Who's in charge of Palestinian politics? Following his commanding performance in the January 11th Palestinian presidential elections, officials in Washington and Jerusalem are looking to Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser Arafat's successor as head of the Palestinian Authority (PA), as their new political counterpart -- and potential peace partner. Yet alarming signs suggest that the biggest beneficiary of the political changes now taking place in the Palestinian Territories might just turn out to be the Islamic Republic of Iran.
An Iranian foothold in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is certainly not a new development. Both directly and through their terrorist intermediaries in Lebanon, Iran's ayatollahs have been meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years. But the death of Yasser Arafat, and the political vacuum that has emerged in the wake of the Palestinian strongman's passing, have laid the groundwork for even greater Iranian infiltration of Palestinian politics.
Signs of this expanding influence are already visible. Over the past two years, Iran's ayatollahs have provided substantial resources to their most potent terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, in order to increase the Lebanese militia's presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The results have been dramatic; according to new assessments just issued by the Shin Bet, Israel's vaunted internal security service, the Lebanese terrorist powerhouse is rapidly expanding its control over Palestinian insurgent groups, co-opting existing terror cells and creating new ones. Hezbollah is now believed to direct over 50 separate (mostly secular-nationalist) Palestinian terror cells -- a seven-fold increase since 2002. And Fatah, the PLO's main political faction -- also the party of the Palestinian Authority's new president -- is said to be the most deeply penetrated. In 2004 alone, 38 separate Fatah cells were identified by Israeli intelligence as having been co-opted by Hezbollah.
Iran is also increasing its leverage among the Palestinian Authority's Islamist factions. Over the past two years, Israel's successes against Hamas have led the group to seek an accommodation with Hezbollah, signing an unexpected strategic accord in March of 2004 to cement Hezbollah's--andIran's--influence over the most prominent terrorist organization in the Palestinian territories. The other Islamist terror outfit in the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, meanwhile, is already a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Islamic Republic -- one whose resources have been dramatically increased by Tehran since mid-2002. It's no wonder that Israeli intelligence officials now say that Iran is "in control of terrorism in Israel." When he was in charge of Palestinian politics, Yasser Arafat found this sort of activity troubling enough to publicly oppose it. Back in October, for example, the PLO chairman himself took the unprecedented step of denouncing the Islamic Republic's meddling. "[Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei is working against us," Mr. Arafat had told reporters visiting his Ramallah compound at the time. "He is giving money to all these fanatical groups. Khamenei is a troublemaker."
Now, however, the Palestinian Authority's various factions -- jockeying for political position in the West Bank and Gaza Strip --have begun serious efforts to curry favor with the Islamic Republic. In December of 2004, in an ominous sign of things to come, Farouq Qaddoumi, the new head of Fatah, kicked off a three-day visit to the Islamic Republic. On Qaddoumi's agenda were meetings with Iranian President Mohammed Khatami and other top regime officials, with the goal of "consolidating relations between the Iranian and Palestinian nations." Moreover, as part of this new political bargain, Palestinian officials appear to have embraced the idea of a dramatic expansion of Iranian involvement in local politics. During his visit to Tehran, Qaddoumi publicly welcomed Iranian infiltration, dubbing it a positive sign of the Islamic Republic's "support [for] the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause and the liberation of Palestine."
All this suggests that American and Israeli policymakers could be asking the wrong questions. In the wake of Mr. Abbas' electoral victory, both countries have begun to debate the new Palestinian leader's reformist credentials, as well as his ability to resume real peace negotiations with Israel. But, given the growing inroads Iran is making in the West Bank and Gaza, a more important issue might be the plans for the Palestinian Authority now being laid in Tehran.