As Different as Chalk and Cheese

The power struggle between Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) can be regarded as another stage in the democratization of Palestinian political life. There was no violence between the two competing for positions of power.

The power struggle between Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) can be regarded as another stage in the democratization of Palestinian political life. There was no violence between the two competing for positions of power. There were elements of typical leadership struggles in which a senior leader (Arafat) doesn't want to cede power.

In neighboring Arab countries, one practically doesn't see relatively restrained, publicly reported power struggles for the leadership as took place in the Palestinian Authority in the last two weeks. Some of those states are kingdoms but even among the republics a new form of government, "a republican kingdom," has evolved, meaning a republic that is ruled by heirs, as in a monarchy.

The best known example is Syria, where Hafez Assad left the regime to his son Bashar. The same system was supposed to take place in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and the political gossip in the Arab world speculates that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is grooming his son for the presidency. Political scientists have even come up with an Arabic word for it, "Jamalochia," combining jamariya (republic) with monarchy. Quite a few Palestinians say that if Arafat had a son, he would have been the candidate to replace him.

Despite the publicity given to the power struggle between Arafat and Abu Mazen, most of the struggle actually took place in secret. Most of the reports about what has going on in the various meetings were quite limited in scope, and there was limited coverage of the events in the Arab and international press, while the Palestinian press practically ignored it and published very few and mostly partial items about it. The Palestinian political culture prefers to keep such matters modest. The rival camps also made, relatively speaking, very little use of the media.

There are major differences between the two men. There was the senior leader, Arafat, the "founding father" of Palestinian nationalism, known popularly by a host of adoring names. More than anything, he is a symbol of the struggle, embodying and personifying the national aspirations. When he arrived in Gaza in 1994 to build the PA, there were those who wrote in the Palestinian press, "The sun of Arafat is shining down on the homeland." Arafat is the man without a private life, who lives in his office, surrounded by his loyalists and without a normal family life. Everything is for the Palestinian cause.

On the other side is Abu Mazen, the complete opposite. Introverted, without a band of loyalists, rarely consults, a man of no glamour and nearly without any of the ambitions that usually turns someone into Number 1. He has private business affairs and a solid family life, though most of the family is overseas.

Palestinian paradigm

The family matter is of supreme importance in Palestinian politics. Most of the political activists in the PA rely on extensive family connections, starting with the nuclear family, but often extending to tribe and clan, and often numbering in the hundreds. Nearly all the members of the parliament elected in 1996 represent districts where their clans or tribes are concentrated. Usually, it's the village or the refugee camp where the family arrived in 1948. It's easy for a Palestinian politician to recruit loyalists from the extended family and they use them the way Israeli politicians use their "camps," meaning as a club of loyalists.

That's the paradigm for Palestinian politics. Nabil Sha'ath is a good example. The foreign minister in the new government is 65, and grew up in the Jaffa of the British Mandate. He was educated in Egypt and the U.S., settled in Cairo and received Egyptian citizenship. He established a prosperous engineering company in Cairo, and at the same time became active in Palestine Liberation Organization politics. He ran for election in 1996 from Khan Yunis, even though he never lived there. But his family was from Khan Yunis before they moved to Jaffa, and there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of Sha'aths in Khan Yunis. They elected him to the PLC and he presumably pays them back, as politicians do.

In nearly every Palestinian ministry, there are relatives of the minister, the director-general and the senior staff (often from the same family). It's difficult to measure but it seems the senior Palestinian official's commitment is often greater to his family than a Haredi MK's to his rabbi and constituency.

As in many traditional societies, individual rights are always linked to broader groups, meaning the family. Society denies the individual even the most basic right to choose a spouse (various polls show that nearly half the marriages in Palestinian society are within the clan, usually between second and third cousins). A society that dictates a spouse to someone certainly can dictate whom to vote for in an election.

Abu Mazen does not have family here. He was born in Safed and his family moved to Syria in 1948, where he grew up and went to school. Then he moved to Qatar, was a founding member of Fatah and gradually became a businessman and adviser to the rulers of tiny Qatar. He never built a power base, clan or otherwise, in Palestinian society. He didn't need to, because it never occurred to him that he would run for election. When asked in 1996 why he was not running for the PLC, he said, "I belong to the historic leadership," the political aristocracy that didn't need the voters for a place in the leadership.

He was pulled into the power struggles with Arafat almost despite his wishes, responding to calls by his veteran friends in the PLO and the Fatah leadership, backed up by international statesmen, who asked him to take on the job. Almost on his own, he prepared a list of people he believed appropriate for a Palestinian government and brought it to Arafat, besieged in the Muqata. Arafat, who has been hearing from every direction that the appointment of a prime minister was meant to depose him, took one look at the list and decided to declare war on Abu Mazen.

He used all his known methods and intrigues. He leaked the list to the media, which shook a hornet's nest of frustration and jealousy from those who were not on the list. Then he convened marathon sessions of committees and councils and invited many to participate. Everyone wanted to talk, and everyone had comments and arguments and complaints. Arafat intervened over and over again, raising new issues and names, often names and issues that had already been discussed.

After a few meetings like that Abu Mazen got fed up. He shut himself in his Ramallah home and refused to see most of the mediators who appealed to him. Those who did gain entrance heard that he would gladly give up the headache, that he had no interest in quarreling with Arafat and certainly not inheriting from him - so they can manage without him.

The end of the affair came with Egyptian mediation, with Arafat's giving up on the main issue of contention, Mohammad Dahlan's appointment as security chief. It might not have been a democratic celebration but within the limits of a traditional society and Palestinian political culture, it certainly was an important watershed on the way.