as their
only alternative. Told repeatedly-by Fatah as well as Hamas--that total
victory is just and that the whole world supports them, they believe this
program will triumph. Certainly, such a conclusion makes them unlikely to
opt for a comprehensive moderate rethinking of their world view.

This political culture--spread through the PA-controlled schools, mosques,
and media--has now been passed to a new generation. At the same time, the
kind of program required as a minimal basis needed to achieve peace with
Israel is basically defined as treason, a charge that the many rivals for
leadership in Fatah would not hesitate to fling at anyone deemed excessively

More immediately, Fatah failed to use the opportunity of a complete Israeli
withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to build a stable polity. Instead, the
collapse of Gaza in anarchy, radicalism, and violence provides a vision of
what a Fatah-led state would look like.

For Fatah, weakness and failure is guaranteed by internal divisions and the
inability to make key decisions, on one hand, and the lack of moderate goals
or a viable strategy, on the other hand. As a result, it is unable to
achieve a state, improve its people's material well-being, or end the

As a result of all these factors, other than on the specific issue of
Islamism there is little difference between Hamas and Fatah. Given Fatah's
low credibility,
poor performance, and inability to offer success or an alternative vision,
it is understandable-though very regrettable--that most Palestinians support


Here is the paradox: Money is given Fatah it is likely to be stolen, not
used to improve the lives of Palestinians. Arms and military training given
Fatah will be turned against Israel

Fatah is unwilling to challenge Hamas militarily or even to restrain it-and
smaller radical groups-from terror attacks and rocket launching against
Israel. It will either reject or not implement any promises it makes in this
regard, as experience as repeatedly shown.

The correct response to this unpleasant situation is to decertify the
Palestinian movement. Since it failed the test of the peace process, and
events since then, and is now in the hands of a movement that opposed the
peace process, there is no sense giving it the rewards based on pledges to
do otherwise. As before 1993, the world must wait until there emerges a
Palestinian movement that is truly ready to cease terrorism, negotiate
seriously, and make a permanent peace with Israel. Such a movement would be
offered great rewards but until then there is nothing to be gained by
dealing with Fatah or Hamas.

* Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International
Affairs (MERIA) Journal, which is published in both English and French. He
is author of three books on Palestinian politics, including Yasir Arafat, A
Political Biography. His latest book is The Long War for Freedom: The Arab
Struggle for Democracy i

[1] Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2002

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