Fatah's internal divisions are overshadowing and diverting attention away from the rift with Hamas. News, leaks and analyses address the Fatah divisions, while the Fatah-Hamas split receives less attention. The latter seems to have been put on hold under the guise of a "truce", "management" and "containment", but not reconciliation or unity.
In its official statements, Fatah is united and will participate in the elections under a unified list, and Marwan Barghouti, the movement's righteous son, will not sing from a different song sheet. Other news sources mention a disagreement within Fatah that has become a squabble to contain the most prominent official within the movement. There are several scenarios being put forward: the "Mandela scenario" is a reference to Barghouti campaigning in the run up to the presidential election from his cell, as Nelson Mandela negotiated with the Apartheid South African regime before his release. There is also the "Abdel Rahman Swar Al-Dahab scenario" in reference to the Sudanese general who oversaw the transfer of power from Nimeiri to an elected civilian government. If Barghouti fits the Mandela scenario, then President Mahmoud Abbas fits the other.
It is many years since I have read a credible Palestinian public opinion poll in which Barghouti was not described as the most capable Fatah leader able to defeat potential rivals in any democratic, free and fair election. If the movement wants to remain in power and is serious about renewal and bringing in younger blood, then choosing Barghouti is the fastest way to achieve this.
I must note here that combining the presidencies of the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organisation should not be seen as a given of the Palestinian political system. Abbas could remain head of the PLO for some time and activate the "Al-Dahab scenario", leaving the PA leadership to the decision of the electorate. He should initiate the campaign for Barghouti's release and give him the opportunity to engage in the elections. Through such a campaign, the whole issue of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel could be publicised. The Palestinians can find a way to manage their affairs if their elected president is kept behind bars, and can introduce the necessary amendments in the law to do this. Many laws are already issued by decree, and the system will not be spoiled by one more.
The separation of the two presidencies can also be a shortcut to activating the PLO, whether Abbas or someone else is its head. No one will accept that the president of the "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people is someone whose movement and effectiveness does not extend beyond his building in Ramallah. This is perhaps a positive bonus to the separation option.
The issue of most concern in the news about the extensive action by Fatah reformers and those opposed to or angry with its leaders and staff, is the rumoured attempt to include the movement's former security head, Muhammad Dahlan, and his group in the action. This is even if he represents a "bridgehead" for harmful regional interference in internal Palestinian affairs. If these rumours are confirmed, and developments are heading in that direction, we will need to write the obituary for reform.
While reading the speculation about Marwan Barghouti and his supporters, including the Reform Movement, I recalled a comment I once made to the late great George Habash, as he wiped his brow after making a famous speech in Khan Al-Sheikh Camp in which he announced the establishment of the Palestinian National Salvation Front. The Front's mission was to reform the PLO. I wondered how the PLO could be reformed with corrupt tools and allies. What causes me concern, and makes a mockery of the process at the same time, are the "leaks" that do not rule out the possibility of Hamas and Fatah forming an electoral alliance, even though the latter ruled it out before Hamas sources denied it in any case.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Addustour on 15 February 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.