Can Palestinian leaders unite around a common vision?

By Ghassan Rubeiz
November 23, 2011

It has been announced that the two major Palestinian leaders, Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Mash’al, are meeting in Cairo this week to achieve “reconciliation”.

As President of Palestinian Authority ( PA) and chief of Fatah Party, Abbas rules over a designated area in the (occupied) West Bank. Mash’al is the chief of the political bureau of Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement.

What would most effectively unite Palestinians is not holding elections, reconciliation of leaders or the appointment of a new Prime Minister. Unity is best achieved when the people collectively build a common vision on how to tackle the occupation.

After five years of indulgence in divisive politics, the leaderships of Hamas and Fatah are going to a troubled Egypt to reconcile personal differences, negotiate steps for unity and plan elections.

The two rival groups are meeting on 24 November 2011 to set a date for legislative and presidential elections this spring and to negotiate on the membership of a transitional cabinet representing all groups.

Is the meeting going to be primarily about form or substance? True, elections are overdue and a unity government is necessary. But there is no sign yet that the leaders attending this meeting will be tackling the root cause that has kept the two sides from cooperating over the past two decades: Fatah seeks to achieve peace through negotiations and Hamas continues to mobilise to liberate Palestine through force. This formula of discord in mindset continues to delay liberation and embolden the occupation.

While Fatah has been too dependent on promises from the West, Hamas has been too close to troubled Middle East regimes.

The incentives that brought the two leaders to negotiate differences seem to be purely pragmatic. Hamas fears losing the support of Syria and Iran as these two regimes face growing domestic, regional and international pressure. Similarly, the Palestinian Authority feels abandoned by the Obama administration and humiliated by the Netanyahu government. Tel Aviv has already stopped reimbursing the PA for collected taxes contributed by Palestinians. And Washington is about to cut funding to Ramallah, the West Bank government.

The Cairo meeting has been portrayed as an effort in “reconciliation”; in reality the encounter is about insecure leaders taking shelter in a common action which has the appearance of a Palestinian Arab Spring.

What is happening this week is not going to be earth shaking. In May, a reconciliation agreement was signed by Abbas and Mash’al . But soon after, something went wrong which thwarted the finalisation of the agreement. The two sides could not agree on the identity of the future Prime Minister. Now this obstacle has been overcome. It has been finally agreed that the Prime Minister of the new government will no longer be Salam Fayyad; Hamas considers the former PM unsuitable.

While Fayyad may quit, his policies may not disappear. The departure of a leader who has over the past five years reinforced the culture of peaceful resistance and modern state building will leave a positive legacy.

In challenging the occupation, Palestinians are gradually moving in the direction of non-violence. A September 2011 poll indicates that 83 per cent of Palestinians believe that Palestine, as a state, should apply for membership in the UN. Moreover, 67 per cent believe that civil disobedience or negotiation, rather armed struggle, is bound to force Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories [Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Palestinian Policy and Survey Research Center in Ramallah].

At times, brilliant ideas come from the least likely places. Five years ago, from an Israeli prison, the idea of non-violent resistance was dramatically flagged by a charismatic Palestinian leader. If there is one single leader who could unite Palestinians today, it would be Marwan Barghouti.

From his Israeli cell, Barghouti issued a letter in July 2006 appealing for peace. His peace plan is based on a two state solution, 1967 borders and acceptance of a state with a Jewish character. The letter, which was intended to be circulated for approval by all Palestinians through a referendum, was signed by inmates representing Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The referendum idea, which President Abbas favored at the time, was soon overshadowed by negative events. A promising initiative was nipped in the bud.

Still, narrowing the difference between Hamas and Fatah on the logistics of the elections and governance does not resolve the question of how to liberate the land from the occupier and conserve Palestinian energy in state building.

Perhaps Abbas and Mash’al may reconsider the idea of reviving Barghouti’s referendum as part of the election process, in order to unite Palestine at the grassroots.

The Arab Spring has not come to Palestine yet. When it does, reform will emerge from the street.


© Ghassan Rubeiz is a Lebanese American commentator on the Middle East who lives in Florida, USA. In the 1980s he was Middle East Secretary for the World Council of Churches.

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