Behind Barghouti's Palestinian Presidential Run

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SUCCESSOR? Barghouti, with Arafat in 2001

Whether Marwan Barghouti contests the Palestinian presidential election from an Israeli jail, or succumbs to pressure to stand down in the name of national unity, his candidacy signals the difficulties facing Yasser Arafat's presumptive heir, Mahmoud Abbas, in fulfilling Washington's expectations that the passing of Arafat will herald the rise of a more pliable leadership. For a week since announcing his candidacy in the January 9 election for President of the Palestinian Authority, Barghouti has dominated international headlines. Secretary of State Colin Powell called Barghouti's "problematic," while Spanish foreign minister Miguel Moratinos dubbed it "a mistake." Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak lashed out at the prisoner's decision to run against Abbas, the chosen candidate of Barghouti's own Fatah organization, warning that "these things divide the Palestinians." There's no doubt that Barghouti's candidacy is inconvenient to those who had hoped that the elections could provide the sort of symbolic legitimacy that Arafat's own election had achieved in 1996, but this time for a man who Washington and Israel view as a negotiating partner.

More significant, however, is the steady torrent of rebukes directed at Barghouti from within the ranks of his natural base, the militant grassroots of Fatah who serve as the shock troops of the current intifadah via the al-Aksa Martyr's Brigade and other militia. They have been even more urgent and insistent in demanding that Barghouti drop out of the race in the name of the unity emphasized by all Palestinian factions in the wake of Yasser Arafat's passing. "We are against the candidacy of Marwan because it is contrary to the decision of the central committee of Fatah, which unanimously chose [Mahmoud Abbas]," said Zakariya Zubeidi, Jenin leader of the al-Aksa Brigades. "We will not let anybody, no matter who, create any division or split in the Fatah movement." Zubeidi's views have been echoed by other Fatah militants across the West Bank, and even the hard-line exile Farouk Khadoumi, who remains in Tunis and opposed the Oslo peace process and now serves as the chairman of Fatah, warned Barghouti that staying in the race would result in his expulsion from the organization.

Unity over clarity

If Barghouti does withdraw, it will be primarily because he heeded the call of the militants warning him that his candidacy was tactically ill-advised. They see this as the wrong time to force the Palestinian electorate to make a fundamental strategic choice between the intifadah and Abbas's diplomacy. Instead, in the best traditions of Arafat, they want both tendencies, and everything in between, represented under the banner of a single candidate around whom they can circle the wagons.

This, of course, is a tradition of national liberation movements the world over, particularly in moments before they've achieved power. But it's not hard to see that if Abbas's election depends on the active support of the Al-Aksa Martyr's Brigade, then — like Arafat — his room for maneuver and compromise will be severely limited.

Having filed his candidacy papers citing pressure from supporters to stand and "protect the intifadah," Barghouti has to date given no indication that he'll heed such calls — and such is the resentment against what Abbas represents both among the Fatah grassroots and more widely among the Palestinian electorate that he may fancy his chances of prevailing. The latest polling data from the respected Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research finds Barghouti in a statistical dead heat with Abbas among likely voters, with 13 percent still undecided.

While established democracies operate on the principle that dividing the electorate over the direction of a nation is an essential part of the political process, national liberation movements tend to prize unity above all else. And that tradition may yet compel Barghouti to back down. (In doing so, of course, he would not only demonstrate his dedication to the greater good, but also put down a marker for his own claims to succeed the aging Abbas within a few years.) Still, by declaring his candidacy in the first place, Barghouti has exposed the massive fissures at the heart of Palestinian politics — divides that were straddled by Arafat, but may stymie the best intentions of his heirs.

A revolt against Arafat's cronies

Even if Barghouti had followed the lead of the local al-Aksa brigade commanders and simply backed Abbas, their support in itself creates restraints on the ability of Abbas, or any other elected leader, to cut deals oppose by the Fatah base. (Some Palestinian observers believe Barghouti may have decided to enter the race after Abbas failed to meet the political price for his support — putting prisoner releases at the top of the negotiating agenda — while others have suggested his decision reflects a fear of being eclipsed by rivals among his own "intifadah" generation.) Some of those restraints may be formalized in March, when Palestinian legislative and local elections are to be held which will be contested not only by many more of the Fatah grassroots candidates, but also — on the basis of current indications — by Hamas, which can credibly expect to win upward of 25 percent of the seats. Abbas has also acceded to pressure from the militants to subject Fatah itself to internal elections next August, which will almost certainly shift power within the party toward the militants and away from those, like Abbas, who served in exile with Arafat.

Barghouti, of course, is the public face of the intifadah, a popular West Bank Fatah Secretary General who cut his political teeth in the streets of Ramallah and the prison cells of Israel during first intidafah (1987-1991) while Abbas and the rest of Arafat's inner circle plied the diplomatic circuit from their headquarters in far-off Tunisia. The fact of his imprisonment by Israel after being convicted of terrorism — he didn't bother to defend himself, dismissing not only the charges but the court's right to try him — has done nothing to diminish his allure on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza, where Abbas and his fellow "Old Guard" leaders are widely viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility.

The fundamental split in Palestinian politics right now, in fact, is less the competition between the Islamists of Hamas and the secular nationalists of Fatah, than it is the internal battle within Fatah between Abbas's "Old Guard" — often derisively termed "Tunisians" to mark their returning-exile status — who have dominated the Palestinian Authority and the failed Oslo negotiation process; and a younger generation of activists committed to continuing the intifadah. While Abbas publicly denounces the intifadah as a catastrophic strategic error that has set back hopes of Palestinian statehood, and insists that the Palestinians best hopes lie in doing whatever it takes to restore their relationship with Washington and pursuing a new diplomatic solution, Barghouti advocates a two-state solution but proclaims armed struggle and the intifadah, rather than simply seeking the good offices of the U.S. (which the Palestinians have viewed as hopelessly biased in favor of Israel, even under the Clinton administration), as the more effective and reliable leverage available to the Palestinians.

U.S. offers Abbas a poisoned chalice

Those who have implored Barghouti to run want him in the race precisely because they fear Abbas will close down the intifadah and negotiate a peace deal with Israel that they would deem tantamount to a Palestinian surrender in exchange for very little. Many of those urging him to drop out believe splitting the Palestinian national movement now would be a victory for its enemies, and hold that their best hopes lie in backing Abbas at the same time as restraining him by virtue of his dependence on their support.

Whatever their differences in tactics, much of the Fatah rank-and-file shares the objective of preventing Abbas from shutting down the intifadah and pursuing the sort of deal the U.S. and Israel is hoping he might accept. Indeed, nothing has hurt Abbas quite as much in the eyes of the Palestinian electorate as the poorly disguised enthusiasm for the Palestinian moderate on the part of the Bush administration — anti-American sentiment is as high, if not higher, in the West Bank and Gaza as it is in most other parts of the Arab world.

The split in Fatah embodied in the Abbas vs. Barghouti race is not simply a debate over strategic direction; it's also a product of the grassroots backlash against the corruption and cronyism created by Yasser Arafat in his reliance on the politics of patronage to run the Palestinian Authority. It was the first intifadah, which raged from 1987 to 1991, that did more than anything else to ensure Arafat's triumphant return to the West Bank under the Oslo agreements, but the local leadership of Fatah in the West Bank and Gaza, who had risked and sacrificed the most to wage that struggle, were largely overlooked when Arafat staffed the new administration with cronies from Tunis, who in many cases conspicuously used their new positions to enrich themselves.

Old Guard corruption bolsters militants

Years of resentment over the corruption of the "Tunisians" and the failure of their Oslo strategy to end the most irksome aspects of the occupation — Israel's settler population in the West Bank actually doubled in the years during which Arafat told Palestinians he was negotiating an end to the Israeli presence — finally exploded in the second intifada in September of 2000. As much as Arafat rode, and encouraged that wave of outrage, hoping — foolishly, as it turned out — that he could exploit a surge of violence to win new concessions at the negotiating table, close observers of Palestinian politics read the uprising also as a rebellion against the "Old Guard" running the PA, and a violent negation of their politics.

Arafat retreated from the negotiating table, and restored his popularity by aligning himself with the intifadah, ending his days under siege at his bombed-out Ramallah headquarters. The siege allowed him to restore his standing as the symbolic personification of Palestinian nationalism, which put him beyond reproach by the militants pressing for changes in the PA. But his heirs among the "Tunisians" enjoy no such immunity, and widespread resentment over corruption and cronyism in the West Bank and Gaza tends to play to the political advantage of the militants — and even of Hamas, which is viewed as more incorruptible than the PA leadership — and against Abbas and his backers. Indeed, a Barghouti candidacy, had it been announced earlier, may have tempted Hamas to support him rather than boycott the presidential poll. The organization's Damascus-based leader Abu Marzouk sounded almost apologetic last week when he said the organization is committed to a boycott and won't be able to change its decision in the short time available, despite expressing great respect for Barghouti. But at neighborhood level, particularly in Gaza where militants of Hamas have long fought alongside those of Fatah in the Popular Resistance Committees that coordinated armed activity during the intifadah, many supporters of the Islamist group may be given a nod and wink to go to the polls and vote for Barghouti despite the boycott.

The good offices of Barghouti, and those who share his standing among the hard men of the West Bank and Gaza, remain essential to Abbas's own ability to restart peace talks with Israel. Negotiations are a non-starter unless Abbas can rein in terror attacks — and to do that, he requires the consent of the militant rank and file committed to the intifada, since it's unlikely that he has the political standing even among Palestinian security personnel to prevail in a violent confrontation with the militias. Abbas's preferred method has been to negotiate cease-fire agreements with Hamas — and to the extent that he has succeeded, at least temporarily, in the past, he has relied largely on the efforts of Barghouti, from his prison cell, to bring the militants of both Hamas and Fatah on board. A rival candidacy which urges the militants to vote against Abbas by painting him as a man who will sell Palestinians short may undermine prospects for a new cease-fire

But there are as many dangers for Barghouti as for Abbas if the prisoner stays in the race. If he loses, his candidacy may nonetheless have delivered the political equivalent of a fatal wound to Abbas, at the same time as burning his own prospects for fulfilling his "Palestinian Mandela" ambitions. If Barghouti stayed in the race with the backing of the Fatah militants — making it an election fought over the fundamental strategic direction to be adopted by the Palestinians — and was then decisively defeated, Abbas would be free to pursue all manner of hitherto unpopular compromises with Israel. But that also remains the least likely scenario given the stated preference of so many of the militants to present a single face to the world no matter how deeply they may differ with him on the basic questions facing the Palestinians.