The rank-and-file of Fatah has long known that Mahmoud Abbas’ habit of jumping through hoops for Condi Rice was political suicide, and that much has been confirmed in recent weeks: Hamas has emerged from the Gaza war stronger than ever politically, and Abbas’ blaming of Hamas for the carnage at the beginning of Israel’s operation cast him as a collaborator in the eyes of many of his own people. Abbas has spent eight years sitting politely in the back seat of the Bush/Condi limo, pretending that endless photo ops with Olmert and Livni were actually part of a process towards ending the occupation. But they couldn’t even give him a “shelf” agreement for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders and sharing Jerusalem. If Olmert couldn’t do even the fetish deal envisaged by Bush, then what could Abbas expect from an Israeli government that will be ten steps to the right?
As I wrote on TIME.com this week,
Many members of Abbas’ Fatah movement, seeing themselves steadily eclipsed by Hamas, are urging a break from their President’s strategy of negotiating with the Israelis and a return to confronting the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. Fatah leaders see the Israeli election as confirming what they already knew: there’s nothing to be gained by continuing the charade of U.S.-sponsored talks about talks with the Israelis. Palestinians could not get what they needed from Olmert, and they know that his successors will take even more of a hard line. From the Palestinian perspective, the past eight years of waiting for negotiations with Israel have left Abbas empty-handed, while the latest Gaza conflict has put Hamas in a stronger position than ever in the court of Palestinian public opinion. Despite the violence by Hamas gunmen against Fatah activists in Gaza since the Israeli offensive, many in Fatah view their movement’s only hope of re-establishing a leading role in Palestinian politics as being to join a unity government with Hamas — and begin to directly challenge the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. The fact that such a sentiment coincides with Israel’s electing a more hawkish government suggests that the Middle East could be in for a long, hot summer.
Fatah is to hold a national congress next month, in Cairo or Amman, and while Abbas might survive as its titular head, the mantle of leadership will pass to the Barghouti generation. The terms of the unity government being brokered by Egypt include planning new elections, and many in Fatah know that their chances of prevailing are slim — and improve somewhat if they oust Abbas and replace him with Barghouti as their presidential candidate. Strategically, Barghouti may have more in common with the Hamas pragmatists than with those who have been toeing Washington’s line for the past eight years.
Even Abbas is making a turn, calling for a Likud-led Israel to face diplomatic isolation. And Fatah officials began petitioning the International Criminal Court in the Hague to investigate war crimes allegations in Gaza.
In other words, Fatah — whether on the diplomatic front, or on the organizational front on the ground in the West Bank — looks set to try and redeem itself by reverting to the path of struggle.
Israel abandoned Oslo eight years ago when Sharon was elected; now, the Palestinian leadership appear to realize that it’s over, and that there’s no diplomatic route in the near term to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. For the new Administration in Washington, that means their working assumptions need to be those of 1988, not 1998 or 2008.