RAMALLAH, West Bank — There was a great deal of hype surrounding the March 17 White House meeting between President Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; many thought it would be a critical juncture in the negotiations sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry. But Palestinians didn’t seem particularly interested in following it.
Perhaps they believe that Mr. Kerry will not make a breakthrough while the Israeli government continues to increase settlements and exacerbate the occupation. Or maybe they have become bored by a “peace process” that has dragged on for over 20 years without bringing them any freedom or independence from an occupation that deepens with each passing day. Or perhaps it’s because they have been preoccupied by an internal political drama that is more compelling than yet another meeting in Washington.
The Obama-Abbas meeting happened without much fanfare or excitement. Washington and the rest of the world were preoccupied by Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and its repercussions for international relations. Still, the American administration requested that the Palestinian side remain silent about the details of the meeting, and not leak anything to the press, so that Mr. Kerry’s efforts would not be jeopardized.
In the West Bank, the most tangible sign that a meeting was being held were the efforts to gather crowds to express their support for Mr. Abbas as he left for, and returned from, Washington. Public-sector workers and students in public schools were given a half-day off in order to march in demonstrations that have become so mundane an occurrence that they no longer mean anything to most Palestinians or to others.
In the Gaza Strip, Hamas’s security forces clamped down on attempts by Fatah, Mr. Abbas’s political party, to show support for him. Meanwhile, Gazans were more concerned about two things: whether the latest surge in military activity between Gaza and Israel was going to become an open war, and how the electricity supply to the strip was to be rationed after Qatari gas supplies for Gaza’s main power plant ran out.
For most Palestinians, the meeting was overshadowed by an ongoing battle within Fatah, which currently holds power in the West Bank. This is a long-simmering crisis that, like a volcano, spews burning lava in every direction when it erupts.
The crisis is the result of the bitter feud between Mr. Abbas and his backers within Fatah and Mohammad Dahlan and his supporters. Mr. Dahlan was Mr. Abbas’s closest ally a few years ago and the shining star within Fatah. During that period he headed the Authority’s security forces in Gaza until Hamas took over in 2007, forcing him to reside in the West Bank. Due to the power struggle between the two, Mr. Dahlan lost his membership in Fatah and was expelled from its central committee in 2011. He was also forced to leave the country and is currently residing in the United Arab Emirates.
Before departing for Washington, Mr. Abbas gave a speech to Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, the movement’s general assembly. Although the speech was supposed to be private, a calculated decision was made to air it on the Authority’s official television station two days later. The contents of that speech astonished Palestinians because, instead of focusing on the Washington meeting, Mr. Abbas devoted his speech to launching the strongest attack yet against Mr. Dahlan. He barraged him with different accusations including: the responsibility of losing Gaza Strip to Hamas; implicating him in the Israeli murder of Salah Shehadeh, a leading member of Hamas; and insinuating his involvement in the murder of Yasir Arafat.
Following the broadcast, Mr. Dahlan went on an Egyptian satellite channel and for two-and-a-half hours accused Mr. Abbas of corruption and of squandering Palestinians’ rights. The war of words escalated and the supporters of each side inflamed the feud with an exchange of finger pointing. In the media and on social networks, Palestinians expressed their dissatisfaction while Mr. Abbas was in Washington.
It became clear to those who follow Palestinian politics that the struggle within Fatah over who will succeed the current president, who is close to 80 years old, has reached a boiling point. This perhaps explains Mr. Abbas’s insistence during his meeting with Mr. Obama that Israel free Palestinian prisoners — first and foremost Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti, who enjoys widespread popularity inside Fatah and among Palestinians. If released, many think Mr. Abbas might block Mr. Dahlan’s ambitions for the Palestinian presidency by indicating that Mr. Barghouti is his chosen successor.
The Abbas-Obama meeting was old news by the time the situation started to calm down and the media clamor had quieted in the West Bank and Gaza.
In Washington, the Palestinian president was pressed to “take some tough political decisions and risks” to advance the peace process. Mr. Abbas was able to stand his ground on several points, refusing to recognize the Jewishness of the Israeli state or abandon the Palestinian right of return. But it appears he was unable to resist the most significant pressure applied, which involved extending the negotiations — a move he had until then opposed.
Instead of refusing to extend negotiations, the Palestinian stance shifted toward negotiating conditions of an extension, chief among them, the release of prisoners.
A simmering feud within the Palestinian political establishment has now led to a major shift in the Palestinian position toward the negotiation process.
And the new status quo is likely exactly what the Obama administration wanted. It is fully aware of the limitations of Mr. Kerry’s peace initiative; realistically, Mr. Kerry has been left to manage the crisis. And extending the negotiations is an excellent way to avoid the embarrassment of a potential deadlock.
By: Ali Jarbawi
Ali Jarbawi is a political scientist at Birzeit University and a former minister of the Palestinian Authority. This article was translated by Ghenwa Hayek from the Arabic.
Originally posted in NYT, Palestinian Family Feuding
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