When the Fatah Central Committee convened its sixth party conference last month in Bethlehem — the first such meeting in twenty years and the first ever held on Palestinian Authority territory — one might have expected a bit of soul-searching. After all, more than two decades after the Palestine Liberation Organization and its main political faction met America’s prerequisites for a dialogue by rhetorically recognizing Israel’s right to exist, renouncing terrorism, and accepting United Nations Resolution 242, a casual observer might assume that a re-examination of revolutionary principles was in order.
Yet nothing of the sort occurred. That is because in recent years, Fatah has fragmented — not just into two or three rival camps, but into multiple corrupt and competing power centers, most of which continue to drift towards extremism rather than moderation. In fact, the divisions within Fatah, to say nothing of the rift between the Palestinian Authority and its main Islamist opposition, Hamas, challenge the basic assumptions about Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking now in vogue in Washington and elsewhere. Simply put, both process and outcome are defined very differently in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Gaza City.
To grasp this, one need look no further than the three central issues at the core of the conflict: territory, Jerusalem, and refugees. In September 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went further than any of his predecessors in offering the Palestinians 93.6 percent of the disputed territories, along with a land swap of 5.8 percent and a safe-passage corridor from Gaza to the West Bank. And, Olmert made clear, while Israel would not formally recognize the Palestinian claim to a “right of return,” it would accept the return of a defined and limited number of refugees as a humanitarian gesture. For good measure, Olmert even threw in concessions regarding Jerusalem, agreeing to the historic step of joint administration by Israel, Jordan, the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
Fatah’s response spoke volumes. As Muhammad Dahlan, former Gaza strongman who serves as prominent member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council (now newly elected to Fatah’s twenty-one seat Central Committee), put it earlier this year, when asked about the major quarrel taking place in Palestinian politics: “[We] are not asking Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Rather we are asking Hamas not to do so, because Fatah never recognized Israel’s right to exist.”
Dahlan’s was hardly an isolated sentiment, but an accurate restatement of party dogma. Fatah’s bylaws still declare that the “path of popular armed revolution is the only, and inevitable, way to liberate Palestine.” Other sections call for strengthening ties with countries opposed to “the Zionists,” rejecting UN resolutions, and eliminating Israel through the use of force.
Indeed, as the Fatah Congress eloquently confirmed, the only movement from the political positions held by the Palestinian leadership in 2000-01 has been backward. Jerusalem and its environs are still considered solely Palestinian, and the future capital of their state; all Israeli settlements must be dismantled; and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel remains sacred — and unlimited. And, despite signs of cosmetic political change, courtesy of the Fatah Congress, there are precious few signs of a rethinking of the PLO’s basic narrative and red lines; the main issue today remains not whether the Palestinian leadership will recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but whether it recognizes Israel’s right to exist in any form whatsoever.
All this undoubtedly complicates the Obama administration’s current approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first stage of the current White House plan calls on Israel to halt all settlement activity, including natural growth (i.e., having babies).
Concurrently, the Palestinian Authority must end official incitement and reform its security services. To the extent that these unrelated commitments are the key obligations today, progress is being made. But the connection between such tactical changes and a more flexible negotiating position on the part of the Palestinian Authority is tenuous at best.
Then there is the problem of a “unity government.” The Obama administration has taken to promoting reconciliation between the Fatah-led Palestinian government and Hamas in hopes of fostering a more pragmatic political approach from Hamas. What it is finding instead is that Fatah’s factions are growing more radical and extreme. In fact, with the exception of their views on Islam’s role in Palestinian society, there seems to be very little difference these days between Fatah and Hamas.
With “moderates” like these, who are the extremists?