Every once in a while, a kidnapping or a firefight reminds the world that the two parties governing the Palestinians really don't get along. Hamas won the parliamentary election in 2006 and seized control of Gaza in 2007. But Fatah, the party of Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, still controls the West Bank. Their squabbles—over control of fiefdoms like patronage networks and the police—have made headlines about the so-called crisis in Palestinian leadership in the past.
But that fracas is obscuring the truly epic fight brewing among Palestinians. It's not between Hamas and Fatah, it's between Fatah and Fatah. The original liberation group—and the only Palestinian party that Israel (and the United States) will work with—is breaking apart, and it could set back Middle East peace by decades.
A power struggle inside Fatah has been brewing for years. Arafat's death in 2004 left a power vacuum that Abbas has been struggling to fill. His failure to maintain Palestinian unity has sapped his support and respect inside his own movement. Seeing the president's weakness, certain Fatah leaders based abroad—those critical of the 1993 Oslo accords that created the Palestinian Authority and returned PLO officials to the West Bank and Gaza—are trying to wrest power from him. But while the PLO's political decisions (including foreign policy) are technically supposed to be cleared with some Fatah leaders abroad, Abbas in reality has cut them out of the loop. Resentment has been festering.
Things came to a head last week when Farouk Qaddumi, the secretary general of Fatah's central committee—and the head of the PLO's political department—accused Abbas and his former national security adviser, Mohammed Dahlan, of conspiring with Israel to assassinate Arafat. Qaddumi, the most senior Fatah leader still in exile, is the only surviving member of the five-man team that founded the group in Kuwait in 1959. At his press conference last Tuesday, he produced a transcript he claims to have obtained from Arafat before his death in 2004. It says that, in an undated meeting between Abbas and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the men discussed the possibility of killing Arafat and some senior Hamas officials.
Abbas, Dahlan, and other Qaddumi rivals say Qaddumi fabricated the document. They issued a statement calling it the "hysterical" product of a "sick mind"; they also announced an emergency meeting to discuss disciplinary action against him. They even suspended Al-Jazeera's operations in the West Bank because of its coverage of the topic. But the alleged transcript has worried Palestinians about the stability of their leadership, and with good reason: next month is Fatah's sixth-ever General Congress, a summit to clarify principles and assign leadership roles. For Palestinian Authority officials, everything is at stake.
Qaddumi had hoped to use the conclave—the first in 20 years—to reify and remind Abbas of his power. But in a sly preemptive move, Abbas scheduled the meeting inside the West Bank, where Qaddumi has refused to set foot in protest of Oslo. (He claims holding Fatah's convention in the "arms" of the occupation will undermine its legitimacy and compromise its outcome.) That means Qaddumi—and his supporters still in exile—can't compete for seats on the 21-member central committee or the 100-member revolutionary council. If the Diaspora holdouts have trouble influencing Palestinian politics now, they'll be out of business when Abbas controls both the government and the political body.
If the Fatah rivalry looks like one between insiders (who run the Palestinian Authority) and outsiders, another important divide has risen up in recent years: between those who support Abbas's unbending position on Hamas and those who want unity. The Qaddumi episode was indicative of the first struggle. But the second one bubbles up from time to time. In 2007, for example, top presidential aide Hani al-Hasan was dismissed when he told Al-Jazeera that the government was conspiring with Americans and Israelis to destroy Hamas.
Although al-Hasan was dismissed from his post, he represents an increasingly popular position inside of Fatah, as its members realize that the conflict with Hamas undermines the Palestinian cause. Even if Qaddumi can't win back any power, he can make the locals second-guess their leader—and his uncompromising position on Hamas. By putting the credibility and legitimacy of the Palestinian presidency in doubt, unresolved rivalries within Fatah could empower Hamas and steer it toward a position of dominance in Palestinian politics. If that happens, no amount of exhortation from world powers—even Israel's closest friends—will persuade Israel to deal with the Palestinians. What looks like petty internecine politics could be the nail in the coffin of Palestinian statehood.