Palestinian Leadership in Transition?


Israeli hardliner Ariel Sharon may have unwittingly sparked a far-reaching change in Palestinian political leadership by his provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem last September. His election as prime minister on February 6 will likely expedite the process. While the ruling coalition in Palestine has not lost overall power, a key shift in its composition seems to be underway as a direct result of the failure at the Camp David negotiations last July and the resulting uprising. The “Oslo elite” is losing ground to the grassroots activists-or the “intifada elite” who led the first uprising a decade ago-as a key social pillar of Palestinian leadership. If this transition continues, it will have a profound impact on Palestinian governance and the prospects for Middle East peace in the years ahead.

The Intifada Elite: 

The first Palestinian intifada of 1987 to 1993 was led by grassroots activists who mobilized Palestinian society throughout the 1980s. These activists, the “intifada elite,” were considerably different from the political leadership of the old landowning class that dominated Palestinian politics in the West Bank and Gaza from nineteenth century Ottoman rule into the 1970s. This new political elite, comprised of “insiders” who emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, competed with and ultimately displaced these landowning families.

The intifada elite emerged primarily through a Palestinian university system that did not exist before 1972. Prior to this date, university education was only open to the children of elites who could afford to send their children abroad. At the start of the intifada in 1987, nearly 16,000 Palestinians were enrolled in seven major Palestinian universities. Seventy percent of these students came from refugee camps, villages, and small towns-a startling transformation in Palestinian educated society. Universities (and, to a lesser degree, Israeli prisons) created the politicization, skills, and networks that enabled this class to assume authority in the 1980s and to launch the intifada in 1987.

The intifada elites were cadres from one of the four major factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Yet while they had close organizational, familial, and historical ties to the exiled PLO, their style of politics was considerably different. The intifada elites embedded their political vision in institutions, not personalities. Indeed, it was these “insiders” who built the institutions of Palestinian civil society in the 1980s, including labor unions, medical relief committees, agricultural extension committees, student groups, women’s committees, and community volunteer associations. Most of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Palestine today were either begun directly by this group in the 1980s or can trace their lineage to these early efforts. Second, the intifada elite was among the most ideologically democratic elites in the Arab world.

This group’s pattern of decentralized, devolved authority practiced during the intifada allowed the uprising to continue as long as it did in the face of fierce and often brutal Israeli repression. While schoolchildren throwing stones came to symbolize the intifada, the real work was the proto-state organization building going on behind the scenes by the intifada elite. Uprisings without organization rarely last beyond the initial moment of enthusiasm. While the nationalist camp clearly took the lead in organization building in Palestine, Islamist cadres of much the same sociological background also became involved, which led to the creation of Hamas in 1988.

The Oslo Elite:

This group is comprised of the 100,000 or so Palestinians who returned to Palestine with the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, particularly those “outsiders” who dominate the top levels of the PA bureaucracy. While the intifada elite led the revolution against occupation, it was the Oslo elite that promised to end both the intifada and the occupation. Their members include PA President Yasser Arafat, the heads (and many members) of most of the police and security services in Palestine, key cabinet ministers, most of the top government ministers, select political leaders not employed directly by the PA, prominent Fatah cadres brought back to Palestine, and certain parasitic business elites (those given monopoly rights by the PA over key commodities).

The principal political task undertaken by the returning regime was to neutralize the power of the intifada elite, even while celebrating its accomplishments, because it represented the only social force capable of threatening the consolidation of power by the new regime. Some members of the intifada elite were co-opted into the PA structure, although generally only at mid to lower levels, while others received more coercive treatment. Most importantly, Palestinian NGOs-the institutional expression of the intifada elite-were consistently attacked by the PA.

Nonetheless, the PA does have significant social bases of support. The four pillars of PA power are the security apparatuses, the Fatah political faction, the old landed elite, and the bloated bureaucracy whose primary function is to disburse patronage. The Oslo elites are primarily in the first and fourth of these pillars.

Included in the Oslo elite are well-known figures such as Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Nabil Sha’ath. Yet except for Arafat, none of the Oslo elite enjoys strong grassroots support in the West Bank and Gaza. Although Arafat has lost much of the legendary status he once had, his leadership is not yet at stake.

The Al-Aqsa Intifada: 

The failure of the Oslo elite to deliver Palestinian national rights through the Oslo negotiations was laid bare at Camp David. After these negotiations, there could be no misunderstanding of Israel’s vision for a final status agreement. Israel’s red lines discredited the Oslo elites who had promised their people a satisfactory settlement based on international law, not Israeli power. As a result, the intifada erupted.

Arafat neither purposively unleashed the uprising (as Thomas Friedman and others suggest) nor did he have great incentive to try to crush it. The al-Aqsa intifada is the predictable expression of anger by a people for whom negotiations to end a military occupation and restore legitimate rights failed. Had Arafat tried to crack down on the intifada, it likely would have led to a Palestinian civil war.

Significantly, this new uprising was led by elements of the intifada elite. The “outsider”-led police and security apparatuses played virtually no role in the early weeks of the al-Aqsa intifada, neither participating in it nor trying to stop it. Rather, “insider” Palestinians took the lead, as they had a decade earlier. Most prominent in this regard was Fatah’s tanzim, a politico-militia led by Fatah’s secretary-general in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouthi. Barghouthi is a young, charismatic leader of Fatah, a parliamentarian, and an activist who was expelled by Israel during the first intifada.

The prominent role played by Barghouthi and other intifada elites, combined with the virtual disappearance from public view of members of the Oslo elite (save Arafat) since September, portends a far reaching change in Palestinian politics-if it continues. If the Oslo elites remain politically marginalized, and the intifada elites continue to insert themselves into structures of authority, Palestinian politics will be transformed. The intifada elites are more democratic and more popular in Palestine than their Oslo counterparts.

The consequences could be profound in at least three ways. First, the intifada elites are less likely than the Oslo elites to accept a bad deal with Israel. While they are open to peace, they have also shown a willingness to confront Israel when necessary. Second, any peace deal struck with the intifada elites has a far greater chance of lasting and of being accepted by the Palestinian public. Their nationalist credentials are far stronger than the Oslo elites’, making their ability to “deliver” the Palestinian street much higher. Third, the incorporation of the intifada elites into the PA’s power structure would bode well for a stable-and perhaps even democratic-Palestine in the years ahead.

Glenn E. Robinson is an Associate Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and a Research Associate at the Center of Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley.

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