Slouching in Bethlehem

Opinion

By Lisa Goldman

Published August 12, 2009, issue of August 21, 2009.
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An hour into Mahmoud Abbas’s address to the 2,000-odd delegates at the Sixth Fatah Congress in Bethlehem, the Palestinian Authority president showed no sign of wrapping things up. The audience, chain-smoking, chatting and occasionally applauding with dubious enthusiasm, seemed to be channeling elements of a Soviet Congress and a Che Guevara fan club reunion. A smiling woman moved around the auditorium, reaching into a huge plastic bag to hand out kaffiyehs decorated with the colors of the Palestinian flag. They bore a label that read, in Hebrew, “Made in China, imported by the Palestinian Authority.”

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Turning to an Israeli colleague, I muttered that Abbas’s speech, which seemed to be primarily a detailed history of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was the longest and most tedious I’d ever heard.

“It’s been an hour and he’s only at 1964,” I complained. “Wait,” my colleague said, seemingly without irony. “He’s almost at the 1970s. That’s when it will get interesting.”

The Fatah congress was a big deal. The party had not met to elect new leaders since 1989, when the Palestinian leadership in exile was located in Tunis. Since then, of course, a lot has happened: the Oslo accords, the disastrous Second Intifada, the death of Yasser Arafat and the rise of Hamas. The world was watching as Fatah delegates from all over the Palestinian Diaspora gathered in Bethlehem to try to chart a new course for their flagging movement.

In Israel, the focus was on whether or not the secular, American-backed Fatah party was a partner for peace.

For the Israeli right, the answer was “no.” Likud minister Yuli Edelstein pointed to Abbas’s statement — made during the second hour of his speech — that armed resistance to the Israeli occupation continued to be an option. Edelstein concluded that the congress was “a declaration of war.”

For the Israeli left, the answer was “yes.” The liberal daily Haaretz noted that the congress affirmed Fatah’s support for a two-state solution. It editorialized that the gathering sent Israelis “an unequivocal message: The Palestinian national movement’s strategic choice is still two states for two peoples.”

While Israeli politicians and journalists were parsing the words from the podium, many Palestinians were rolling their eyes. Over in the relatively smoke-free media room on Manger Square, reporters were watching Abbas’s speech on television, drinking coffee as they typed their stories on laptops. A couple of Palestinian colleagues, friends I hadn’t seen in months, greeted me in broken Hebrew. Both were slumped gloomily in their chairs, arms folded across their chests as they watched Abbas’s endless speech. “Look at that,” one of them said in a disgusted tone, as he gestured toward the screen. “The auditorium isn’t even full. That party is dead.”

Neither of my colleagues was a Hamas supporter. They were secular and Western-oriented. They had been stuck for years in the West Bank, forbidden to enter Jerusalem, not earning enough to afford a trip abroad; and they longed for an improvement in their lives. Watching the well-dressed Fatah leaders shuttle in armored black luxury cars between their plush accommodations at the Intercontinental Hotel and the conference auditorium, where they gave irrelevant speeches, my colleagues saw a party that no longer represented them. Yet there was no real alternative.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Fatah was the dominant force in the Palestinian national movement. Today, mired in corruption, nepotism and infighting, it can no longer claim to represent the majority of Palestinians.

In some respects, the rise and fall of Fatah parallels the history of Israel’s Labor party. For nearly three decades, Labor governed Israel without serious challenge. Yet today, Labor is a spent force. Its current leader, Ehud Barak, led the party to a stunning defeat in the last elections, with Labor receiving the lowest number of seats in its history.

The difference, of course, is that Israelis have a state, with attendant democratic institutions. Along with Labor’s loss of popular support, it lost its hold on power. Fatah, on the other hand, lost the 2006 parliamentary elections, but it has managed to retain its control of the West Bank, with American and European backing and the help of some decidedly undemocratic methods of governance.

At the party congress, Abbas was re-confirmed as party chairman, in typical Fatah form with no one challenging him for the position. Some observers did see a silver lining in the election of members of Fatah’s so-called “young guard” to senior leadership positions. It is important to remember, however, that many of these figures are in fact long-established political players who themselves are well-versed in the ways of corruption and nepotism.

At present, for those of us who hope for a negotiated settlement between Palestinians and Israelis, Fatah is the only real option. Hamas, with its militant Islamist ideology and refusal to either renounce violence or accept Israel’s right to exist, cannot be a partner in diplomatic negotiations for a two-state solution. That does not mean, however, that we should harbor any illusions about Fatah.

After Abbas had finished speaking, an Israeli-Arab colleague looked up from his laptop and asked me what I thought of the address. “I think,” I said, “that if this is the way things are going to continue, there will never be a Palestinian state.”

“I think,” he answered, “that you are right.”

Lisa Goldman is a freelance journalist living in Tel Aviv.


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