The Palestinian Opposition and Final-Status Negotiations
There is much speculation among political observers about the stand the different Palestinian political parties will take when final-status negotiations start, in particular that of the declared opposition groups. In fact, these groups are sending contradictory signals in setting out to underline the bases of their respective positions. The internal debate among them generated heated discussions, and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was hesitant to initiate any collective dialogue with them for fear of getting trapped in such discussions. This article proposes to shed some light on the possible positions that might be adopted by these opposition groups, whose leadership operates from the different Arab capitals.

The Official Position since Madrid: Tendency towards Continuity

The decision of the Palestinian leadership to participate in the Madrid Conference elicited various reactions among the Palestinian political groups. They chose then to define themselves by the newly developed concept of opposition. They meant to oppose the peace process and any development it might involve. Their statements were highly critical of the Palestinian leadership, to the point of breaking away from the PLO. The most noted of the secular groups in this newly formed opposition front, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), held nationwide conferences to review the new situation created by the negotiations with Israel. They went even further and distanced themselves from the official position of the PLO leadership. Leaflets, lectures and meetings led to the inculcation of the rank and file with the belief that the peace process, as well as its initiators and supporters, were the new enemy of the Palestinian people. The members were instructed to cease any contact with "hostile elements" (those supporting the peace process), and to refrain from seeking any position with the newly established PNA. Tension and fear of a civil war grew as the opposition leadership vowed to derail the peace process and to hinder its success. Although none of the threats materialized, the situation continued, nevertheless to be strained and volatile, amid mistrust and accusations of a sell-out.

The New Reality

The Oslo agreement has initiated a process with its own built-in dynamics: the establishment of the new authority, the appointment of new civil servants and many economic, cultural and social opportunities presented to the Palestinian community as dividends of the agreement. This came at a time when the severe financial crisis crippling the Palestinian territories had a grave impact on the financial integrity of the political parties. Members of such opposition groups felt they were losing a historic opportunity ¬missing the boat, so to speak.
Disappointment turned into resentment when the basic cadres discovered that their top leaders arriving from the diaspora immediately applied, and were accepted, for job openings in the PNA institutions, while others tried to avail themselves of the privileges extended to returnees as a result of the Oslo agreement. Such discrimination between leadership and rank and file fanned the debate which had been taking place since the establishment of the PNA. In the face of the attractions of the new political reality, the members, for the first time, looked for personal gain over party allegiance. Such an attitude was at the root of an argument intended to force the parties into adopting a more pragmatic and liberal position vis-à-vis the PNA.

Internal Crisis - The Way Out

The opposition parties are already facing various internal and external crises. On the one hand, these reflect the serious changes occurring worldwide and touching the heart of the classical left parties in the Middle East, including the Palestinian political system. On the other hand, the peace process has been acknowledged by friends and foes alike as a fact of life for most Palestinians, including those associated with the opposition groups. These same organizations have altered the strong stand they initially took against both the agreement and the PNA. This allowed its senior leaders to initiate contacts and to maintain a dialogue with the PNA and its representatives, thus breaking the taboo they themselves had imposed in the early days of the agreement.
Irrespective of the reasons, both the senior staff and the rank and file have become interested in securing positions with the PNA and its related institutions, as these had the greatest capacity to absorb an increasing number of civil servants. Because of the importance of the financial crisis within the overall problems, some within these opposition parties feel that they have no option but to allow for a certain maneuverability to ensure their survival. The option of inclusion in the final-status negotiations provides them with the salvation they need to end their self-imposed isolation and total marginalization. This option is conceived by some of the more enlightened elements as a once-in-a-lifetime chance: they either seize the opportunity or they disappear from the Palestinian political map for good.

Arab Countries - A Role of Influence

It is a known fact that all Palestinian opposition parties have their headquarters in capitals of Arab countries opposed to the Oslo agreement. The leaders of these Palestinian parties are fully aware that they would have no other place to go should they be asked to leave these capitals. They try to maintain a friendly relationship with the ruling powers there, careful to avoid the adoption of any position that contradicts the host regime. Thus, the high risk of losing all the privileges that they enjoy in these respective countries, not to mention the possibility of detention, has turned these parties into hostages of their own free will.
Any rapprochement between these Arab regimes and the PNA will reflect on the opposition parties' stand vis-à-vis the peace process. Drastic changes are likely to occur in their positions if the political situation in the Middle East evolved toward the reincorporation of both Syria and Lebanon into the peace process, leaving Iran as the only country in the region hostile to the establishment of peace between the Arabs and Israel. When and if Syria goes back to the negotiating table with Israel on the Golan Heights (and, presumably, Lebanon will follow suit), what course of action will the Palestinian opposition parties take then? Will they modify their position along the same lines as the Syrians and Lebanese? Or will they resist all change, making their isolation complete? Experience tells us that they would be willing to modify their position and to find a way out without much loss of face.

A Continuation or a New Beginning?

The type of approach the opposition parties will take vis-à-vis final negotiations will depend on the timing: whether their decision over participation will be taken before negotiations start or after a final agreement has been reached. It will also depend heavily on the balance of power within the different parties, and to what extent the crisis will have affected the coherence of their internal structure.
In this context, two possibilities exist:
A. To continue in the same trend, and this will depend on the final outcome of the upcoming national conference of both the PFLP and the DFLP. If these conferences result in a strengthened role and power base for the radical elements in the parties, then it should be assumed that the future direction of both organizations won't part from the existing trend. The radicals who are in power now will try to maintain their grip on the destiny of both parties.
The rough path the Oslo agreement is experiencing will consolidate the radical stand within the political hierarchy. Any deviation from the fulfillment of the agreement by the Israelis will be used by the radical elements as an excuse to maintain their policies.
Lack of resumption of negotiations on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, within a specified period of time, will lead Syria to adopt a more radical stance in its dealings with Israel. This will systematically affect the Palestinian opposition by hardening their stand to a point where they might find themselves again drawn into a new alliance with the Islamists.
B. To opt for a new political beginning, which implies changing policies and joining the peace process. This will depend on the following factors:
First, the increased personal interest and financial considerations of the individual, both among the leadership hierarchy and the rank and file. This is true more among the secular groups than the religious ones. Second, the deterioration of the internal crisis within the political organizations and the absence 'of corrective measures necessary to salvage the existing structure and its political heritage. Third, the accumulated successes achieved by the PNA through its negotiations with the Israeli side, and finally, the existence of a consensus on the importance of the issues to be discussed in final negotiations (Jerusalem, refugees, Jewish settlements, borders, water).

Language Interpretation

Based on the stated possibilities, the second course seems the more likely. The opposition will opt for a new beginning in their relationship with the PNA, and will try to find ways and means, both to explain their position and to express their willingness to participate in final-status negotiations. The main issue will be for the leadership to find the appropriate wording which would allow them .to do so without loss of face and without an indication of a change in their official position, a matter which could undermine their standing among their followers.
Analysis points to a compromise solution between the various trends in both the secular and the religious parties regarding final-status negotiations. Such a compromise will be easier for the secular parties than the religious ones, and will depend on the following terms:
First, participation in final-status negotiations will be conditional. Second, participation will be limited to an involvement in the Supervisory Negotiations Committee, with a clear rejection of any direct involvement in the negotiating teams.
Third, participation will also take place in the joint committee of the Supervisory and the Negotiating team, so as to assess the overall negotiation strategies and instructions given to the team. In other words, the opposition will be ready to sit with the negotiating teams, but will not participate actively in negotiations.
Such a compromise is, of course, contingent on the preservation of the balance of power between various tendencies within the parties. Any change in such a balance will signify an immediate change in the position of the parties with respect to final-status negotiations.