Palestinian Politics: Getting Interesting

Yesterday, the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project revealed that among six predominantly Islamic countries, Muslims in the Palestinian territories "voiced the most support for the assassinated al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden." Something like a third of respondents admired him and trusted that he "would do the right thing in world affairs."

Yesterday, also, Hamas officials in Gaza condemned the killing of bin Laden, and Ismail Haniya, the leader of the Hamas government about to sign a unity deal with Fatah, calling it a “continuation of the United States policy of destruction.” PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad strongly condemned bin Laden and applauded his death. But credible reports suggest Fayyad, among every Israeli's favorite Palestinians, will likely be ousted from the prime minister's job as a consequence of the deal.

It is hard to imagine more perfect evidence for Netanyahu's case that Israel has no partner; that the unity deal should result in the West's boycott of the Palestinian government; and that continuing the war on terror means strengthening Israel's hand in dealing with the territories. And just to show it is not afraid to lead, Netanyahu's government, led by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, announced that Israel has suspended the routine transfer of customs and VAT paid by Palestinians to the PA, some $88, or about 70 percent of PA revenues.

IT IS DANGEROUS to ignore this evidence. It is even more dangerous to ignore mitigating evidence. The Pew poll actually shows a precipitous drop in support for bin Laden since the dark days of the Intifada, when his popularity ran as high as 70 percent. Hamas's antipathy for Fayyad may be great; but even Fatah moderates from Gaza like former minister Sufian Abu Zaida--whom Hamas physically attacked a couple of years ago--openly support the unity deal (he reiterated this at a J Street panel in Jerusalem we appeared on last Saturday night); and Abu Zaida, too, expressed skepticism about Fayyad's legitimacy, since the prime minister was appointed by Abbas and has never been elected.

At the same time, Fayyad's popularity far outstrips that of Hamas. Pollster Faysal Awartani said 58 percent of respondents now say they want Fayyad to be head of the new government.  Fayyad himself insists that suspending payments should not stop unity. Abbas (as I wrote in my last post), would easily beat Hamas's Haniya. By the way, about a third of Israelis would like to see Rabin's assassin freed; the power of fanatic and orthodox nationalists in various Israeli governments has not prevented the world, or even Palestinians, from dealing with them.

The point is that Palestinian politics is on the verge of becoming electoral politics, which means on the verge of becoming interesting. Fatah is now the party of state building, Hamas, the party of resistance to occupation. Hamas has committed (or endorsed) terrorist acts and is still an unlikely partner for peacemaking. But it is a faction representing residual hatred and desperate poverty, not the secret psyche of every Palestinian. Thwart state building and economic growth as Steinitz is doing--increase Palestine's sense of isolation--and Hamas will gain ground, in spite of the drop in its standing. But show Palestinians that a state is imminent, and that Hamas has been compelled by Abbas's success in recruiting support from global powers, and Fatah gains.

Tomorrow we learn the details of the agreement and probably a good deal of the government's composition. Expect the finance ministry to remain in Fatah's hands, if not in Fayyad's. In any case, now, more than ever, Abbas's hands need to be strengthened. I trust Clinton's State Department understands this, even if Netanyahu's cabinet has other ideas.