The spat between New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad must be afflicting liberals with severe cognitive dissonance. But there’s a very important lesson to be drawn from it.
The contretemps began when Cohen published a column on Friday that included numerous direct quotes from Fayyad, many of which were highly unflattering to the Palestinian Authority’s ruling party, Fatah. “This party, Fatah, is going to break down, there is so much disenchantment,” Cohen quoted Fayyad as saying. “Our story is a story of failed leadership, from way early on. It is incredible that the fate of the Palestinian people has been in the hands of leaders so entirely casual, so guided by spur-of-the-moment decisions, without seriousness. We don’t strategize, we cut deals in a tactical way and we hold ourselves hostage to our own rhetoric.”
Ben Birnbaum’s thoughtful, well-reported piece on the Israeli peace process is one of those articles that can easily be interpreted as in accordance with anyone’s preexisting worldview: it’s a Rorschach. If you think Mahmoud Abbas is primarily responsible for the lack of peace, that will be confirmed by the description of Ehud Olmert practically begging him to take an incredibly generous deal and Abbas walking away. If you think Olmert is to blame for offering a peace plan on which he could not follow through simply to save his reputation as he prepared to leave office under a cloud of scandal and an approval rating close to zero, you will shake your head at the desperation he showed.
If you think Olmert and Abbas were peacemakers surrounded by petty schemers, you will not be convinced otherwise as you read of Tzipi Livni’s advisors telling Abbas not to take the deal so she could swoop in and claim the glory for herself, or by the same old mindless and manipulative game being played by “advisors” and “negotiators” on the Palestinian side who have been there forever and a day. (The Israeli names change over time, but the Palestinian names are always Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, and Hanan Ashrawi.) So that’s the politicians; what about the people? In Israel, the people support peace, Birnbaum reports. The Palestinian people, however–that’s another story. Birnbaum chooses a delicate framing when he references a recent poll that “showed Palestinians preferred Hamas’s approach to ending the Israeli occupation over that of Abbas by a two-to-one margin.” I’m sure everyone can imagine what “Hamas’s approach” would mean, but for the record here’s the actual question from that poll (results, from left to right, are: total, in the West Bank, and in Gaza):
The evolution of the political power structure across the Mideast has a recent track record of disappointment and unmet expectations. As Turkey sought to take a leadership role in the Middle East, hopes were high for a technically secular, NATO-allied power. But of course Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Putinesque turn and support for terrorist organizations as part of his pan-Islamist ambitions poured cold water on those hopes.
And Egypt’s close relationship with the U.S. and formal peace with Israel didn’t stop a virulently anti-Semitic Islamist from taking power in Cairo and moving closer to his Hamas allies. But perhaps no country’s influence in the region has taken as significant a step up as that of Qatar. Colum Lynch reports that the UN has found a new way to recognize the country’s new standing:
Today Mahmoud Abbas begins the ninth year of his four-year term, having originally taken office on January 15, 2005, after a quickie election held a few weeks after Yasir Arafat died in the ninth year of his own four-year term. As Daled Amos notes, “it’s nice work if you can get it.”
Palestinian democracy has been a bit of a disappointment: each of the peace-partner presidents were offered a state on virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in Jerusalem, and each of them walked away. Each time, the Palestinian public not only did not protest their president’s rejection of “the long overdue Palestinian state”; they did not even demand another presidential election when the presidential terms expired. Like his predecessor, Abbas will end up serving as president longer after his term expired than when he was legally in office.
David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel, writes that there will likely be “a different Israel” after the January 22 election–one that has voted to reject a Palestinian state. He attributes the “dramatic imminent shift” not to the Israeli electorate moving right (total seats held by the right and left may not change materially), but to a right that has become “far-right.” The prime minister will stay the same, but he will head “a very different party.”
This analysis ignores an important fact: the Israeli left has also moved right–and its own shift has been even more dramatic. In “We Gave Peace a Chance,” Daniel Gordis notes that what destroyed the Israeli left was four years of the “Palestinian Terror War (mistakenly called the second intifada),” which disabused Israelis of the idea that the Palestinian leadership wanted a deal, and the fact that Arabs have become ever more candid about their ultimate goal, with Mahmoud Abbas telling Egyptian TV “he would never, in a thousand years, recognize a Jewish state.” Gordis writes that “Israelis across the spectrum are acknowledging what they used to only whisper: the old paradigm is dying”:
Mahmoud Abbas celebrated the start of the ninth year of his four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority in Cairo today by attending a summit with the leader of the rival Hamas group. Abbas was summoned to the meeting due to pressure from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who is expected to help pressure Gulf nations to donate money to the perpetually bankrupt PA. The Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt has long sought to promote the idea of Palestinian unity, something that would strengthen the position of their Hamas allies. This worries Abbas, who also remains the head of the hopelessly incompetent and corrupt Fatah movement that runs the PA. But while there is little likelihood that this latest conclave between the two groups will lead to an actual merger and power sharing in the West Bank and Gaza, the signs are clear that they are moving closer to each other in other ways.
That was made plain by another and perhaps more significant event today. The Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade is the terrorist wing of Fatah and was responsible for many terrorist attacks on Israelis during the second intifada. It hasn’t been heard from much in recent years as Abbas played the moderate to the applause of Americans and left-wing Israelis. But the march by armed fighters belonging to the group in a refugee camp near Nablus was an ominous warning that the reports filtering out of the West Bank about plans for a third intifada by the PA may be more than rumors. This gives the lie to the claims made by both the Obama administration and Israeli President Shimon Peres on behalf of Abbas’s bona fides as a peacemaker. This is something the Obama administration ought to take into consideration before they launch another attempt to pressure Israel into concessions to jump-start peace talks.
Behind much of the Obama government’s pressure on Israel over the past four years has been the idea that concessions to the Palestinian Authority would strengthen moderates and increase the chances of peace. Of course, 20 years of such concessions have done no such thing, as even the so-called moderates are unwilling or incapable of recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Though the U.S. split from its European allies on the question of supporting an upgrade of the PA’s status at the UN, the administration appears ready to back a new push for peace in the coming year aimed at boosting PA President Mahmoud Abbas against his Hamas rivals. But as Khaled Abu Toameh reports, a shift in the strategy employed by Abbas’s Fatah may render the president’s plans moot.
As Abu Toameh writes in his blog for the Gatestone Institute, Fatah and Hamas may be working together in the coming months rather than against each other. Their common goal will be to capitalize on the “victories” won by Hamas in its military standoff with Israel and Fatah at the UN by launching a new round of violence whose purpose will be to heighten Israel’s diplomatic isolation. If this is true, it won’t silence those who will persist in believing that Israeli settlements or other distractions from Palestinian intransigence are the real obstacle to peace. But it will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the president to sell the Israelis on the idea that Fatah is a partner for peace.
Kirsten Powers is a thoughtful liberal who’s willing to challenge the party line. At times, though, her arguments strike me as misguided. Such is the case with her column in The Daily Beast titled, “What Evangelicals Get Wrong About Israel and the Palestinians.”
Ms. Powers quotes Todd Deatherage, co-founder of the Telos Group, an organization that “works with American evangelicals to help positively transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” According to Mr. Deatherage, “What a lot of Christians don’t understand is the importance of realizing both people [the Israelis and the Palestinians] have legitimate connections to the land.” American evangelicals, we’re told, need to “understand the Palestinian perspective.”
“Palestinians have a need for dignity and respect, and a deep attachment to the land,” according to Deatherage. As for Powers, she criticizes American evangelicals for their “blind loyalty to Israel, with little to no regard for the plight of the Palestinian people.” She then asks, in the context of the Palestinians, “Since when is dehumanizing people—God’s creation—an acceptable Christian view?”
The answer, of course, is never. But it seems to me that both Powers and Deatherage are missing some important points.
With today’s escalation of hostilities between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces, this report by the New York Times has been overshadowed, naturally, by events. But it is also, in a way, complemented by them. The report discusses memos and talking points sent around by the Israeli government to its diplomatic missions around the world on the topic of the Palestinian Authority’s plans to ask for upgraded status at the United Nations.
Much of it is unremarkable. It notes that the Israeli government acknowledges that PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s plans violate the Oslo accords and constitute a unilateral breach of mutual agreements between the representative governments of Israel and the Palestinians. It also acknowledges that Israel has its own unilateral actions it can take if Abbas truly wants to go down this road. (I’ve written about “coordinated unilateralism” before; this isn’t quite what that is, but it would take a very similar form.) The Times mentions a particularly harsh memo, apparently written by staffers in Israel’s Foreign Ministry:
It’s fair to say that an underappreciated obstacle to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is Hamas’s rule of Gaza. For such an agreement to take shape, Hamas would have to either consent or not be in charge of the strip. Though a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is unlikely, even if it were to happen, it might only bring about Hamas’s conquest of the West Bank, thereby doubling, rather than solving, the problem posed by Hamas. And since Hamas won’t abide a true peace with Israel, it’s difficult to solve the conflict under current conditions.
With that in mind, those who seek to end the isolation of Hamas are strengthening the terrorist group’s hand against Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah and the Palestinian Authority’s main governing structure. In this scenario, it isn’t Israel that loses nearly as much as Abbas and Salam Fayyad, in whose corner the West claims to be. So while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleads with the international community to help strengthen the PA’s balance sheet, the opponents of Palestinian reconciliation are helping Hamas, at Fatah’s expense. The latest such actor is the government of Qatar.
The World Bank issued another report on the Palestinian economy yesterday, and its conclusions were utterly predictable: The Palestinian Authority faces a fiscal crisis, and desperately needs additional handouts on top of the $1.14 billion it’s already getting this year; and the crisis is mostly Israel’s fault. But while blaming Israel is always easy, the truth is the PA hasn’t a prayer of ever resolving its fiscal crisis without addressing the real elephant in the room: Gaza.
According to PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Gaza accounts for fully 48 percent of the PA’s expenditures. But since Hamas took over the territory in 2007, revenues received from Gaza have plummeted from 28 percent to a mere 4 percent of the PA’s budget. In other words, the PA has a hole equal to 44 percent of its budget due solely to its unbalanced income and outlays on Gaza. Nothing Israel does will be able to compensate for that.
The Arab Spring has made reporters understandably excitable at the first sign of popular discontent in the Arab world, especially in places previously unaffected by the revolutionary wave. And so the Associated Press report out of Hebron yesterday took the step of repeating for readers just how unprecedented the Palestinian anti-government protests were. It began with this sentence: “Palestinian demonstrators fed up with high prices and unpaid salaries shuttered shops, halted traffic with burning tires and clashed with riot police in demonstrations across the West Bank on Monday— the largest show of popular discontent with the Palestinian Authority in its 18-year existence.”
Seven paragraphs later, the reporters made explicit the comparison, and in an attempt to ward off the dismissal of the analogy repeated again the rarity factor at work here: “The unrest was reminiscent of the mass demonstrations of the Arab Spring that topped aging dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and sparked civil war in Syria. While there is no sign that the protests are approaching that level, they nonetheless are the largest show of popular discontent with the governing Palestinian Authority in its 18-year history.” Yes, the AP is right: the protests have reached unprecedented levels. But the more interesting aspects of the public unrest are not the parallels with the Arab Spring, but the contrasts.
Tomorrow will be the 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympic Massacre, and the New York Times started the commemoration early by publishing a piece of rank revisionism about the event on their op-ed page. Author Paul Thomas Chamberlain was given space today to argue that the reaction to the event set back efforts to talk to the Palestinians since, he claims, Americans wrongly attributed the terrorist atrocity to Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization. He goes on to argue that similarly false conclusions about Hamas and Hezbollah are preventing us from advancing the cause of peace today.
Chamberlain is incorrect to assert that it is almost always a mistake to attempt to crush terrorists rather than to try to understand their grievances and make nice to them. But his problem is not merely conceptual. The notion that demonizing all advocates of a cause because of the actions of a bloodthirsty few may be defensible in some cases. But the example he chooses to bolster this case is actually false. As many Palestinians involved in the PLO subsequently admitted, Black September was not a dissident group within the Palestinian movement. Rather, it was set up by Arafat to do things that his Fatah party could not. Abu Iyad, Arafat’s chief of security and a founding member of Fatah, wrote that Black September was an “auxiliary” of Fatah, not a competitor, which could commit acts for which Arafat could deny responsibility. Had the United States accepted Arafat’s denial, it would have done exactly what he and the perpetrators of Munich wanted.
Back in July, I wrote about the billions of dollars in aid given to the Palestinians by the United States and the continued lack of institution building with that money. I asked where the money goes, and noted that Jonathan Schanzer and Elliot Abrams were among those calling attention to Palestinian corruption by testifying at a congressional hearing on the subject. Corruption seems to be one of the prominent money wasters in Palestinian governance.
But it would be inaccurate to say the people don’t see any of the money. In fact, those who take part in the ongoing terror war against Israel see their share of it (a share that goes to their families if they choose “martyrdom” through suicide bombing). A portion of the Palestinian budget, and of foreign aid from some of Israel’s enemies abroad, is earmarked each year for violence. How much does such activity permeate Palestinian bookkeeping? The Times of Israel gives us a clue:
There was something interesting about the reaction to the consummation of the Fatah-Hamas unity pact yesterday. The agreement, which confirmed the entry of the Islamist terrorist group into the governing structure of the Palestinian Authority and the exit of the PA’s reform-minded Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, provoked the expected harsh words from Israel’s government. In Washington, the reaction from the Obama administration was equally predictable as the State Department spokesperson withheld judgment. Some members of Congress served notice that the PA’s embrace of Hamas meant the end of U.S. aid.
But the main conclusion to be drawn from the reaction to what can only be termed a momentous turn of events is something entirely different. The lack of alarm or even much worry about the impact of Hamas on the peace process makes it clear not only is there no more peace process to worry about, but that the Palestinians have made themselves irrelevant.