The clash between Abu-1 and Abu-2 é Abu-Amar v. Abu-Mazen é is not a personal matter, as it is presented by journalists in Israel and all over the world. Of course, the egos of the two personalities do play a role, as in all political fights. But the controversy itself goes much deeper. It reflects the unique situation of the Palestinian people.
An upper-class Palestinian defined it this week on Israeli television as “the move from the culture of revolution to the culture of a state.” Meaning: the Palestinian war of liberation has come to an end, and now the time has come to put the affairs of state in order. Therefore, Yasser Arafat (Abu-Amar), who represents the first, must go and Mahmud Abbas (Abu-Mazen), who represents the second, must take over.
No description could be further from reality. The Palestinian war of liberation is now at its height. Perhaps it has never been at a more critical stage. The Palestinians are faced with existential threats: ethnic cleansing (called in Israel “transfer”) or imprisonment in powerless, Bantustan-style enclaves.
How has this illusion – that the national struggle is over and that the time has come to turn to administrative matters – arisen?
The situation of the Palestinian people is indeed unique. As far as I am aware, it has no parallel in history. Following the Oslo agreements, a kind of Palestinian mini-state came into being, consisting of several small enclaves on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These enclaves have to be administered. But the national Palestinian aim é a viable, independent state in all the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including East Jerusalem é is far from being attained. In order to achieve it, an arduous national struggle lies ahead.
Thus, two different é and contradictory é structures exist side by side: a national liberation movement requiring strong and authoritative leadership, and a mini-state that needs a regular, democratic and transparent administration.
Arafat represents the first. He is much more than a “symbol”, as he is often described. He is a leader possessing an unequalled moral authority among his own people and vast experience in international affairs. He has steered the Palestinian national movement away from subjugation to Arab and international interests and led it from near oblivion to the threshold of independence.
Abu-Mazen and his colleagues represent the second reality. They have no solid base among their own people, but do have connections with powerful players, most importantly the United States and Israel, with all that entails.
The debate between the two hinges on an assessment of the intifada. For two and a half years, the Palestinian people have been suffering immense losses: about 2500 people killed, ten thousand disabled and injured, a whole stratum of young leaders wiped out, the economy destroyed, immense damage to property. Was this worthwhile? Can it continue?
Abu-Mazen and his supporters say No. They believe that the whole fight was a mistake. Even before the present debate, Abu-Mazen called for the cessation of the “armed intifada“. He believes that the Palestinians can achieve more in negotiations with the US and in a political process with Israel. He relies on the mainstream Israeli peace movement and personalities like ex-Labor minister Yossi Beilin. In his opinion, the violence undermines the political process and harms the Palestinian people.
Abu-Mazen’s opponents deny all this. In their opinion, not only has the intifada not failed, but, quite the contrary, has had important results: the Israeli economy is in deep crisis, the tensions in Israeli society have reached a peak, Israel’s image in the world has sunk from a democracy defending itself to a ruthless occupier. Security has worsened to the point that there are armed security guards everywhere. The casualties seem to them a price worth paying. If the war of attrition continues, they believe, Israeli will in the end be compelled to accede to the minimum demands of the Palestinians (a state, the Green Line border, Jerusalem as a shared capital, dismantling the settlements and a negotiated solution of the refugee question.)
Moreover, Abu-Mazen’s opponents believe that his basic assumptions are wrong. The US will never pressure Israel, whose agents control Washington. Israel will never concede anything without being forced to do so. Sharon will continue building settlements, creating facts on the ground and pulling the land out from under the feet of the Palestinian people even while pretending to conduct negotiations.
Abu-Mazens position may, perhaps, have been stronger if the US and Israel had not been so obviously trying to impose him on the Palestinian people. The examples of poor Karzai in Afghanistan and the miserable gang of émigrés whom the Americans brought to Iraq are certainly not helping Abu-Mazen, despite his being one of the founders of the Fatah movement.
A large group of mediators have tried to achieve a compromise. They say, in effect, that there is an ideal division of labor: Arafat will continue to lead the struggle for liberation, Abu-Mazen will administer the Palestinian enclaves.
However, this raises many practical problems. For example: where will the money for the liberation struggle come from? What will happen to the armed organizations, and who will control the security forces? Who will possess the supreme authority é the Palestinian people as a whole, including the Diaspora (Arafat as Chairman of the PLO) or the administration of the enclaves (Abu-Mazen)?
And, most important of all: would Abu-Mazen be prepared to risk a fratricidal war? The US and Israel demand that he liquidate the armed organizations and confiscate their weapons, even before the Palestinians move one step towards a state of their own. This will, of course, involve a bloody internecine struggle that will fill Sharon’s government with joy and consolidate its position still further. Or should national unity be maintained, at least until Israel stops all settlement activity and agrees to a Palestinian state in all the occupied territories?
This debate is much wider than the personal struggle between Abu and Abu, ego against ego. For the Palestinian people, this is a debate about existential questions é just like similar debates in the Jewish community in Palestine, that ended only with the founding of the State of Israel.