Beyond the Gaza Coup

JERUSALEM -- A few days ago I visited the Muka'ata, the presidential headquarters in Ramallah, to meet Dr. Rafik Husseini, Palestinian President Abu Mazen's chief of staff. It was my first visit to the Muka'ata since Yasser Arafat occupied it, and I saw a marked difference.

There was almost a yuppie professionalism about the place. When the taxi from Jerusalem dropped me off at the walled entrance to the compound, two cherub-faced guards asked my name and phoned one of Mazen's aides to confirm my appointment. I walked through the open cement yard, where a mosque is being constructed alongside Arafat's tomb, to the left of the presidential headquarters.

Once inside the headquarters, I was met by Amal Jadou, the director general of the presidential International Relations Unit. Jadou, 32-years old and fiercely secular, HAS two U.S. degrees -- one from Harvard Law School and one from the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University. A strong feminist, she has a lot to lose if the Hamas "coup," as the Fatah-supported government terms it, in Gaza spreads to the West Bank.

"The secularists understand that religion should be separate from the state," Husseini told me. "Abu Mazen prays five times a day but he doesn't mix religion [with politics]," he stressed. Husseini is a firmly rational man. With a Ph.D. in medical chemistry, his horizon stretches beyond the confines of Ramallah, the broader West Bank, and Gaza. The fight today, he tells me "is political Islam versus nationalism. If you are a nationalist, you care about Palestine as one state in the region versus part of an [Islamic] program for the whole region," like Hamas.

"What helps Israel strategically is a moderate Palestinian state," he asserted, claiming Israel could have aided the moderates before the elections in 2006, but didn't. "They could have helped, not by shouting 'I want to help Abu Mazen' -- he loses points that way. The only way is to change on the ground."

Whether the clock is running out and whether in fact a moderate Palestinian state can indeed still be created to live side-by-side with Israel is the question of the moment. Both the Palestinian people and the Israelis need to decide if they want to make one more go at it. As one high-ranking Palestinian official posed it to me, the "Palestinian people have to decide if they go back to democracy or settle on a Pakistani, Bangalore situation," with Hamas and Fatah battling it out, but "Israel is a major player" too.

And where Israel can play an especially critical role is in the release of one Palestinian prisoner in particular, Marwan Barghouti, the Young Fatah leader who is serving five consecutive life terms in a southern Israeli prison for his role in the second Intifada. "Marwan Barghouti was the key person in establishing the new Palestinian government," Haim Oron, a Meretz Knesset member, told me. "I know because I was there... Salaam Fayyad (the Palestinian Prime Minister) sees him as a leader but not in competition to Abu Mazen."

Oron, who goes by the nickname, "Jumis," is a kibbutznik and leader of Israel's peace camp. He is close to Barghouti, and has been meeting with the Palestinian leader in prison for the last several years, though their conversations are private. "I think that now the Israelis, the Egyptians, the Americans and the Europeans know how important Barghouti is to them. It's clear. They hear it from Abu Mazen and Fayaad," Jumis said when I sat with him recently in the Knesset members' dining room with a backdrop of a flat screen television showing the Knesset proceedings. (It was the day when members could introduce private bills, and just like in the U.S. Congress, they were speaking to an empty plenum, with more members in the dining room than in the Knesset hall itself.)

It's not simply that the various players are figuring out that Barghouti may be the last best hope for the nationalist camp. It's also that, as Jumis painted in a scenario for me, his leadership in or out of prison may be inevitable. "Barghouti will run in the next election and Abu Mazen will not run," Jumis explained. (Indeed, Rafik Husseini, Mazen's chief of staff also confirmed to me that Mazen would not run again.) "So there is no Abu Mazen; there is Marwan. Then, the option is that he runs from an Israeli jail. If he loses, Hamas wins. If he wins, there is an elected Palestinian president in an Israeli jail. Then there will be pressure from all over the world to release him."

While some on the right in Israel and the United States are reviving ideas of a Jordanian option and even of separating Gaza from a future Palestine, Jumis thinks that this is out of the question -- as do the Palestinians, of course. "Gaza is not an island in Antarctica," he said. "It is part of the Palestinian state and those who live there are part of the Palestinian nation, and if there are Israelis or Palestinians who don't see that they are crazy... Hamas has no power to build, but they have the power to destroy the situation."

But for Hamas to be weakened, the nationalist camp must rebuild. And it's not clear that the nationalist camp can do that with Barghouti still behind bars. The Barghouti game plan was also confirmed to me by Qadora Fares, a soft spoken, thoughtful leader of Young Fatah who, deposed by Hamas in the Palestinian legislature, now runs an NGO dedicated to supporting the Palestinian prisoners.

Fares (who spent 13 years in Israeli prisons himself for his activities during the first Intifada), was a signatory of the Geneva Initiative, the extra-parliamentary peace document conceived of by Israeli politician Yossi Beilin and Palestinian Yassar Abbed Rabbo. Fares told me that he signed the document with Barghouti's knowledge. At lunch with Fares in Ramallah, in a side-street restaurant over beer, Arab salads and lamb, he, like his friend Jumis, expressed the understanding that Barghouti is the leader needed to strengthen the Palestinian nationalist camp. “This is the last chance for the peace camp, with Marwan..." he said, his voice trailing off.

The inter-Palestinian warfare showed the world how weak, indeed, Fatah is. For them to succeed they need to win the Palestinian people's hearts and minds, which the new Palestinian government hopes to do by governing with transparency, breaking the global economic blockade, and beginning serious negotiations with Israel. But they also must rebuild on the ground among their own population, in the West Bank and especially in Gaza. As one knowledgeable Israeli source speculated, Barghouti is key here too, not as a challenge to the Fayaad government but to strengthen it. "Marwan sees rebuilding the ground for Fatah outside the government. If you ask him what he will do the day after he is free, he will say, 'go to Gaza and go to the villages in the West Bank and rebuild the nationalist camp.’"

Jumis sees the future this way: "I think that the fight for Gaza will be on the West Bank. We need three simultaneous tracks. First, a 180 percent change of Israeli policy on the West Bank -- not just money, check points, prisoners, all these issues and more" pertaining to daily quality of life; “second, we need to begin negotiations about the long-term core issues. Everyone more or less knows the endgame -- Clinton, Geneva, Taba... If the Palestinians agree on basic principles then we have to go very deep into what some call phase two of the roadmap, some will call re-deployment of Oslo, and some will call it something else, but everybody in Israel understands that unilateralism is out of the game. I think that the Palestinians understand, especially after Gaza, that a 10-day withdrawal is not an option. In the West Bank, we are talking about three to five years. There are many obstacles; you can't do it in half a year. The Palestinians also need time to strengthen the government, democracy, and Fatah."

For Fares, the choice is ALSO clear: "Israel's choice is between empowering Fatah and the peace camp," he said. As we were eating in the Ramallah restaurant, with members of the Fatah old guard seated at a table on the floor below us, the Israeli cabinet was deliberating a prisoner exchange to restart talks with Mazen. Fares' phone kept ringing. As we sipped our coffee, he recalled an article by the Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua. who "wrote about how Israel can be a true superpower by the way the Jewish state aids flood victims in Africa, etc." Although, Fares stressed, "I believe that Israel can play this role and that the Arab world is ready to accept Israel, but the Palestinians are the key."

Jumis understands that the peace camp in Israel is also facing a pivotal moment. "The question of peace camp mobilization is the question of a partner -- with whom" do we make peace? "The perception is that Abu Mazen is weak," but "now you have the most dovish and democratic, secular government that could ever exist among the Palestinians. If there is an option, we know that the peace camp can be activated in weeks," he predicted.

"We know we are speaking about the most critical issues of Israel and Jewish life. There is no second chance. I think that the Israeli government must take a risk because doing nothing is worse. If there is an agreement and Abu Mazen goes to a referendum and loses, Israel says to the world and to the Israeli people -- including to Jumis and to Yossi Beilin," he acknowledges, as leaders of the peace camp, "'Okay, there is no partner.' It will be a very bad situation, but what do we have to lose? The alternative is that Gaza will be in the West Bank."