Friday, April 30, 2010

PA Prime Minister Sets Forward Palestinian Strategy: Independence, Not Peace

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By Barry Rubin

A new interview with Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is especially significant because at this precise moment the key question is: Will the PA renew negotiations with Israel either directly or indirectly? Israel has already agreed to talk and made two major concessions at the request of the United States: suspending construction in Jerusalem outside the 1967 borders and agreeing to discuss all issues.

So it is nominally up to Fayyad whether things will move forward or not. President Barack Obama just said that he will come down hard on Israel or the PA if they sabotage talks. Obviously, it is only the PA that is now doing so. Equally obviously, Obama isn't going to criticize or press the PA too hard. So what's going to happen next?

There should be a clear understanding that Fayyad—who was recently named as one of Time Magazine’s most powerful leaders in the world—has no real power. He has no political base, is not a member of the dominant Fatah organization, and has no personal loyalty from the security services.

He’s only in office for one reason: the Western financial donors demand it and the money on which the PA depends wouldn’t come in otherwise. That’s why the Fatah bosses keep him on and for no other reason. Even having the post of prime minister at all was something the donors forced on the PA.

Nice guy? Yes. Relatively moderate? Yes. Powerful? No.

What is Fayyad’s program: that he is just going to announce that Palestine is an independent country in about one year. And what does this mean? A total violation of every agreement made by the PA and its PLO parent in the last 17 years. Instead of independence being the product of a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel, which requires compromises, he wants simply to declare it and then have the world impose that decision on Israel. Fayyad’s euphemism for this was “a healthy unilateralism.”

In general, the Western media never point out this point.

Fayyad's plan isn’t going to happen but it is an understandably attractive strategy for him and the PA. The strategy is to make no concessions; make no commitments; just do it. If Palestine were to become an independent state then it could, for example, allow cross-border attacks on Israel and then demand Arab military and UN diplomatic support if Israel retaliated.

Not to mention the fact that Fayyad and the PA has no control in the Gaza Strip. Fayyad insists that once a state is achieved this problem will magically disappear. He can't or won't even acknowledge that Hamas was the aggressor in seizing the Gaza Strip because he and his colleagues want to make a deal with Hamas. That will never happen either.

Incidentally, I was in the room the last time the Palestinians, in the form of the Palestine National Council, declared independence. It was at their Algiers meeting in 1988 and the goal then was also to get a state without having to negotiate a deal with Israel. It didn’t work that time either.

So what is most important here is that Fayyad cannot actually do very much. For example, he can say, “The absence of security has been our undoing” and he wants to end the "security pluralism” that produced a “state of chaos and militias.”

And what is he going to do about it? Merge the multiple security forces into one or two well-defined agencies? Replace the current leaders? None of this is going to happen because the generals and Fatah bosses won’t let it happen. A year from now the same problem will continue to exist.

So it is with all the basic PA difficulties. Don’t get me wrong. The PA does have some achievements to its credit. It has kept the level of violence low and achieved the minimal cooperation with Israel necessary. The economy has improved, though this is largely due to massive foreign aid. Hamas has been kept at bay. In short, the PA is doing enough to maintain the status quo peacefully and bring some improvements in living standards.

This could break down over night, however, if the PA decides out of alleged “frustration” to relaunch war on Israel. And that decision will not be Fayyad’s to make.

Fayyad says he will build institutions that include better schools, infrastructure, and a court system. Yes, this is what needs to be done. But this is what Yasir Arafat was supposed to start doing in 1994. The Palestinians on the West Bank who were entering school then are now having children and this promise hasn’t been fulfilled.

Setting deadlines in this context is a joke. Here’s an example. In 2000 we were told that a negotiated solution was needed as soon as possible because Arafat could not hold back the alleged tidal wave of pressure demanding a state immediately. So the United States and Israel supported the Camp David summit. It failed because Arafat rejected peace. We were then told the exact opposite by some of the people demanding speed: that having this meeting was a big mistake because Arafat was being rushed and pressured.

Fayyad said in the interview: “Every day we do work consistent with that to create the sense of a state growing. Bad things happen every day but you’re bound to have a lucky bounce and we have to be ready for it.”

What might “a lucky bounce” be? President Barack Obama supporting such a unilateral action? One that would take place without security guarantees for Israel, without bans on inviting in foreign armies, with no limits on armaments, with no agreement on resettling refugees in Palestine. And equally a new state of Palestine which would either allow or not try too hard to stop cross-border raids, and whose official media, schools, and mosques with state-appointed imams would carry out endless incitement for wiping Israel off the map in future?

Fayyad is the best the PA could do in terms of having a prime minister at present. A stable two-state solution would be a good thing but it is not something on which the world’s future depends. And a two-state outcome would only be a step forward if it did create a more stable region and a lasting solution rather than one that would quickly break down in renewed conflict.

In practice, Fayyad might be the man who could help produce a stable status quo as a longer-term transition to a two-state peace, but he cannot deliver some near-instant solution. An “unconditional” declaration of independence is a prelude to disaster. Precisely because Fayyad knows this he won’t launch such a thing, without that “lucky bounce” of misguided Western support.

Pretending otherwise is not going to help anyone, most of all the Palestinians and certainly not U.S. interests.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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