Monday, August 23, 2010

So You Want to Hold Direct Talks? First, Study Palestinian Politics

By Barry Rubin

While explaining how the U.S. and European effort to start direct talks was going to fail because it neglected to consider Palestinian politics and ideology, I'm still amazed by how rapidly this point was proven. Briefly, the Palestinian Authority continues to be dominated by the politics of rejectionism and the fact that Hamas rules almost half of the land it purports to speak for must be taken into account.

Sure enough, even before the official PA acceptance of the U.S. invitation to direct talks, we've seen these developments:

--Hamas announces that since it totally rejects direct talks (much less any peace with Israel) as treason, it is stopping its own negotiations with the PA for cooperation or merger. This shows clearly that the PA cannot reach any deal with Israel (even if it wanted to do so) and deliver on its commitments because of the Hamas factor. Do also remember that not only does Hamas run the Gaza Strip but also has a very large base of support in the PA-ruled West Bank.

--Far from welcoming talks and expressing his eagerness to make peace and live alongside Israel, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas explains that he only requested permission from his true masters (the Fatah leadership) to go to talks for one month. It should be clearly understood that the Fatah leaders include three groups: old companions of Yasir Arafat, ideological hardliners, and perhaps about ten percent relative moderates. It doesn't want to make a permanent compromise peace with Israel.

--Some Fatah leaders are claiming that even this one-month permission isn't valid since there wasn't a quorum at the relevant meeting. In some cases, leaders stayed away on purpose so they could block direct negotiations.

--Other PA and Fatah leaders are unhappy that the U.S. officials claimed there were no preconditions for direct talks since the Palestinians wanted to be given everything (especially the 1967 borders and a state whether or not negotiations succeeded) in advance. Basically, they only want to accept a state from Western hands without any real compromises with Israel (recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, permanent end of conflict, settlement of all Palestinian refugees in Palestine, border changes, non-militarization, and security guarantees).

--It is also being pointed out in Palestinian circles that Mahmoud Abbas has been an unelected leader of the PA for two years, since elections were cancelled by him. The current government thus lacks legitimacy and a mandate to make any deal.

This is only the beginning! Ask me some time about how the PLO handled Jordan's King Hussein in the 1980s when he tried to get it to make peace with Israel. Briefly, it kept playing bureaucratic games about preconditions, contradictory statements, and failure to keep commitments until he gave up. The same story has repeatedly foiled peacemaking efforts.

None of this makes sense unless the observer comprehends that Israel wants peace with a two-state solution; the Palestinian leaderships want total victory and Israel's destruction. They will make no agreement and accept no state unless convinced that it won't make it impossible for them to get everything eventually. I'm sad to explain this and wish the facts were otherwise. But they aren't.

A case can be made for current Western policies in terms of government self-interest (to look as if the leaders are making real accomplishments) and national self-interest (keep the issue quiet and be able to claim they are doing something to Arabs and Muslims in order to keep things quiet and get on with other priorities). It is doubtful, though, whether many anti-Western, pro-Islamist Arabs or Muslims are impressed into changing their views. If these governments consciously know they are acting cynically this limits the damage.

But meanwhile, a lot of the study or analysis of the Middle East is like insisting that the moon is made of green cheese, then either ignoring or explaining away every astronomical observation and scientific experiment that showed this idea to be wrong.

For example, here's how The Economist puts it:

"Mr Abbas came close to agreement with Ehud Olmert, a former Israeli leader, at least on borders. He wants to pick up where he left off. But having pinned his political career on these talks, his credibility, and that of the Palestinian Authority he leads, may be weakened further if they seem a farce. Mr Netanyahu’s intentions are still opaque."

Let's analyze this. The pattern in talks is that Israel makes an offer of what it will give in exchange for what it wants. The PA then responds: OK, we'll take your offers as concessions. We haven't made any. And that will be our starting point. So we will now discuss the additional unilateral concessions you will make while we don't offer anything.

The above paragraph may sound like a satire but it is precisely how things have worked repeatedly, without anyone in the Western media catching on.

The second part of The Economist quote is equally ludicrous.

On these issues, see here and here. For a deeper look at Fatah and PA politics, see here and here. And best of all, you can read my books Revolution Until Victory and (with Judy Colp Rubin) Yasir Arafat.

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