alien & sedition.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
  Lessons from Palestine

(Cross-posted, with comments, at Daily Kos)

I don’t expect this blog to spend much time at all discussing Middle East politics (there are other sites that can do it far better), but sometimes you can’t resist commenting, like when you see your government repeating the same stupid mistakes with a persistence that, were we talking about individuals, would be considered proof of insanity. As a grad student I followed closely the fraught but exciting process of Palestinian constitution-making and nation-building that flowed from the period of the Oslo Accords. And, sadly, I can say I predicted the coming of the Second Intifada at a time when everyone else seemed to think that peace was finally at hand.

But I’m certainly nothing close to an expert. Still, watching as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas takes a political gamble he’s almost certain to lose, while Palestinian society slides closer to something like civil war, I can’t help but catalogue some of the Western foolishness which has helped create the crisis.

In the January parliamentary elections, Hamas was successful, not primarily on the basis of its anti-Israel stance, but because it was able to present itself as the grassroots party of reform, in contrast to the corruption and incompetence of Fatah.

The Western – especially American – response to the election result was to cut off financial assistance to the Palestinians. Not only does this reaction undermine the American claim to support democracy in the Middle East (you can’t say you support democracy and then refuse to respect the result of democratic elections) it in fact strengthens Hamas. It gives Hamas an excuse for failure. This is the blindingly obvious (to everyone but the U.S. government) lesson of the Cuban embargo. Moreover, it creates a sense of siege which can only benefit the Hamas leadership, and, by adding to the misery of ordinary Palestinians, increases the appeal of radical elements.

The Western refusal to deal with Hamas also gives Fatah an excuse to avoid undertaking internal reform to address the corruption that led to its defeat, and which continues to marginalize the party in Palestinian politics.

The blatant American favoritism shown to Abbas is also acting as an embrace of death for the Fatah leader. American support for Abbas is clearly not rooted in respect for him as the Palestinian head of state, but as the preferred agent of Western policy in Palestinian society. Maybe the Bush administration has failed to notice, but the United States is not the most popular nation in the Middle East right now.

This, by default, makes the Islamicist party – Hamas – the “patriotic” party, refusing to carry water for foreign interests. This is an unspeakably dangerous development.

The Western game of playing favorites, as Steven Erlanger of the Times points out, thus undermines Palestinian national unity. This prevents Palestinians from establishing the confidence and stability necessary for honest and effective peace negotiations to go forward: a divided society is always more vulnerable to political exploitation by radicals. You may think, so what, a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority is not going to talk peace, anyway. But this is a backwards view. A divided Palestinian society benefits Hamas. A unified Palestinian society benefits moderate and secular elements, and marginalizes Hamas. But for Palestinians, like for people anywhere, external negotiation can only follow internal consensus – not the other way around.

Moreover, as Erlanger observes, the Israelis have rebuffed the efforts of a weak President Abbas to negotiate peace, until the release of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit:

But by doing so, Mr. Olmert has given Hamas a veto over any progress between Israel and the Palestinians, further undermining Mr. Abbas’s standing. Why should Hamas and its allies Iran and Syria, who have no interest in Israeli-Palestinian peace or in helping Mr. Abbas, let Corporal Shalit go?

Eventually, they probably will. And when they choose to do so, in return for Palestinian prisoners, it will be to suit Hamas’s interests. Hamas will use it to try to prove, once again, that Israel responds only to Palestinian “resistance,” not to the kind of nonviolence and patient negotiation that the stubborn Mr. Abbas counsels so forlornly.
The root of all this is the boneheaded refusal to take Palestinian politics seriously. This is the mistake that the United States and Israel make again and again. U.S. and Israeli policy toward internal Palestinian politics has consisted largely of attempts to pick and choose puppets, while ignoring the dynamics that determine which Palestinian leaders have actual influence, and why.

The U.S. and Israel essentially resurrected the political career of Yassir Arafat in the wake of the First Intifida (because how the hell do you negotiate with a bunch of rock-throwing teenagers?). They then went on to carve out the worst possible political space for him.

First, they conferred upon Arafat the status of national liberator. Then, by treating the P.A. as little more than an opportunity to outsource the policing of Palestinians to the Palestinians themselves, and by otherwise scorning Palestinian national aspirations (and remember, during pretty much the entire Clinton administration, it was politically impossible in the United States to even mention the notion of a Palestinian state), and by ignoring Arafat’s own internal tendencies toward corruption and autocracy, they undermined the credibility and authority of Palestinian liberals, exacerbated divisions within Palestinian politics and society, and degraded the promise of democratic Palestinian sovereignty. Then, when the inevitable Second Intifada (this time with guns!) followed – and the failure of the Taba negotiations and Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount were only proximate, not underlying causes – they attempted to marginalize, and literally to besiege Arafat in a way that not only reduced Arafat’s political horizon to a series of internal struggles, but also reinforced the very cult of personality they claimed to oppose. (The Second Intifada, meanwhile, was in fact nothing like the First, which was for the most part an unarmed, genuinely populist "shaking off" directed as much at an out-of-touch PLO as at the Israelis. The Second, by contrast, consisted largely of armed leadership factions channeling popular frustration into a series of sectarian battles for political hegemony over Palestinian society.)

Thus, by the time of Arafat’s death, the West had helped foster a Palestinian Authority with a stillborn civil society (despite the fact that there had been bases upon which a civil society could have been built), a corrupt and personality-driven ruling party (now without its unifying personality), and a popular feeling that life under Fatah and the Oslo regime had failed to live up to its promise and, in fact, had gotten measurably worse. And they were surprised that Hamas won the election?

So here’s where this ties back into the wider point of this blog. Politics matters. When your opponent is successful, it’s not because of the stupidity or fecklessness of his supporters. You can't ignore his success or wish it away. It’s real, and you have to take it seriously, or you risk making the same damn mistake, over and over again, until everything just falls apart. Unfortunately, political discourse in the United States - during both the Clinton and Dubya administrations - has not been amenable to such reality-based consideration of the Middle East situation. This, in turn, helps explain why the situation hasn't gotten any better. Before you can achieve political success, you have to be honest with yourself.


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