It's time to talk to Fatah
During the much-reported tour of four Knesset members to the illegal outposts earlier this week, one small sentence uttered by Interior Minister Eli Yishai in passing
attracted my attention. Why bother, he said - after all, after the Fatah congress, it is obvious now that we have no one to speak to.
Thus, he joined a long list of Israeli politicians, among them Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who hurried to characterize the Sixth Fatah Conference as a saboteur of peace. For the first time in 20 years, the Palestinian mainstream politicians managed to pull their act together.
Some 2,255 delegates attended - old-timers and the new guard, local politicians and activists, and the representatives of the "diaspora" including those from Lebanese refugee camps, contending factions that had been fighting each other - they all sat earnestly in long and serious debates, under sometimes difficult and charged sessions. BY AN overwhelming majority they elected Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) not just as the Fatah chairman, but as the crowned leader of the Palestinian people. This underpins not only Abbas's authority as the voice of all Palestinians, it strengthens his leadership position and gives him the power and the legitimacy to negotiate with Israel and eventually reach an agreement with us. To further anchor his authority, Abbas now intends to convene the Palestine National Council.
Another interesting outcome of the congress is the newly-elected leadership which offers hope. The old guard lost its majority; the young guard gathered strength. A majority of the council's new members were involved in the Oslo process and support an honorable peace agreement with Israel. Three among them have headed Palestinian security forces in the past. It came as no surprise that Hamas imposed restrictions on Gaza-based Fatah members who wished to join their peers in Bethlehem; they finally participated by telephone. This serves as evidence that the Hamas struggle this time was not directed at Israel, but at the Palestinian leadership.
In fact, recent polling indicates that Hamas's popularity is declining, perhaps as a result of its failed war with Israel, but no doubt also as a consequence of improving living conditions in the West Bank.
The dismantling of some 40 checkpoints has eased some of the pressure, and the economy seems to move upward, with a 1 percent stated growth. Ultimately, the congress, with its wide participation from abroad, gave Fatah the possibility to display strength vis-Ã -vis all other political groups and to become the political umbrella for those who do not wish to subscribe to Hamas's extremist policies. Not all statements emanating from Bethlehem have been music to Israel's ears. Moreover, the deeply-seated mistrust, the habit of reading first and foremost the bad elements in any Palestinian document, makes it easy to misinterpret some of the resolutions negatively. Thus, for days our media reported that the Palestinians were not ready to give up on violence and that the resolutions called for the continuation of armed struggle as a strategy. The truth is that the Bethlehem platform calls for "resistance by all legitimate means," and leaves out the option of armed struggle. When reading a political document, as some of us have been taught, it is important to read every word in its context, but also to consider what has been left out. Abbas himself made his position very clear: "We must not stain our legitimate struggle with terror," he said. ON JERUSALEM, too, our media hurried to report that Abbas had demanded sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. Yet reading the text in Arabic, one discovers that the expression used by Abu Mazen refers to east Jerusalem, commonly referred to as the "Arab side."
To make this even clearer, the call on Israel to return to the 1967 borders is an implicit recognition of Israel's sovereignty over west Jerusalem. The congress also endorsed the 2002 Arab initiative. Interestingly, but not known to every one, the initiative does not call for a right of return of the refugees. Here too, my humble advice to all the skeptics is to read the text as formulated. It clearly states that there should be a "principled and agreed upon solution" for the refugee problem.
Finding the dark side of things provides good pretexts to those who refuse progress. The time has come for the Netanyahu government to renew the dialogue with the Palestinian Authority, led by the only pragmatic Palestinian movement, Fatah. A stronger Palestinian leadership, with a broader basis of popular support and a flexible platform, now opens better opportunities for serious negotiations .
The writer, a former diplomat and member of the Knesset, is now the director-general of the Berl Katznelson ideological center as well as international secretary of the Labor Party.