A Debilitating Split

Had Fatah's leaders been wise enough to integrate the young guard into their electoral slate, they would at least have had a chance to stop Hamas.

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The Fatah movement essentially split on Wednesday, when two candidate lists were submitted on behalf of the movement to the Palestinian Authority's Central Elections Commission in the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 25. One list is comprised of veteran Fatah members from Tunis (known as the "outsiders"), and the other is composed of younger "insiders," people born and raised in the territories. Even though the split is primarily an internal Palestinian matter, it could also have an impact on relations with Israel. Marwan Barghouti, currently serving a life sentence in Israel, is the leader of the younger list. This fact adds weight to the demand that he be released from jail, especially if diplomatic talks resume following the elections in Israel and the PA.

The background to the split was a power struggle between the veterans and the young guard, a struggle that has greatly intensified over the year that has passed since Yasser Arafat's death, which created a vacuum in the Palestinian leadership. With regard to their political positions, there is no real difference between the two groups. The top spots on the veterans' list include people such as Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala), one of the architects of the Oslo Accords, while the young guard's list is headed by well-known figures such as Mohammed Dahlan and Sufyan Abu Zaydeh, who are in the forefront of talks with Israel. The young guard contains a high percentage of former prisoners, activists in the first and second intifadas. The veterans' list contains many long-time activists, including some of the founders of the PLO - people who were active in the ranks of the Palestinian movement throughout its migrations to Jordan, Beirut and Tunis.

The split greatly weakens Fatah, the Palestinian ruling party, and threatens its status as the foremost party in Palestinian politics. Public opinion polls show a clear trend in the West Bank and Gaza: a decline in Fatah's popularity and a rise in the power of Hamas. The popularity of Hamas stems not from the movement's extremist political views, such as its refusal to recognize the State of Israel, but from the fact that it is perceived as a movement whose members are modest and honest. The Palestinian public has become disgusted with Fatah because of the image of its leadership, which is seen as corrupt and clinging to power.

In order to erase this negative image of Fatah's leadership, the young guard sought to hold primaries to choose the party's candidates for the general elections. But the primaries ran into problems due to accusations of fraud, which in turn led to rioting by armed gangs. In the places where Fatah nevertheless managed to hold primaries, it was clear that the young guard was more popular. But the veteran leadership refused to recognize this, and that was the background to the split.

This development has major implications for the ability to stop Hamas' rise. There is no doubt that the younger candidates, who are popular with the public, are the only group that can block Hamas. Had Fatah's leaders been wise enough to integrate the young guard into their electoral slate, they would at least have had a chance to stop Hamas. Now, the situation appears more problematic. The two-headed campaign is liable to drive additional voters toward Hamas, thereby further disrupting the diplomatic process.



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