Palestinian Unity: "No Plan B"

"A 'unity government' or 'technocracy'--as the Palestinians called it yesterday--is a nice but empty headline," Aluf Benn writes in this morning's Haaretz. He goes on:

In real life, there is no a-political rule and there are no egalitarian governments. There is always a ruling side with partners being dragged behind it. The stronger, more organized, better armed side, i.e. Hamas, will rule the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, not 'technocrats.' This is how the communists took over East Europe after WWII.

Benn is putting Israeli fears in a nutshell--not unreasonable fears--but also revealing Israeli reflexes about Palestinian politics, and politics in general, perhaps. Aren't the choices complex for Palestinians? You hit the phrases "real life" and "better armed" and you can almost hear the Sabra's mind going click. Of course Hamas will win. That's the way the world works. Don't be naive. Think of Communists in Eastern Europe. Never miss a chance to miss...

IT IS TIME to get real, which is not quite the same as what Benn means by "real life." Is Hamas stronger and more organized than Fatah? No. Fatah still dominates the institutions of the PLO. It is still Palestine's incumbent, the custodian of its history and manager of its patronage. As Khalil Shikaki's most recent polls show, Hamas has lost popular support in Gaza since the split. Insiders suggest this is not only because its confrontations with Israel have produced devastation, but also because of its religious and other repressions and the corrupt profiteering of Hamas leaders from the tunnels. Nor has Hamas's patron in Damascus exactly distinguished himself. As the Arab spring evolved, there have been models of "steadfastness" that did not have an Islamist cast.

As of March, even after the collapse of Abbas's strategy of engaging with Israel, Shakiki's polls show the president winning the presidential election in both the West Bank and Gaza, though Fatah's Marwan Barghouti would win more handily. In Gaza, about 70 percent say the Haniyeh government has been "so-so" to "very bad." Only about 50 percent of West Bankers say this of Salaam Fayyad's government. Over 70 percent of Gazans believed that a Fatah win would be necessary to lift any potential international boycott of Palestine.

Abbas's police force in the West Bank is armed well-enough: not nearly as well-armed as it might be (Abbas complained to me in January that, because of American caution, his police force has one rifle for every two officers), but capable of holding its own. And Hamas has been infiltrated by both Fatah and Israeli collaborators in the West Bank; Fayyad has thrown a good many Hamas people in jail, which is why, surprisingly, more West Bankers than Gazans are dubious about press and other freedom in the West Bank.

For God's sake, Communists took power in Eastern Europe because Stalin's troops occupied these countries. What significant prestige Salaam Fayyad has lost since moving from Finance Minister to Prime Minister has to do precisely with Israeli troops occupying his country; though most appreciate the law and order, Fayyad's police, unfairly perhaps, is regarded as something imposed by an outside, hostile power.

WHAT BENN REALLY means, I guess, is that Hamas has become the symbol of armed resistance to occupation--because of its missiles, rejectionism, bloody-mindedness, etc. In this he is surely right. And the polls over the years show that Hamas popularity rises inversely with pessimism about peace, corresponding with Israeli hardening of occupation and settlement. Why then assume Hamas will "rule" unless Benn is also just assuming the status quo from which rejectionists gain? Why is unity a "bonanza" for Netanyahu and Lieberman not a "bonanza" for Hamas?

Perhaps Benn is not intending this, but you read the phrase "stronger, more organized, better armed" and the image evoked is of a defeated people, living in rubble, not terribly well-educated, surviving from day to day; a people mad as hell about Zionism, or the occupation, or from being pushed around--in any case, tolerant of atrocities, and easily impressed by the militia and soup kitchen at the mosque.

Some Palestinians fit the template, no doubt. But what Benn is missing is how Fatah--which began as a secular nationalist insurgency--has over the last decade become closely associated with international sources of funding and investment. By implication, Fatah now represents the power and prestige of the Palestinian middle class, the dictatorship of its bourgeoisie: growing businesses and banks, women's emancipation, universities, infrastructure and construction projects, regional networks of intellectual capital, a sovereign wealth fund. It means impressive, corresponding successes of Palestinian entrepreneurs in Jordan. Fatah means the promise of gaining international recognition for a state that is not simply an armed gang with a grievance. It means "September."

BENN IS RIGHT that the word technocrat can be empty; but in this case it is a euphemism we need to understand. Abbas's Fatah now means an endorsement of a development path that puts emphasis on the expansion and valorization of the Palestinian private sector: the creation of a viable state's embryo within the occupation, though things cannot stop here. Abbas, and Fayyad, too, know that the womb is too small and inhospitable for this embryo to survive without an end to occupation.

Unity means that Abbas has reached the limits of this strategy, since talks with Olmert ended, and Obama has proven unwilling to stop Netanyahu's settlement project. Nevertheless, Abbas's Fatah symbolizes building, diplomatic victories, streams of funding, which are still more impressive than anything Hamas can point to. (A third of West Bankers say "the spread of unemployment and poverty" is the biggest problem they face, significantly greater than even the occupation and disunity, though you double-click on this and you find that poverty and the occupation's crimping of businesses are intertwined.)

It is therefore very premature to write Abbas and Fatah off. Yes, young people in the West Bank find Hamas's hard-line message appealing, the way young Israelis favor the right. But almost 50 percent of Palestinians say the top priority is "Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital." Only about 25 percent suggest the priority is "obtaining the right of return to refuges to their 1948 towns and villages," code for fighting Israel to the finish.

IN JANUARY, AFTER I interviewed Abbas in Amman, I went out to dinner with a friend, a senior member of Abbas's economic team. I asked him how, in view of what was unfolding in Egypt, he deals with the obvious pressures.

After all, I said, the development path of any emerging economy requires entry into the global system. This is bound to produce serious inequalities between educated and not-so-educated people, which in turn will produce explosive tensions. "But in the case of Palestine," I said, "the tensions have an extra dimension, for development is under occupation. Inequalities seem to be a product of occupation, and entrepreneurs getting rich seem like Quislings." My friend thought for a moment, then looked me sadly in the eye. "I have no Plan B," he said. I could have kissed him.

Indeed, nobody in Palestine has a Plan B. "We don't really know what unity means, since the document is not yet released," Sam Bahour told me this morning. "But let's keep our eye on certain things. Did the unity agreement get a yellow light from the Americans? We'll see if the money keeps flowing. Fayyad is rumored to be out of the prime minister's job, because he has become a focus for Hamas resentment; but will he retain his job as Finance Minister? That would be a sign of continuity, though the circles of business people and professionals he represents will continue irrespective of whether or not he stays."
Other things to notice. The same way Hamas's patron in Syria has lost ground, Abbas lost his patron in Egypt. Perhaps unity is simply a way for both sides to reassess and save face. Certainly, the outcome of elections in Egypt will give heart to one side or another.

Abbas said the PLO, which he heads, would still be responsible for "handling politics, negotiations." But  unity agreement almost certainly means Abbas will not entertain new, direct negotiations with Israel, or perhaps even proximity talks with Mitchell, whose role Abbas just pooh-poohed to Dan Ephron in Newsweek. Then again, if a Palestinian state is indeed going to gain international recognition at the UN, the free election of a united people will be necessary sooner or later.

"The key is that the world should work with whatever government is elected," Bahour, no supporter of Hamas, told me. "Even Hamas people will quickly learn the facts of life. The first thing Hamas people did when they entered the government in 2006 was approve a contract with an Israeli oil supplier. They will learn responsibility now as well."