by Barry Rubin
There’s nothing written about more often—and inaccurately—than the Palestinians, yet there is curiously little interest about the politics and ideology which governs their behavior. The same situation applies to the man s slated to become that movement's next leader, only the third to hold that post in 50 years, after Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas.
The fact that an issue that is supposedly the most important, high-priority question in the
This point is only underlined by looking at the current candidate for next leader, Muhammad Ghaneim, often known as Abu Mahir. Of all those who might credibly have been considered for the leadership of Fatah—and hence of the PLO and Palestinian Authority (PA)—he is probably the most hardline one.
Ironically, while media coverage of the 2009 Fatah Congress stressed the accession of young and more flexible leaders, the 72-year-old Ghaneim certainly does not fit that description.
It is difficult to say to what extent Ghaneim’s early involvement with radical Islamism has shaped his thinking and whether it would make it easier for him to reconcile with the even more radical Hamas. Most Fatah and PLO people came out of more secular Arab nationalist or leftist movements. The only prominent leader who blended an Islamist background with nationalism was Arafat himself, and this certainly remained a prominent theme in his worldview during his entire career.
Ghaneim’s big career break came in 1968 when at the age of just 30 Arafat appointed him commander of Fatah’s forces in
It is impossible to overstate the importance of these two jobs. At that time,
Since so much of this task was involved with military matters, Ghaneim took a short officers’ course in
The other job was just as important. Ghaneim played a central role in selecting those to be given key jobs and just how much authority each had. Of course, everyone was far below Arafat in power but Ghaneim was about as essential as a second-tier figure could be. That job is also useful in making contacts with those who would continue to be top people in the movement in ensuing decades.
In 1970, Fatah overplayed its hand, was defeated by
Ghaneim didn’t return with Arafat in 1994 because, despite serving Arafat closely and loyally for 35 years, Ghaneim rejected the
While Arafat’s strategy sought these things covertly, the compromises involved in such a pretense were too much for Ghaneim, who openly criticized his old chief. He stayed in
Ghaneim moved closer to the popular Farouq Qaddumi, often referred to as the second most powerful man in Fatah and PLO or as the PLO’s “foreign minister.” Qaddumi rejected the
Finally, Ghaneim decided to return and support Mahmoud Abbas. While the details are not clear, this coincided with Abbas naming him as successor, which was certainly a great incentive for changing sides. Despite some analysts claiming that Ghaneim has moderated his positions, there is absolutely no evidence that he has done so.
On the contrary, it is likely that he joined the PA and Abbas because he felt that they were closer to his long-held views in many respects.
Ghaneim has a definite appeal for Abbas as ally and successor. He is one of the few remaining original founders of Fatah and has wide contacts throughout the movement.
On the one hand, he possesses Arafat’s seal of approval historically but on the other hand he is so hard-line as to appeal to that powerful tendency in Fatah. In addition, as someone who has been outside the PA politics for 15 years he was seen as a neutral figure in many petty and personal disputes.
But this is not the man to choose if your top priorities were making peace with
On arrival at the
At the reception, Ghaneim stated: "The struggle will continue until victory" and that if political means did not win Palestinian demands the movement would return to armed struggle. (Al-Hayat al-Jadida, July 30, 2009). It is clear how Ghaneim defines victory and it is not a West Bank-Gaza state with its capital in east
That Ghaneim would give up demands that all Palestinian refugees and their offspring must be allowed to live in
Thereafter, Abbas promoted Ghaneim among the delegates to the meeting. He finished first in the Central Committee elections with 1338 votes, about two-thirds of those participating and far ahead of every other candidate.
Ghaneim’s success, and the others elected, show that the old Arafat crowd is still in control rather than any transition, youth cohort, moderate, or reformist group. Given the fact that there are virtually no real moderates in the leadership, having the tired, corrupt old guard in charge is better than having younger, more extreme elements running things.
Yet the hardline parts of the old guard have a large portion of power even among this group. If Ghaneim becomes leader of Fatah the PA and PLO, then you can forget about peace. Violent conflict becomes far more likely. Yet Ghaneim will not take over by a coup but because the current elite wants precisely the policy he represents.
No one should say a word about the Palestinian issue, the peace process, or Israeli policy without analyzing these factors. Unfortunately, there isn’t at present a Palestinian partner for peace. Fortunately, there is a Palestinian partner for maintaining a relatively peaceful status quo. But if and when Ghaneim takes over, even this consolation might be gone.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The
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