Palestinian Choices

Dec 22, 2011

Palestinian Choices

Update from AIJAC

December 22, 2011
Number 12/11 #05

Today’s Update features three pieces looking at the choices currently being made by  the Palestinian political leadership – both those associated with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah in the West Bank, and with Hamas in Gaza. 

First up is veteran Israeli Palestinian affairs analyst Pinhas Inbari, who looks at the push by Fatah and PA head Mahmoud Abbas for preparations for the election scheduled for May in which he says he will not run. Inbari notes that Fatah seems to be resisting Abbas’ call to name a successor candidate and argues this is because Fatah is totally ill-prepared for either succession or elections. He notes that Abbas seems to be setting the scene for his own exit as a Palestinian “hero”, with or without elections, but notes how divided and ill-prepared Fatah appears to be for what he is trying to do. For this important analysis of the realities behind the debate about new Palestinian elections, CLICK HERE.

Next up is noted American author and expert on Palestinian affairs Jonathan Schanzer on the increasing abandonment by Abbas of the public face of Palestinian moderation and nation-building over recent years – PM Salam Fayyad. Schanzer notes that Abbas has in recent months “methodically marginalized Fayyad and used cronyism to consolidate his personal power” via corruption probes, firings of Fayyad’s close associates and monopolising decision-making.  He notes that Washington unfortunately seems ready to write Fayyad off, and warns that the end of Fayyad’s era of efforts to bring accountable and transparent government to the PA is likely to lead to a new and more dangerous stage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. For Schanzer’s argument in full, CLICK HERE.

The third piece, again by Schanzer, focuses on Hamas rather than the PA. Following up on the piece in the last Update on Hamas’ efforts to find a new political home and sponsor now that Damascus is unsafe and Iran is pulling back from financial aid, Schanzer notes that Turkey may be stepping forward to fill the void, reportedly offering US$300 million. Schanzer looks at Hamas’ history of using different patrons and how their current quest for a new one may well affect their future behaviour including their ostensible promise to renounce terrorism as part of a Palestinian unity deal. For all of Schanzer’s discussion of Hamas’ situation, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, AIJAC’s Allon Lee has assembled some evidence that casts considerable doubt on Hamas’ ostensible pledge of non-violence.

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Mahmoud Abbas’ exit strategy

Pinhas Inbari

WJC Analysis, 19 December 2011

Prior to departing on his latest Arab tour, PLO leader Mahmud Abbas told Fatah leadership in Ramallah to take the elections project seriously and start choosing a candidate for the presidency. Two senior Fatah officials, Abbas Zaki and Mahmud al-Alul, were quick to declare Abbas as Fatah’s only candidate for president. It looked like an expression of confidence in his leadership, but in fact, it was a hint at disagreements between the president and his faction.

Not only did Abbas urge his fellow Fatah leaders to name his heir, but he also insisted on a serious preparation for the general elections, scheduled to take place in May 2012. However, Fatah openly rejected his call to name a candidate for the presidency and has yet to show any attempts at embarking on an election campaign process.

Is Fatah skeptical about the possibility of the elections taking place? Or did the organization not want them in the first place?

Mahmoud Abbas has yet to publish a decree calling for elections, as no agreement on the matter has been reached with Hamas’ government in Gaza. There are several reasons for the stalemate with Hamas. The Islamic movement’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, has refused to leave office. As a result, the Palestinians have found themselves with an electoral formula that would put two governments in place – one in Ramallah and another in Gaza. Nobody seriously believes that this scenario is workable or realistic.

Regardless of the objective impediments to the electoral process, it is likely that Abbas will make a ‘leadership decision’ and announce a date for new elections, allowing his need for an exit strategy to prevail. It is less important for Abbas to hold the elections than to fix an exit date and name his successor as leader of Fatah. Election day will be Abbas’ ‘expiration date’ as Fatah’s leader. If, however, elections do not take place – and they are most likely not to – he will blame Israel for the failure and exit as a popular hero.

Officials within Fatah are exceedingly concerned that Abbas’ plan will lead to a succession crisis for which the organization is utterly unprepared. Several groups inside Fatah are expected to vie for the supremacy that signifies the national legitimacy of the Palestinians, despite the organization’s de facto diminution in power over the past few years. Fatah’s last Congress in Bethlehem two years ago was beset by violent internal conflicts that included physical assaults between various delegates.

The main fault line rests within the historical split between the ‘Tunisians’ (the PLO leadership that arrived from Tunis as result of the Oslo agreements) and the local insiders, the cadres of the West Bank and Gaza.

The Tunisian leadership owed its predominance to the fact that the local Fatah cadres were unable to agree on a leader and to the Tunisian leadership’s representation of the refugees’ problem – a core issue for Palestinian nationalism. The moment the veteran Tunisian leadership disappears along with its historical legitimacy, the magnitude of the refugee problem will decrease in favor of local concerns and priorities. In that case, the West Bank will shift from an internationally recognized ‘leadership’ to local ‘dignitaries’. 

Despite the PLO’s relocation to the Palestinian Authority’s territories, local cadres failed to assume power and move up the ladder to overshadow the newcomers. The regional distinctions prevailed: Nablus never accepted the leadership of Ramallah or Hebron, and vice versa.

Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti is an example of this trend. Barghouti was not included in the Gilad Shalit prisoner’ exchange because the Tunisian leadership did not campaign for his release, as it did for a Hamuri prisoner of the Popular Front. There was also no popular drive to release Barghouti as Fatah’s main districts in Nablus and Hebron did not perceive him as someone who should be defended. He is perceived as a  ‘Ramallah figure’, not as a ‘Palestinian’.

Yet another testament to these internal PA considerations is Muhammad Dahlan. Further to his expulsion from Gaza, and the failure of the West Bank Fatah to absorb him, the Tunisians went as far as expelling Dahlan from Fatah altogether. While the details of the Dahlan and Barghouti cases are different, in essence they are the symptoms of a common disease within Fatah: its leadership is not in sync with Fatah cadres, and the regions cannot find a common ground.

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The End of Fayyadism


The days of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad being hailed as the savior of Palestinian politics are over. Why is the White House staying silent as President Mahmoud Abbas sabotages his efforts?

Foreign Policy, DECEMBER 14, 2011

The “Arab Spring” may be pushing the Middle East toward transparency and more representative government, but the Palestinian Authority is bucking the trend. Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, perhaps the only Palestinian leader who earnestly sought to usher in an era of good governance, is now under siege from political rivals. But instead of providing him the support he needs to weather the storm, Washington has chosen to stand on the sidelines.

“Fayyadism” was once hailed in Washington’s corridors of power — and by the New York Times’s Tom Friedman — as a refreshing alternative to the governing philosophy of other Middle Eastern regimes. As Friedman wrote in 2009, “Fayyadism is based on the simple but all-too-rare notion that an Arab leader’s legitimacy should be based not on slogans or rejectionism or personality cults or security services, but on delivering transparent, accountable administration and services.”

President Mahmoud Abbas, however, has other ideas for the Palestinian Authority. In recent years, he has methodically marginalized Fayyad and used cronyism to consolidate his personal power.

Abbas’s latest step has been to orchestrate a series of trials against the prime minister’s top officials. On Nov. 29, the Palestinian prosecutor-general charged Economy Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh with corruption, paving the way for him to stand trial this month. The charges — breach of trust, fraud, insider trading, and embezzlement of public funds — date back to Abu Libdeh’s tenure as director of the Palestinian Capital Market Authority in 2008. Earlier this year, the newly formed Palestinian Anti-Corruption Commission also charged Agriculture Minister Ismail Daiq with corruption. Daiq is still awaiting trial.

In the Palestinian Authority, corruption probes aren’t launched unless the president wants them launched. In this case, Abbas has engineered these latest scandals to discredit Fayyad and cast doubt on the prime minister’s ability to deliver on his celebrated mandate of countering corruption. After all, the corruption goes to the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority, and the officials in question were appointed by Fayyad himself.

While the merits of these cases are yet to be determined, they are not designed to rid Palestine of corruption. Rather, by ousting ministers and hobbling Fayyad, Abbas creates an opportunity to replace them with figures more to his liking.

Abbas makes the major decisions impacting Palestinians out of his sprawling Muqata compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Fayyad, meanwhile, works with a skeleton crew in a modest office nearby. According to officials who work with them, the two figureheads of the Palestinians are barely on speaking terms. Fayyad has become a glorified accountant, leveraging his strong relationship with international donors to collect checks that ensure his government can continue to pay salaries — while Abbas pursues a provocative foreign policy that endangers those sources of funding.

Early this year, when Abbas began openly angling for international recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations — a finger in Washington’s eye — Fayyad opposed him. Although Fayyad’s efforts were part of the original plan in 2009, as it became clear that the unilateral approach was infuriating Washington and prompting Congress to mull a cutoff in aid, he openly questioned the success of the endeavor. As he recently remarked, “This is not the state we are looking for.”

In November, when Abbas entered into negotiations to form a unity government with the terrorist group Hamas — a deal that could prompt a full cut in U.S. funding — Fayyad stood ready to resign. And while he claimed that he was prepared to step aside in the name of “national unity,” Fayyad has since gone on record as refusing to serve the future Hamas-Fatah coalition government in any capacity.

Now that both Abbas-led ventures have been tabled for the time being, the president has manufactured these new corruption probes against members of the Fayyad cabinet.

This is not to say that a corruption probe is ill-advised. One should be launched — but it should focus on Abbas and his immediate family members, who have reportedly grown rich from no-bid contracts. Most notable, perhaps, was the 2010 Wataniya cell phone tender that reportedly yielded fruit for the president’s sons, Yasser and Tarek. A future probe should also focus on the members of Abbas’s inner circle and the centralized system that grants them position, money, and power.

Unfortunately, the State Department and the White House are loath to take these steps. President Barack Obama’s administration is not blind to corruption in Ramallah and the erosion of Fayyad’s power, but it rightly fears that weakening Abbas — let alone toppling him — will lead to a power vacuum from which only Hamas will benefit.

After all, it was Hamas that claimed a resounding victory in the 2006 legislative elections, which were undisputedly free and fair, prompting Washington to throw its full backing behind Abbas. He has since become an unlikely centerpiece of U.S. policy and a counterweight to the Islamist group that also happens to be an Iranian proxy. In the absence of a viable alternative, the Palestinian leader has also won a remarkably free hand in his domestic and international battles.

Abbas knows that Washington values his ability to fend off Hamas more than it does Fayyad’s ability to govern. This explains why he feels unencumbered to test Washington’s patience, both when it comes to political reform in Ramallah and the statehood bid at the United Nations. It also explains why Washington has stood by silently as Fayyad has struggled in vain to maintain his dwindling authority.

To be sure, Washington still pays lip service to the potential of Fayyad’s reform agenda, but the White House knows the prime minister’s days are numbered. According to several of Fayyad’s allies, American diplomats have reportedly written him off.

The end of Fayyadism translates into another expensive taxpayer investment gone wrong in the Middle East. It means the end of an era that offered hope for political reform for the Palestinians. With little hope for change, it also marks the beginning of a new and dangerous period in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

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Hamas for Sale?

Jonathan Schanzer

The Weekly Standard, December 21, 2011 9:02 AM

Palestinian news sources reported earlier this month that Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised $300 million to the Gaza-based terrorist organization Hamas. If true, this pledge would cover nearly half of Hamas’s reported $769 million budget next year, and would make Turkey its primary benefactor.

Hamas and Turkish officials deny the report, and Hamas probably won’t submit to an external audit any time soon. But let there be no doubt: Hamas is for sale, thanks to the Iranian nuclear program and the Arab Spring.

In the past year or two, Iranian proxies have fallen on hard times. The U.S. and Europe responded to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions by enacting tranche after tranche of financial sanctions, and Iran is increasingly unable to make good on its pledges. According to the French newspaper Le Figaro, this means hard times for long-time proxy Hezbollah. And despite Hamas’s public statements about increasing its budget by 22 percent in 2012, it’s likely hurting, too. It was widely reported that the group failed to make payroll in Gaza this summer.

The ongoing carnage in Syria is also creating challenges for Hamas. According to the Arabic daily al-Hayat, the group’s external leaders are fleeing Damascus.

Assuming Hamas’s Iranian and Syrian support is ending, this will mark the fourth shift in the group’s sponsorship since its inception in 1987. But right now, it’s not clear that any regional actor is ready to fill the void.

Egypt, Tunisia, and Qatar have all reportedly considered hosting Hamas’s external headquarters, but each has a generally risk-averse foreign policy, under which the terrorist group would be an undue liability. Despite Egypt’s recent warming of ties with the terror group, thanks in large part to the policies of the popular Muslim Brotherhood, the military is not likely prepared to risk its lucrative military-to-military relationship with Washington. Even Qatar, long known to bankroll Hamas activities, has stated that it will only commit to hosting a few individuals (not the group itself). Indeed, the tiny state has no desire to jeopardize the U.S. military base there, which insulates it from the threat of Iran.

The Saudis, as they try to scrub their image as terror funders, are likely also out of the picture. The 9/11 attacks put them on the defensive, but it was ultimately a series of homegrown terrorist attacks in 2003 and 2004 that prompted them to curtail their funding, forcing Hamas to seek the patronage of Iran.

With Iran stepping back, could Turkey step in? From publicly clashing with Israeli president Shimon Peres over Israel’s Hamas policy at Davos in 2009 to sponsoring the ill-fated flotilla that attempted to breach Israel’s blockade of Gaza in 2010, Erdogan has become a champion of the Hamas cause.

In recent years, the Turkish government has provided nominal assistance to Hamas in Gaza through a series of charities. Hamas reportedly now operates on Turkish soil, meaning Ankara is already a patron. And Hamas recently announced that leader Ismail Haniyeh plans to visit Turkey soon.

Such a visit would present an opportunity for Turkey to seal the deal with Hamas. And given Washington’s willingness to contract its Syria policy out to the Turks, it’s natural to wonder whether the Obama administration is considering a repeat performance here.

In the end, however, Turkish patronage of Hamas is unlikely. Hamas would destroy whatever remains of its relationship with Iran by moving into regional rival Turkey’s orbit. For its part, Ankara would likely view a larger investment in a terror group as carrying too much risk and not enough reward.

Hamas now seems to understand the risks it carries. This explains, in part, why the group sought to unload captured Israeli prisoner Gilad Shalit, who had become as much of a burden as he was a chip to cash in for a thousand jailed Palestinians. And while they should be taken with a grain of salt, recent reports now indicate that Hamas is even considering nonviolence. Though, it’s hard to ignore that without Iranian weapons flowing, violence simply will be harder to sustain.

All along, Hamas’s tactics have shifted with its funding. As a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hamas’s attacks were rudimentary. During the Saudi era of patronage in the mid to late 1990s, they were marked by suicide bombings. Under Iranian influence, over the last decade, the group has fired torrents of rockets, turned its arms against rival Palestinian factions, and amassed a sophisticated arsenal.

Hamas’s next strategy may hinge on its new donors, and its new headquarters. Thanks to their growing isolation, Iran and Syria appear less likely to maintain their current roles. Most Middle East states are unwilling to step up, thanks to a wave of destabilizing protest movements. This is leverage for Washington and Jerusalem. If Hamas remains financially hobbled and homeless, after 24 years of violence, the terror group may have little choice but to bend.

Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a former terrorism analyst at the U.S. Treasury and the author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave 2008).

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