Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The President insisted that Israel make “difficult steps” including clearing the way for a Palestinian state. However, Obama appears to be turning a blind eye to the fact that there does not exist a Palestinian political faction capable of state-building, so long as its two largest factions, Hamas and Fatah, remain deadlocked in a civil war. Indeed, their long-standing struggle, which culminated in civil war in June 2007, has left the Palestinians with a de-facto Hamas-led Gaza Strip government and a de-facto Fatah-led West Bank government.
Amidst this deadlock, Palestinians are increasingly looking for new leadership through what they call “third party” alternatives. However, the credentials and experience of these organizations have yet to be tested, raising further questions about the Palestinians’ ability to navigate their way out of the current impasse.
Palestinian National Initiative
Palestinian National Initiative (PNI), al-Mubadara al-Wataniyya al-Filistiniyya, proposes full peace with Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and East Jerusalem, in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. PNI advocates non-violence, civil disobedience, and secularism, and purports to be a democratic coalition that includes leftists, secularists, unionists, and women. According to its website, the immediate objective of PNI includes eliminating corruption, preventing the abuse of power, reforming the courts, improving government institutions, and reorganizing the security apparatus.
PNI’s founder, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, was born in Jerusalem in 1954. Barghouthi studied medicine in the former Soviet Union and received a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University. From 1978 to 1988, Barghouthi worked as a medical doctor at the Maqassed Hospital in Jerusalem. In 1979, Barghouthi organized the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, a grassroots healthcare clinic.
In June 2002, Barghouthi co-founded PNI with other intellectuals including Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi, a physician from Gaza, controversial professor of literature Edward Said, and Ibrahim Dakkak, an engineer from Jerusalem.
In the 2005 Palestinian presidential elections, Barghouthi ran as an independent candidate and was the runner-up, with 19 percent of the vote, losing to Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, who captured 62 percent. The following year, in the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Barghouthi ran as a PNI candidate and secured a mere two seats in the 132-seat parliament. This was a poor showing; Hamas took 74 seats and Fatah captured 45.
While PNI performed poorly at the polls, it continues to hustle for Palestinian support. In December 2007, more than 500 people – including international and Israeli solidarity group representatives – attended the PNI conference in Bethlehem. The central theme was the perceived need for effective non-violent resistance against Israeli rule.
In January 2009, Barghouthi led a PNI delegation to help mediate reconciliation talks in Cairo between Hamas and Fatah. Although the two sides failed to reconcile, Barghouthi claimed to have made progress after both sides agreed in principle to form a transitional government that would operate until presidential and parliamentary elections. PNI continues to spread its message at forums and seminars and through its website, www.almubadara.org.
Like the Palestinian National Initiative, Third Way (al-Tariq al-Thalith) seeks land for peace with Israel in accordance with UN resolution 242 and 338. Third Way renounces violence and explicitly rejects the implementation of Islamic law (shari’a) in Palestinian society. Third Way also calls for a total reorganization of the Palestinian security apparatus by disbanding militias and uniting the multi-headed hydra of the Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces under a united, central command.
Formed in December 2005, Third Way includes many former Palestinian political figures and academics disillusioned with the dishonesty and incompetence of the Fatah-dominated PA and the violent extremism of Hamas. Ironically, members of this reform party worked directly for Yasser Arafat, who was widely seen as the primary source of PA corruption. This includes PLO Executive Committee member Yasser Abd Rabbo and former Arafat spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi.
Third Way’s founder, Salam Fayyad, a native of Tulkarm in the West Bank, received a PhD in economics from the University of Texas. Fayyad worked from 1987 to 1995 at the World Bank in Washington, DC. From 1995 to 2001, he worked for the International Monetary Fund in Jerusalem. In 2002, after the George W. Bush administration singled out Arafat for corruption, Fayyad served as PA finance minister, and was often at odds with Arafat over the implementation of economic reform until the Palestinian leader’s death in 2004.
In the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Fayyad and Ashrawi represented Third Way under a platform of democracy advocacy, economic reform, and public security restructuring. Like PNI, Third Way had only marginal electoral success; it also secured only two seats.
In the aftermath of the June 2007 civil war between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip, Fayyad’s reformist track record prompted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to nominate him for prime minister of the PA. Fayyad left Third Way to shepherd the emergency West Bank government. In this capacity, Fayyad has sought continued reform, and has been instrumental in assisting United States Lieutenant General Keith Dayton to restore order in the West Bank cities of Nablus, Jenin, and Hebron.
Since Fayyad’s ascendance, Third Way has ceased to be a functioning party. It consists of two members, Fayyad and Ashrawi, and lacks a party headquarters or regional branches. Ashrawi told Al Jazeera in December 2008 that she would not run in future Palestinian elections. Thus, Third Way appears to be Fayyad’s way of remaining neutral amidst continued wrangling between Hamas and Fatah.
Formed in March 2007, Wasatia is the first Islamist religious party to emerge in the Palestinian territories that advocates a peaceful settlement with Israel. In Arabic, Wasatia means “middle of the road.” Though an Islamist party, Wasatia rejects Hamas and seeks to attract moderate Christian members as well as Muslims. Its supporters include religious leaders, teachers, former prisoners, women, intellectuals, and youth from both the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
Wasatia’s platform calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Wasatia seeks to find solutions to the serious economic, social and political crises plaguing Palestinian society. It is the only Palestinian party that does not endorse the settlement in Israel of the estimated 4 million Palestinians who claim refugee status.
Wasatia’s founder, Dr. Mohammed Dajani, was born in Jerusalem in 1946. He earned one PhD in international political relations from the University of Texas and another in political science from the University of South Carolina. Dajani has authored several books and is director of the American Studies Institute at Al-Quds University.
Unlike Palestinian National Initiative and Third Way, Wasatia was created after the last parliamentary elections, and has yet to prove its mettle at the ballot box. Wasatia’s platform is available at www.bigdreamsmallhope.com.
Like the other third parties, Palestine Forum (Muntada Filastin) renounces violence, recognizes Israel, and sees itself as a moderate, pragmatic alternative to both Fatah and Hamas. Palestine Forum calls for an independent Palestinian state in all the territories before the 1967 war, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and seeks to uphold the principles of International law and UN resolutions.
Palestine Forum proposes a negotiated settlement on the Palestinian refugees in accordance with UN Resolution 194 in exchange for full peace with Israel. It stipulates that Hamas-Fatah unity has the potential to strengthen negotiation efforts with Israel. It also asks Israel to begin granting concessions to Abbas before unity is achieved, including the removal of all major West Bank checkpoints.
According to its website, Palestine Forum is a “Democratic National Framework with political, economic, social and cultural dimensions intended for all Palestinians wherever they reside, in Palestine or in the Diaspora.” The site states that the party seeks to build a modern democratic society that upholds human dignity, egalitarianism, equal opportunities, and freedom for all citizens without discrimination. It supports peaceful dialogue and resolution of all disputes without resort to violence, and opposes tribalism so as to ensure the widest public participation.
Munib al-Masri founded Palestine Forum in November 2007. Al-Masri, a 73-year old billionaire entrepreneur from Nablus, studied geology at the University of Texas. Throughout a long career in business, al-Masri founded the Engineering & Development Group (Edgo), the Palestine Development and Investment Company (PADICO), the Palestinian phone company Paltel, as well as the Palestine Securities Exchange stock market in Nablus.
Like Wasatia, Palestine Forum was established after the 2006 legislative elections and has not yet challenged Hamas or Fatah at the ballot box. The organization’s platform is available on the web at www.palestineforum.ps.
Future Prospects for Third Parties
While their emergence affirms a Palestinian desire for reform, it is highly unlikely that these third parties have the necessary grassroots support or influence to mount a meaningful challenge to Hamas and Fatah. The fact that these parties do not control militias contributes to their perceived weakness.
On the other hand, this is only the beginning. The emergence of these democratic and nonviolent third parties is a recent development in Palestinian politics. As such, they have not had sufficient time to mature and gain support.
While he lacks headquarters and a website, Palestinian analysts believe that Salam Fayyad’s Third Way party is the only serious contender against Hamas and Fatah in future electoral contests. Indeed, both Hamas and Fatah view Fayyad as a threat, particularly because he can run a campaign on a platform based on past achievements.
Parliamentary and presidential elections are now slated for January 2010. Given the ongoing battles between Hamas and Fatah, they may be postponed. If they go forward, Hamas and Fatah could lose votes to Fayyad. Whether this would significantly change the balance of power in Palestinian politics remains to be seen.