Saturday, August 18, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A group of West Bank businessmen is trying to establish a political party to tap into Palestinian disillusionment with Hamas and Fatah by challenging both.

Though other challengers to the Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah performed poorly in the last election, the businessmen think the feud between the two groups will persuade a growing number of Palestinians to look for an alternative the next time they vote.

“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 founding member of the movement and an owner of a software development and public relations company. “Neither Hamas nor Fatah has the answer.”

The founders, who include Nablus billionaire Munib al-Masri, hope to sign up several hundred businessmen, academics and political activists by next month to formally begin the political movement.

For now, the movement is being called “Muntada Falastin” or the Palestinian Forum.

Mr. Abdel Hadi said the movement is still working on its economic and political platforms, but that it will try to stake out the niche between Hamas’ rejection of international peace accords and what he called Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ overeagerness for engaging the United States and Israel in talks that produce little results.

Before agreeing to attend the U.S.-sponsored regional summit this fall, Mr. Abdel Hadi said, Mr. Abbas needs to hold out for concrete concessions such as Israeli withdrawals from positions it has held since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising seven years ago. Short of that, he said, the meeting will be an exercise in Israeli and U.S. public relations.

The Palestinians, he added, should scrap the U.S. backed “road map” peace blueprint and come up with a new negotiating proposal. Fatah “considers us defeated” and without any negotiating leverage.

Though Palestinians have become skeptical of new political parties, the private-sector leaders might generate support because of an expectation that they will be able to use their economic know-how to boost the limping Palestinian Authority.

Mr. Abdel Hadi, who is the general manager of Al Nasher advertising agency, said the strength of the businessmen is that their wealth insulates them from political opportunism and makes them more likely to think of long-term strategies.

Still, he could not say what type of economic proposals the movement might make at this stage.

Analysts said several political organizations are trying to gain traction because of the rift between Hamas and Fatah.

“There is a widely held belief that Fatah has fragmented, that it can’t be reconstituted, and that Hamas, which was supposed to provide an alternative, has failed to deliver reform and change, and most importantly has resorted to violence,” said Muhammad Muslih, a political science professor at Long Island University in New York.

“So there is deep frustration with both. Against this background, there are voices which are calling for a creation for a new party without Fatah or Hamas being involved.”

Mr. Muslih said that, despite the influence and power of the business executives, they lack a constituency as well as a charismatic leader.

Mr. al-Masri, the Nablus billionaire, is one of the richest men in the Palestinian territories. He told the Jerusalem Post that Palestinians need to shift their focus from politics to economics and sports.

Sam Bahour, who owns a software consulting business, said he turned down an invitation to the movement’s meeting in Ramallah yesterday.

The entrepreneur said that while he sees the private sector as an important bulwark to Palestinian resilience against the restrictions imposed by the Israeli army, the new association of businessmen lacks a clear ideology.

“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.

“Right now, the [Palestinian] program to end the [Israeli] occupation is at risk. That doesn’t mean we turn our back on politics.”

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