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No Political Leap of Faith in Palestine? - Fateh, Hamas & Israel-Palestine
What is the latest narrative on Fateh, Hamas and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

8 August   |   2007   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Anyone savvy enough - or simply interested enough - to follow the ever-mutating political developments in Israel and Palestine since Hamas won the legislative elections on 25 January 2006 will have realised that the Palestinian movement and its decades-long national project have entered another critical chapter that is now also characterised by internecine conflicts.

Indeed, and with the Quartet more or less supporting Fateh and boycotting Hamas from the moment the outcome of the ballot box had been made public some eighteen months ago, it became quite unambiguous that a showdown was very much in the offing.

This showdown happened in the Gaza Strip, and we all know the outcome. Hamas routed Fateh, and Muhammad Dahlan’s mini-empire over 1.4 million Palestinian Gazans came painfully crashing down! But hardly had the burning, looting, mutual killings, summary executions and bitter recriminations stopped that we were told this new democratic reality was unacceptable since Hamas had no right to stage a coup d’état and topple Fateh from its political perch.

Consequently, the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, sent his erstwhile security advisor Dahlan to Europe for a spot of much-needed political convalescence and then proceeded with the task of setting up a new emergency government that replaced the national unity coalition chiselled painstakingly in Mecca on 8 February 2007. Ismaïl Haniyyeh was unceremoniously shunted out, and the able bureaucrat Dr Salam Fayyad was invited to head a new government.

However, here is where things got a little awry for legal and political pundits alike. Article 45 of the Palestinian Basic Law grants the president the right to dismiss his prime minister. However, under Article 78[3], the dismissed prime minister continues to head a caretaker government until such time as the new cabinet takes the oath of office following a vote of confidence by the Legislative Council.

As Anis al-Qasem, who oversaw the drafting of the Palestinian Basic Law, and his fellow constitutional lawyer Eugene Cotran, pointed out, the president neither enjoyed the prerogative to appoint a new government without such parliamentary approval nor the right to suspend articles of the Basic Law simply to spare the new PM the need to win such a vote.

In my opinion, however, the standoff between two Palestinian factions goes beyond the juridical matter of executive versus legislative powers. After all, we in the Middle East know full well that raw politics has a convenient way of supplanting legal principles during expedient moments. In fact, what is occurring today on the ground goes to the heart of the Palestinian narrative and underlines the way in which a lethal combination of Palestinian intra-fighting and Israeli occupation of Palestinian land are together re-modelling the conflict and perhaps setting the scenario for a ‘different’ political sketch.

So what are the realities of Palestine today?

I believe that those realities remain two-fold: they consist of the ravages of an Israeli occupation that are eroding Palestinian rights and of the bitter vagaries of intra-Palestinian brinkmanship. Just reading the reports of grassroots organisations like the Israeli Breaking the Silence, the Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign or even the international EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine & Israel) would provide anyone with an appreciation of the grim realities affecting this much-maligned people - some of it self-induced too: the mistreatment of Palestinians and the systematic abuse of their human rights, a wall encircling let alone gnawing into Palestinian land, and more settlements being erected on occupied land.

In her Westminster Hall Debates on 26th June about the Middle East peace process, Clare Short, British Member of Parliament and former International Development Secretary under former PM Tony Blair, recalled the ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions) statistics showing that Israel had demolished 18,000 Palestinian homes since 1967 and has been pursuing the deliberate creation of an apartheid system whereby Palestinians are being enclosed in four independent homelands, surrounded by a wall that eats into their lives and livelihoods, with numerous makhsomot (checkpoints) that control Palestinian movements in and out of their local ghettoes.

The twin realities of Israeli occupation and Palestinian infighting notwithstanding, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been encouraging Palestinians and Israelis to continue their dialogue to negotiate a “declaration of principles” that could lead to an end-game for the conflict. She has also been trying to shore up the so-called moderate Arab position as represented mainly by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. But many pundits consider this latest American initiative as a way of bolstering the position of Fateh, weakening further that of Hamas, and imposing a controversial regional Pax Americana.

I believe this strategy is also doomed to failure. As the International Crisis Group (ICG) indicated in its report After Gaza of 2nd August, a new Fateh-Hamas power-sharing deal is a pre-requisite for any sustainable peace. It added that the current “West Bank First” strategy pursued by some Western powers posits that progress in the West Bank and corresponding misery in Gaza would weaken the Islamists and strengthen Fateh. Alas, this is merely fanciful and unreconstructed thinking, and one that has been shown not to work time and again. The US Administration often chooses the evidence it wants to believe, and in this instance ignores the political weight and programmed behaviour of Hamas. Isolating this Islamist movement, however, will only strengthen its more militant wing and thereby wreak more havoc - not facilitate more peace - in the region. As Mou’in Rabbani, senior analyst at ICG highlighted, “a diplomatic agreement reached by one faction to outmanoeuvre its rivals is an illusion. No Palestinian state can be built without Gaza, and Palestinians cannot end the occupation if they are at war with themselves.”

I am concerned for instance by the hopes that were hyped up in Washington and - correspondingly – in Jerusalem and Ramallah only last week which stipulated that the meeting in the biblical city of Jericho between Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert will have produced a set of principles that would work toward the final outcome of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The thinking seemed to suggest that so long as an ultimate vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace plan could be etched on paper, then it no longer mattered how long it would take for subsequent negotiations to fulfil it.

As things go, this meeting did not produce anything more concrete than promises for future meetings and negotiations for Palestinian statehood. As the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat commented after the talks, “Abbas did not come to the meeting with a magic wand, and neither did Mr. Olmert." True, there was no magical wand at the meeting, but there was the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp just across the street from the Intercontinental Hotel where the meeting took place that should have helped focus the minds of the negotiators of the time bomb that is ticking away and the existential issues facing both sides.

It is almost a truism to observe that we are witnessing the emergence of an Oslo 2 procedure that is impervious to the past experiences and failures of Oslo 1 let alone to the fact that Israel under Ehud Olmert cannot dare go anywhere near the key issues that matter for the success of any viable peace process. Indeed, to my mind, the policies being pursued by the president of the Palestine Authority in insisting upon the hegemony of Fateh over Hamas does not represent the best approach for ending the feud between the Palestinian factions let alone for tailoring peace with Israel. By pursuing what the Arab street in its majority - regardless of their rulers’ positions - perceives as US-inspired, pro-Israel and anti-Arab skewered policies, Palestinians could end up endorsing what Uri Avnery, the Israeli peace campaigner, admonished could well happen - namely, that Abu Mazen would act as a quisling.

Quisling: this is a caustic word in any context, not least the Palestinian socio-cultural one today. But even if this were to happen, it still would not usher in any real peace. On the one hand, I cannot see how Olmert could agree today - when he has been weakened by the Winograd Commission Interim Report (an Israeli government-appointed commission of inquiry chaired by retired judge Eliyahu Winograd, which investigated and drew lessons from the second Lebanon war) - to concede to any Palestinian self-determination let alone the resolution of the Jerusalem and refugee issues. Moreover, what will the final boundaries be in case of any accord? When Israelis claim they will return 90% of land back to the Palestinians, are they including or excluding Greater Jerusalem which constitutes almost 20% of the West Bank, or Latroun and the Jordan Valley which together again constitute another 30%? As the Palestinian writer Hani Masri commented wryly in Dar Al Hayat last week, the loss of Gaza to Hamas means that Abbas now feels free to go forth with his own plan for an independent Palestine that does not appear to be contiguous or viable - but succeeds in conferring the fig-leaf of some legitimacy upon it.

Danny Rubenstein, senior commentator for Ha’aretz on Palestinian affairs, is not alone in writing that the resolution of the Palestinian conflict does not lie in an Oslo 2 version of a peace process. Nor is it to be found in one where the West Bank and Gaza are hewn from each other. Rather, the solution that needs to be tabled at the forthcoming US-convened international meeting in autumn should address the core issues of the conflict - Jerusalem, final boundaries, settlements and refugees. All other attempts at peacemaking will be seen for what they are - pacification at best, stalling for time at worst - and would stoke the ire of the Arab and Muslim worlds and as such become a recruiting sergeant for an al-Qaeda-like ugly ideology.

If the Bush Administration has truly experienced the political equivalent of a Damascene conversion and is now solemn in its last-minute irenic intentions to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even if for no other reason than to mask its costly Iraqi mistakes, it must learn to act as an honest broker. Simultaneously, Israel must undertake painful compromises for peace that entail territorial concessions and the relinquishment of control over another people; Palestinian leaders must stop thinking of their own solipsistic interests or weave together absolutist demands that will simply not be met and must focus instead on the realities of their wanting people; Arab rulers must stop playing second fiddle to Western interests or pretending to be affected by the Palestinian collective pain but use their considerable geo-political clout to push forward the Arab Peace Plan; and finally the EU must stop being a genial but unimpressive banker employing a charismatic Middle East envoy called Tony Blair who articulates the non-position of the Quartet to date. If peace were to take hold, then something must give - and give soon - on the ground.

All this, I believe, means that the parties must go back to the Arab Initiative that led to its Peace Plan which trades pan-Arab recognition of Israel in return for the latter withdrawing from occupied lands. This is the sole political egress to the conflict, and its main components can no longer be swept under the rug by bandying about an otiose roadmap that was never really a road, never truly a map, and therefore hardly a roadmap.

Let me wrap up this article with another small but portentous warning. If the world community does not wake up from its torpor and labour sedulously toward a two-state solution to this conflict, it is quite clear to me that Palestinian diminishing hopes and lands, alongside their realities, aspirations and desperations in the West Bank and Gaza, will eventually come together and direct themselves toward claims for a one-state solution. They will adopt the same struggle of the Arabs who are Israeli citizens, something many Arab academics are writing about already, and that would certainly ring all the Jewish alarm bells in Israel.

I have been repeating it mantra-like for years: we need to get out of the rut of old clichés, worn-out formulae and slick obfuscation. The masses are not stupid, no matter what rulers and politicians think of them, and they would shoulder the brunt of any solution that grants them their rights. What is sorely lacking - and what we therefore need today - is a combination of vision and courage for a political leap of faith in Palestine.

But, alas, there is such a gaping vacancy of leadership across the whole political spectrum today.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2007   |   8 August


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