Palestinian 'third way' rises

A new political group offers voters a choice between Fatah and Hamas.

Hamas and Fatah have a new political rival.

A group of respected Palestinian leaders and intellectuals has formed an independent list to run in January's elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. The new "party" presents a potential challenge to the two major forces of political life here: Fatah, the ruling Palestinian faction, and Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement.

The names topping the new list are well-known: Salam Fayyad, the respected finance minister and former World Bank official - a man seen by the international donor community as one of the most reliable and capable people in the Palestinian Authority (PA) - and Hanan Ashrawi, a former minister and Palestinian spokeswoman who has lobbied for an improved human rights record and respect for the rule of law in areas under the PA's control.

The founders of the independent list see themselves as offering a political "third way" to Palestinians disillusioned with the current options.

Secular-nationalist Fatah is perceived by many Palestinians as rife with corruption and infighting. Until now, the next most viable political option has been Hamas, which has been promoting itself as a clean-hands, no-nonsense party. But many of those frustrated with Fatah don't necessarily support Hamas's continued use of suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israelis - nor its plans to Islamicize Palestinian society. That's the voter the new party hopes to attract.

"There's a great deal of excitement as well as support, and we hope to address [the needs] of people who are disenchanted," Mrs. Ashrawi says. The new group is not being called a party, she says, because there is no law yet governing the creation of Palestinian political parties. "We're using the elections as a launching pad. This a group of people who are likeminded, who want good governance, peacemaking, and democracy to be part of the vision."

The new group in Palestinian politics holds the potential to shake up next month's elections, and bears similarities to the upheaval in the Israeli political scene. Last month, Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, left the right-wing Likud party he helped to found and launched a new centrist party called Kadima, Hebrew for "forward."

But whereas Mr. Sharon is banking on Israeli voters putting the conflict with the Palestinians first, the new Palestinian list will focus on an honest government platform - primarily a domestic issue.

"Hamas has 25 to 30 percent of the public's support, but it's not just from religious people. It's people who are not happy with the [Palestinian] Authority," say Ali Jarbawi, a Bir Zeit University professor of political science, and one of the top candidates on the new list ticket. "So you need an alternative, one with a democratic, social, liberal outlook, and that alternative is not Fatah."

"The [new list] will be liberal and will be anticorruption, and that's what's attracting people to Hamas," says Mr. Jarbawi.

But the list faces stiff competition. A poll released Sunday showed the Fatah party holding at 50 percent of the Palestinian vote and Hamas with 32 percent.

The first Palestinian Legislative Council, set up by the 1993 Oslo Accords, was elected 10 years ago this January, and no parliamentary elections have been held since. At that time, the only party that ran was Fatah, Yasser Arafat's mainstream faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Some independent candidates were associated with the communist-oriented PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) or DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine); others ran as independents loosely affiliated with Hamas. But neither the secular-leftists nor Hamas were willing to recognize the Oslo Accords - nor Israel itself - and so did not officially participate in the elections.

This time around, the field looks quite different. Hamas is preparing to run candidates in the elections, raising objections from Israel and the United States, both of whom deem it a terrorist organization. "We don't deal with them now," says one US official who handles Palestinian issues, "and if they get elected to the council, we're not going to deal with them then."

The new list will include other known names in Palestinian politics such as Yasser Abed Rabbo, a former minister, and Abdul Qader Al-Husseini, the son of the late Faisal Al-Husseini, who used to be the PLO's top official in Jerusalem, the Palestinian newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida reported. But perhaps the most significant person on the list is Mr. Fayyad, who is seen by the international community as one of the few officials in the PA who fought corruption and the misuse of donor funds.

He was often reported to be at odds with Mr. Arafat. After Fayyad announced his resignation as finance minister several weeks ago, which he said was necessary for him to run in the elections, there were rumors that Fayyad would run for a top leadership position in the Palestinian Authority.

Like the Likud, Fatah has been in a state of factionalization for some time. After the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada five years ago, some breakaway factions decided to return openly to armed struggle against Israel. Other voices in Fatah, especially President Mahmoud Abbas, said that a return to armed conflict was not in the Palestinians interest. Since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, there has been an upsurge in infighting between small breakaway militias tied to Fatah, and that has made it increasingly difficult for Mr. Abbas to claim control over all of the organization.

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