Following Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat’s death, a new Palestinian Authority (PA) president is to be elected on 9 January.
Mahmood Abbas, from Arafat’s ’old guard’ elite, has already been appointed chairman of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) by the PLO national council, and is now set to be the PA president.
His clear lead in the opinion polls has not been achieved, however, without infighting within Fatah, the dominant PLO faction. The popular West Bank intifada leader, Marwan Barghouti, declared his candidature from an Israeli prison where he is serving five life sentences, but subsequently withdrew under huge pressure, including a threat of expulsion from Fatah. Polls had shown Barghouti to be neck-and-neck with Abbas. One of the trade-offs Abbas had to make to avoid such a damaging split in Fatah’s support, was to agree to having internal elections within Fatah next August – the first for 14 years.
Abbas is part of the ’Tunis gang’ of Palestinian leaders who are seen as corrupt and autocratic. He is the preferred candidate of US imperialism and the Israeli government, having opposed the use of weapons during the intifada, in favour of ’moderate’ and ’pragmatic’ negotiations. He has hastily distanced himself from some of Arafat’s policies, for instance he apologised to Kuwait for Arafat’s support for Iraq’s 1990 invasion. While Abbas has been allowed through the many Israeli army checkpoints and road blocks during the election campaign, other candidates have met great obstacles, such as the National Democratic Initiative candidate Mustafa Barghouti, who was beaten up by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint after telling them who he was.
There is therefore great suspicion among the Palestinian masses of what Abbas and those around him, such as prime minister Ahmed Qurei, are going to do, with warnings being given against sell-out of basic Palestinian aspirations. This was graphically expressed when gunmen fired shots in a mourning tent for Arafat, killing one of Abbas’s bodyguards and a PA security officer while shouting that Abbas is a traitor and US agent.
So Abbas is certainly not popular, his present position being due to the decisions of the higher ranks of the PLO and Fatah and not to the attitude of the Palestinian people. It is based on a strong mood for unity within Fatah, driven from fear of the rise of the Islamic organisation Hamas and other smaller parties.
Before Arafat’s death, support for Hamas was not far below that for Fatah. Since Arafat’s death, Fatah has gained a larger lead over Hamas, for example a recent poll gave Fatah nearly 42%, up from 26% in June. Hamas had fallen from 22% to 20%.
However, municipal elections – the first since 1976 – held in 26 West Bank councils on 24 December, showed that Hamas is increasing its influence in some areas. There were no party lists, but members of Hamas gained around 20% of the seats, winning seven councils, compared to Fatah’s overall 65% and victory in twelve councils. These elections were not held in Hamas’s strongest area, the Gaza strip. The voting turnout was very high, at 81%.
The Fatah leaders are well aware of the weakness of their position, resulting from years of failure to advance Palestinian aspirations and improve living conditions. Although Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not standing candidates for the presidential election, the Fatah leaders understood that lack of unity and poor election results could further threaten their supremacy. The Islamic organisations want to stand in the parliamentary elections planned for May, though these could be postponed – perhaps indefinitely – out of fear in the PA leadership of changes in the balance of power, together with concern on the same issue in the US and Israeli regimes.
In the face of continued brutal repression by the Israeli army, the Palestinian population sees no other option than to continue with armed struggle, but there is weariness and despair at the lack of progress and the daily struggle for basic needs. This feeds some hope that, despite widespread distrust and hatred of US imperialism and the Israeli regime, Abbas will provide a respite, a short period of calm, as a result of his negotiating stance and friendliness towards the imperialist powers.
Lack of confidence
But this certainly doesn’t negate the general lack of confidence in what he will achieve. In order to win enough electoral support to secure victory, Abbas has had to resort to leaning heavily on the legacy of Arafat as a symbol of Palestinian struggle, using campaign posters showing himself alongside Arafat. He has had to reiterate allegiance to the goals of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, the removal of Jewish settlements from the West Bank and Gaza strip, the right of return of refugees and the release of the 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. He has felt compelled to outrage the Israeli media by saying he will do what he can to protect Palestinian armed activists from arrest and assassination by the Israeli army.
Abbas is also being helped considerably by the Palestinian media, which according to an Israeli journalist reporting in the newspaper Haaretz, is "entirely in favour" of Abbas.
Meanwhile, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon is pressing on with his unilateral ’disengagement’ plan, but at the time of writing this article, is still trying to pull together a new government coalition following the recent collapse of his previous one. The new coalition, if finalised, will involve the Labour Party, which is prepared to vote through severe budget cuts in order to prop up Sharon’s Gaza pull-out. If the coalition talks collapse completely, a general election will be called.
Although a major set-back to the long-standing aspirations of the Israeli ruling class, ’disengagement’ has never been a step towards a Palestinian state. As one of Sharon’s key advisors, Dov Weiglass, spelt out, it is in fact aimed at preventing discussion on borders, refugees and Jerusalem, and is aiming to place a physical barrier between Palestinian and Israeli areas in a futile attempt to improve security and reduce military expenditure in Israel.
As preparations on the plan move on, amid threats of hard resistance from the right wing settlers’ movement, daily killings of Palestinians by the Israeli army continue. These are interspersed with Palestinian reprisal, such as the killing of five Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint on the Gaza-Egypt border on 12 December 2004.
The ’new’ Palestinian leadership headed by Abbas and Qurei, although viewed as more moderate by the world capitalist powers, will come under huge pressure from the Palestinian masses to deliver improvements and liberation from Israeli occupation. They have very limited power to manoeuvre as the PA economy, infrastructure and security forces have been virtually destroyed by intense Israeli repression.
Failing to present a way forward in this situation, the days of the Fatah ’old guard’ are numbered. Younger Fatah leaders who have developed into leadership positions during the second intifada, such as the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, will come to the fore, as will new leaders from non-Fatah organisations, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
However neither the failed policies of Fatah nor those of right wing Islamic parties will be able to take the Palestinian struggle forward. The development of a new democratic, secular, mass workers’ party is urgently needed to represent the interests and aspirations of the Palestinian people.
Likewise, continuing insecurity and growing poverty for Israeli Jews in Israel will not be ended by their present choice of pro-capitalist political leaders. A new mass Israeli workers’ party is urgently needed to begin the task of building a socialist future.
From The Socialist, newspaper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales