Suddenly, It’s Advantage Fatah, and a Solution

JERUSALEM — Has the just-ended Fatah party convention, concluded in a cavalcade of personnel change, affected the prospects for a two-state solution that might finally resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Even more than the dramatic shift of power from the old guard of politicians who had returned from exile to the middle-aged generation that grew up within Palestine battling the Israeli Occupation, the importance of the convention lies in the Palestinian perception that this is a turning point in Fatah’s favor in its troubled internal conflict with Hamas.

Taken together, both these significant developments provide great encouragement for the advocates of the two-state solution, the biggest fillip for U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy since he made "two states" the cornerstone of any durable regional peace.

Disgruntled at his failure to get re-elected to the Fatah Central Committee, Ahmed Qureia, former Palestinian prime minister and one of the key architects of the Oslo accords that laid the foundation for a negotiated two- state solution, declared in an interview Thursday that he no longer believes the two-state solution is possible.

Qureia told al-Quds al-Arabi, a London-based pan-Arab daily, that a Palestinian state should be created on temporary borders since Israel was doing everything to make the establishment of a truly viable state alongside it impossible.

Collaterally, on the Israeli side, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, never a great fan of a two-state solution, told a delegation of visiting U.S. Democrats that the Palestinian positions adopted at the Bethlehem convention were "delusional in their extremism — the best we can now hope for is some kind of interim arrangement to keep the peace."

The genuineness of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution may be under scrutiny, and however much Lieberman’s disparaging comment reflects the underlying mood around Netanyahu’s cabinet table, the Israeli government cannot allow that to become its official position.

Lieberman and Qureia may have reached the same conclusion from a different sense of commitment — or lack of it — to the two-state principle. But, interestingly, they seem now to be equally out of touch with what’s happened within the movement that, for decades, has been at the forefront of Palestinian national thinking.

When contemplating the "new" Fatah, Barack Obama’s Administration has genuine cause to allow a glint in its eye. Against all odds, and at variance with the grim situation on the ground, the President’s approach to the conflict has received a major shot in the arm.

For a host of reasons:

Mahmoud Abbas, dismissively written off by so many — especially in Israel, but even among his own rank-and-file — has emerged as a formidable national leader. A capable and shrewd politician, he has resurrected his own fortunes and that of his party quite dramatically.

The mirror image of Fatah’s rebuilt image as the only body capable of extricating the Palestinian people from their plight is a Hamas very much on the defensive. Fatah capitalized brilliantly on a critical Hamas mistake when the Islamists tried to undermine the convention by threatening Fatah members from Gaza and refusing to allow them to participate in a gathering that has turned out to have the potential of becoming a historic turning- point for Palestinian fortunes. Where Hamas looks pettily clinging to its hold in Gaza at all costs, Fatah can now project itself as the only true purveyor of the broad national interest.

A tangible indication of this dramatic shift in Palestinian politics is reflected in the resurgent interest in the thorny and painful question of a prisoner exchange with Israel.

Over the past few days, a flurry of reports suggest a sudden thaw in the attempts to get an agreement between Israeli and Hamas which would lead to the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the Israel soldier, Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas has been holding for three years.

All the reports come from Palestinian sources. Some intimate that Hamas is willing to moderate its demands in order to make such an exchange happen only because it feels domestic public opinion has turned away from it.

The prisoner issue is fundamental to the Palestinian national ethos. Hence, in the newly elected Fatah Central Committee there are no fewer than three former prisoners plus the highly popular Fatah activist, Marwan Barghouti, who continues to serve a multiple life sentence in an Israeli jail. The reports suggest that Hamas hopes a prisoner exchange in the near future would stop the hemorrhaging of its popular support to Fatah.

On the other hand, with Fatah on the up, Hamas has no reason at this stage to see long thwarted reconciliation efforts — and an imminent general election as its culmination — bearing fruit.

Most significantly, the fact that the convention was staged in Bethlehem in the West Bank and not outside Palestine, has underscored what is fast becoming a central indelible fact on the ground (even rivaling Israel’s notorious settlement policy) — that Fatah is the only force in charge of the Palestinian controlled areas of the West Bank. A central plank has been knocked out of the argument advanced by Israeli skeptics (and they are not hard to find in the Netanyahu government). They had contemptuously written off Fatah and Abbas at the helm as a viable force with which Israel could deal.

Still, there is a challenge facing Barack Obama’s reconciliation diplomacy: how to reconcile the two developments that seem at variance with one another — the deepening of the Fatah-Hamas schism on the one hand, and on the other, the enhanced prospect for Israeli-Palestinian (Fatah) negotiations towards the goal of two states.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.