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Getting Down To Business

Getting Down To Business

Ramallah, West Bank — Is there room on the Palestinian political spectrum alongside Hamas and Fatah? A group of West Bank businessmen believes they’ve identified a potential niche.

Calling itself “The Forum” and headed by Nablus billionaire Munib al-Masri, the group wants to tap into widespread disillusionment with Hamas’ violent takeover of the Gaza Strip and Fatah’s inability to establish stability in the West Bank. The ultimate goal is to run for parliament — an election that President Mahmoud Abbas has suggested holding in the near future.

“We feel there is a big need for a new body, with the polarization in the streets. There is a big space in the market,” said Sa’d Abdel Hadi, a member of the political movement and an owner of a company with activities in public relations and software development. “Neither Hamas nor Fatah has the answer.”

Indeed, public approval ratings for Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh have dropped since the Islamist takeover of Gaza in June. But even though Palestinians are seething at existing leaders from both sides, any new party that enters the fray must overcome growing disillusionment with the political system as a whole.

“We’re fed up with the parties. On the contrary, we need to decrease the number of parties,” said Adnan Hawari, the owner of a retail shop in Ramallah. “Now not only will I not vote, but I will try to disrupt the whole election process. The results of the last election have only been fighting.”

Hawari’s frustration reflects widespread annoyance with the factional violence that escalated after the 2006 parliamentary vote — an election that gave Hamas a parliamentary majority but was resisted by armed militias of Fatah. At a time when Palestinians say they want to rally together against political infighting and against Israel, the suggestion of adding another political party to the mix has little appeal.

But when asked about the prospect of a group of independent business leaders stepping forward to lead the Palestinian Authority, the skepticism partially subsides.

Mohammad Darawshe, a 30-something computer engineer, said Palestinians already suffer from a surplus of political parties, and that there is little room on the political spectrum that hasn’t been staked out already. But the idea of a government led by businessmen is attractive, he says, because of the prospect that the professionals might be able to help the Palestinians out of their economic doldrums.

“I don’t know them as a movement; I only know them as individuals,” he responded when asked about the names of prominent Palestinian businessmen reportedly part of the political group.

“They are the ones who are in charge of the business of the economy. They might be able to achieve some kind of horizon for the country. This is not a political group. They will handle Palestine’s economy in a professional way.”

Still, Palestinian experts say it will be very difficult for a party based on middle- and upper-class intellectuals and businessmen to lay down firm roots if it can’t reach out to the masses.

“They see a political vacuum which they want to fill. Will they succeed? They have no constituency, and it would be an uphill fight for them to create anything that has the appearance of a party,” said Mohammed Musleh, a political science professor at Long Island University in Brookville, L.I. “The chances for the emergence of a third party are not that good.”

When discussing the new movement, Abdel Hadi, the general manager of the Al-Nasher Advertising Agency, focuses more on politics than economics. Though the executive admits that the movement is still formulating its platform, he said that it plans to criticize Hamas’ rejection of negotiations with Israel, while at the same time calling on Abbas to hold out for more concessions in the peace process.

As an example, Abdel Hadi said that the Palestinian president had made a mistake by immediately accepting the U.S. invitation to a regional peace summit in the fall. Instead, the Palestinians should have used their political leverage to wring out concessions from Israel by threatening to boycott the meeting.

“Going to such a conference requires new terms and solutions,” he said, explaining that a summit is likely to end up as a public relations coup for Israel and the U.S. “The main objective of such a conference should be a new reconciliation between the Arabs and Israelis. We think we have the power to say no to such a thing” unless there are concrete changes on the ground.

On the other hand, Abdel Hadi called Hamas’ rule in Gaza a “dictatorship.”

Munib al-Masri, one of the richest men in the West Bank, told The Jerusalem Post that the new movement would focus on economic, cultural and sports issues alongside the politics.

But Sam Bahour, who owns a software consulting business, said he turned down an invitation to the movement’s meeting in Ramallah last Friday. The entrepreneur said that while he sees the private sector as an important bulwark to Palestinian resilience against the restrictions on movement imposed by the army, the new association of businessmen lacks direction.

“Although I’m from the private sector, I don’t think a common denominator of people frustrated with a situation is enough to create a political platform,” he said.

“That’s missing the point. Right now the program to end the occupation is at risk. That doesn’t mean we turn our back on politics. We have to learn to do politics better if our politics are failing.”

And yet back on the streets of downtown Ramallah, residents sounded notes of desperation for some sort of economic improvement. Nabila Ghanem said her husband and two sons were unemployed, leaving the family without a steady income at a time when her daughter wants to study for a bachelor’s degree.

“It’s too little too late,” said Ghanem of the political initiative. “They will help only people they know.”

Jamil Sawalmeh, a 25-year-old non governmental organization worker from the northern West Bank, said it was only natural that eventually Palestinians would embrace business leaders.

“The politics failed to achieve what the people were looking for. The resistance failed, so now they are trying to deal with people’s needs in a new way.”

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