The Rise and Demise of the Left in West Bank Politics: The Case of the Palestine National Front

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INTRODUCTION

The origins of the predominance of President Yasir Arafat's Fatah organization in the Palestinian Authority and its rivalry with the Islamist movements can be located in a time well before the implementation of the Oslo Accords. Fatah's networks of patronage, which provide the organization with an underpinning for its current influence in the occupied territories, began to take shape in the mid-1970s.(1) It was then that the organization began to gain ascendancy in key political, administrative, and voluntarist associations in the West Bank. This ascendancy came at the expense of the left wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Jordanian Communist Party, thus opening the field to more conservative elements in Palestinian political life.(2)

The reasons for this shift in the relative influence of the conservative and leftist tendencies in Palestinian politics is to be found first in local Palestinian circumstances. Yet, the West Bank's political life was so-completely penetrated by outside interests that it is impossible to understand such changes without reference to Super Power rivalries, inter-Arab relations, and intra-PLO affairs.

This intensity of penetration by outside actors has been one of the distinguishing characteristics of Middle Eastern affairs since the time of the nineteenth-century Eastern Question. L. Carl Brown explains that, "the degree of penetration is perhaps best measured by the extent to which differences between local, national, regional, and international politics become blurred. That is, the politics of the thoroughly penetrated society is not explained - even at the local level - without reference to the intrusive outside [international] system."(3) The Palestine National Front (PNF) provides a case study of the consequences of this kind of intertwining of international and local affairs.

SOVIET POLICY AND THE PNF

Following the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the Soviet Union turned its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East toward achieving a comprehensive resolution of the conflict. The ultimate goal of this diplomacy was to secure for the Soviets continued influence in the region by virtue of their role as one of the internationally recognized guarantors of the peace. This was part of a wider strategy in the early 1970s to reduce the risk of confrontation with the United States, especially as the US began to develop friendlier relations with the Soviets' communist rival, China.(4)

The Soviet vision of a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict called for an international conference based on UN resolution 242, Palestinian representation at the conference, and Israeli withdrawal from the land occupied in 1967. After 1974, Soviet official statements reflected the resolutions passed at the Rabat Arab summit conference that year, referring specifically to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, but the possibility of a large role for Jordan in determining the fate of the territories was not ruled out.(5)

Thus, the occupied territories were a central concern in Soviet policy because it envisioned a two-state solution to the conflict. However, the PLO consistently refused until 1988 to support anything less than the complete liberation of Palestine, thereby blocking a two-state solution. It was in this context that the establishment of the Palestine National Front in the occupied territories in 1973 carried importance for Soviet foreign policy. Because the PNF considered itself an arm of the PLO and contained members of the Jordanian Communist Party (JCP), there was hope that the Soviets would be able to influence PLO policy through the PNF.6 More importantly, the PNF became instrumental in national institution building in the occupied territories. This proffered the possibility that the groundwork for a Palestinian state was in fact being laid, with the actuality on the ground leading events in the diplomatic realm. …