Israel and Palestine: Questions of Leadership

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Two events in the last week of October threw the contradictory relationship between the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships into sharp relief.

On 26 October the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, voted in favour of Ariel Sharon's plan for unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip. A day later doctors advised Yasser Arafat to leave the government buildings in Ramallah where he has been besieged by Israeli forces for the past two years. His departure for urgent medical treatment prompted speculation over a struggle to succeed him among the Palestinian leadership.

For his part, Ariel Sharon needs the spectre of an 'intransigent' Arafat - in other words a Palestinian leader who is not yet prepared to sign a final surrender - to sell the idea of disengagement to the Israeli public. Yet the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, and in particular the leaders of the mainstream nationalist movement, Fatah, are still desperate to find a way back to meaningful negotiations over the creation of a Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories. The two figures likely to dominate the Palestinian leadership during Arafat's illness, Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei, are both committed to this strategy. Their problem lies in the fact that Ariel Sharon's policies - the invasions of Palestinian towns, regular assassinations of Palestinian leaders, and the construction of the wall around the West Bank - are designed to make the emergence of a viable Palestinian state impossible.

Disengagement must be understood in this context. Presented in the international press as a generous gesture by Israel, in reality disengagement aims at strengthening Israeli control of the West Bank. Gaza has never been as important to Israel as the West Bank. The strip lacks the water and rich farmland of the Jordan Valley. The proposed dismantling of 17 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, which has provoked controversy among the right wing inside Israel, demonstrates that the Israeli army has proved it can control Gaza from its heavily fortified borders. In addition, among the scenarios discussed over the summer was the proposal that the Egyptian security services help the Palestinian Authority in policing Gaza, effectively a return to the era of Egyptian control of the area during the 1950s.

Disengagement may still fall victim to the struggles within Sharon's own party, the Likud, which rejected the proposal earlier this year. Former prime minister Binjamin Netanyahu sees the controversy as a convenient vehicle for the revival of his claim to the Likud leadership, and has threatened to resign from the cabinet unless the disengagement plans are put to the public in a referendum.

Meanwhile, Arafat's illness raises the possibility of a power struggle over the nomination of his successor. Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmad Qurei may be promoted as 'moderates' outside Palestine, but they lack popular support. It is the parties outside the historic leadership of the PLO, in particular the Islamist movement Hamas, which have benefited from the long-term decline of Palestine's 'ruling party' Fatah, which Arafat leads. Preparations were already under way for elections before the latest crisis, with 76 percent of eligible Palestinian voters registered. If the Islamists take part, Fatah's strength is likely to decline further. One potential outcome of disengagement - and no doubt one which Sharon would be keen to promote - would be a violent struggle for power in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is strong, leading to the consolidation of rival Palestinian leaderships controlling the two separate parts of the Occupied Territories.

Yet while the state of Arafat's health remains unclear, his potential successors may well pull together for the sake of national unity. One thing remains certain, however: Israel's attacks on Palestinian towns and camps will continue to take a bloody toll in lost lives and wrecked homes.