Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fatah Congress: Peace As A Very Low Priority

By Barry Rubin

As so often happens, the debate over Fatah’s policy misses the point. The central issue has become Fatah’s theme of saying it wants peace but it is ready to go to resistance, that is, armed struggle.

Those who want to stress how moderate and ready for peace Fatah is, dismiss this as sheer rhetoric, a terrible mistake. Those who wish to point out Fatah’s continued extremism suggest that the group is about to return to battle.

The problem, however, is not that Fatah retains the option of armed struggle but a policy which makes it far more likely that violence will return or, at best, stagnation will reign. In other words, when the PA or Fatah say they want peace it is less a trick than it is an extremely low priority.

After all, it is possible to argue honestly—though it is still debatable--that Fatah is now a status quo power, happy to rule the West Bank and to get massive amounts of aid money to enrich its leaders. What is not possible is to argue honestly that Fatah is an active force for obtaining a comprehensive peace.

But before discussing these points, recall a famous moment that the Fatah Congress and the speech of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority (PA) leader echoes.

November 13, 1974, PLO leader Yasir Arafat addresses the UN. ending his speech with what became his most famous line: “I come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."

Another leader might have said, “Help me to succeed with the olive branch so that I can put down the gun.” But Arafat was stating his belief that diplomacy was not an alternative to violence but only a supplement to it.
Thirty-five years later, that same basic view continues to prevail in Fatah and the Palestinian movement. The threat posture rather than the peace posture pervades the movement.

The idea which still underpins Fatah, PLO, and PA thinking is to demand everything they want, to back that up with intransigence, and if they don’t get it to resort to violence. Missing are all the other tools of international negotiations: compromise, trading off, confidence-building, recognition of the other side’s humanity and interests.

Or to put it simply, as we constantly see—often excessively--in Western diplomacy, you can try to get a mutually beneficial deal by making it seem so sweet and profitable to the other side. Or you can merely say: give me what I want or I will bash you, and what I want is a lot, beyond my capabilities to obtain, and non-negotiable.

This leads to the first problem of Fatah’s stance. When Fatah and the Palestinian movement threaten to bash Israel, it has historically claimed that this will suffice to win total victory. In doing so, it underestimated Israel’s power and resolve. Jews were looked at as cowards; Israel was perceived as not a real state that would inevitably crumble. While this thinking has declined, it still endures more than outsiders realize.
The emphasis, however, has shifted. Now rather than believe they can win by bleeding Israel, they believe they can win by bleeding themselves.

Palestinian martyrdom and suffering is seen as a winning card because it will bring in international support. And, indeed, we have seen this happen. In 2009, for example, Hamas set off a losing war which despite its use of human shields and all the other crimes it committed ended up making Israel look worse and arousing anti-Israel sentiment around the globe. The idea here is that to lose is to win.

But that’s not exactly true. To lose is still to lose, unless one has complete suckers on the other side. Yes, anti-Israel sentiment has risen in the West and Western governments are more critical of Israel. Yet one can respond: So what? That is not going to get Palestinians a state or force an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

The other tool in this regard is the United States. Abbas has said publicly that the PA intends to give nothing and wait for America to deliver Israel bound hand and foot giving the Palestinians everything they want. This isn’t going to happen. Obama won’t do it; and Israel wouldn’t let him do it.

So the PA has a real strategy but not a workable strategy. With talks inevitably failing it must choose between the status quo and violence. Sooner or later, for period of time, this means violence and more devastation for the Palestinians and the West Bank.

The second problem is that while there is a lot of armed struggle education in the PA, there is no peace education. Visitors just love to go to see some Israeli-Palestinian, Arab-Jewish projects where kids play together or footballs are kicked, or some such thing. In sixteen years, I don’t think the PA has sponsored a single such project. It isn’t interested in reducing conflict and rejects what it calls “normalization.”

A whole Palestinian generation is being raised systematically taught to hate Israelis and to believe that killing them is heroic and necessary. And, no, despite various slanders there is absolutely no mirror image here on the other side.

The total lack of peace education and empathy isn’t devastating just because it is something nice to do but because it builds constituency. Palestinian leaders know that if they were ever to make the compromises needed to achieve peace, they would be denounced as traitors, deposed, or killed. Every Palestinian politician and warlord is ready to use militancy, not ability to deliver a better life for Palestinians, as their main asset.

Palestinian politics are still built on the demagoguery of violence not the promise of more and better pita and hummus. Fatah competes with Hamas not on living standards but on effectiveness at violence. As long as that doesn’t change there’s no hope for peace.

Finally, there is that word “resistance.” It has a very specific meaning in the region today as the strategy of Syria, Iran, Hamas, and Hizballah. There is here a veiled threat to go over to the other side.

This is suicidal. But Fatah history is full of such futile gestures. At the root lies the concept, very powerful in the movement and inculcated in the next generation: It’s better to fight 100 years than give up the Palestinian claim to the whole land. And it ‘s better also to fight 100 years than make any interim arrangement which blocks the effort to complete that struggle successfully.

This, and not Western fantasies about Fatah as yearning for a state as soon as possible and eager to serve its people’s needs is what determines the Palestinian movement’s course and blocks any chance for full, formal, and final peace.

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