Interesting Times: The Palestinian Gorbachev

We are witnessing the beginning of a necessary crisis.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
The to and fro of the Arab-Israeli conflict is always tricky to follow, but now there seems to be a particularly confusing mess. While Hamas and Fatah forces are shooting at each other, Palestinian missiles are raining on Sderot, and Israeli missiles are raining on the terrorists. Meanwhile, Israel's leader is peddling his new withdrawal plan around Europe and hoping to negotiate with Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the same PA that is now openly placing an Israeli town under siege. What is going on? We are seeing a dual rolling crisis, one that is long overdue, and whose resolution - one way or another - will be critical to the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace for years to come. The two halves of the crisis are really two sides of the same coin. One half is a battle between Palestinians over whether they want to "struggle" or to negotiate. The other is over the seriousness of the international community's demands that the Palestinians end terror and accept Israel. For years, the West lavishly funded the Palestinians - more than any other people on earth on a per-capita basis - despite the Palestinian leadership's being deeply implicated in an ongoing terrorist offensive against Israel. Neither rampant official Palestinian corruption, nor continuous incitement to terrorism from official Palestinian media, nor the failure to confront and dismantle terrorist organizations - violating Palestinian commitments and international demands - affected the flow of funding to the PA. Then Hamas won control of the Palestinian parliament. Suddenly, the contradiction between Western funding and the complete Palestinian flouting of basic Western conditions for that funding became too great to ignore. The crisis had arrived, landing in the laps of both Fatah and Hamas. The first stage of this crisis is a fight between Fatah and Hamas over whether the PA needs to go back to pretending that it is not involved in terrorism, rather than, as Hamas is doing, openly justifying terrorism and admitting that it is bombarding Israeli civilians with missiles. The outcome has yet to be determined. The real test of the international community will be whether it forces the Palestinians into a second stage of crisis, in which a real debate ensues over whether it is time to accept a state and make peace with Israel. Many people may think the Palestinians want a state, and assume that it is Israeli foot-dragging that is preventing this. Actually, this question is far from being resolved on the Palestinian side. FROM THE PLO'S founding in 1964 (when the West Bank and Gaza were held by Jordan and Egypt, respectively) until 1974, when it adopted the "phased plan" in Algiers, the Palestinians regarded accepting any state over less than Israel's entire territory as unacceptable. Since 1974, the PLO has been willing to accept a state over what it points out is only 22 percent of the territory west of the Jordan river, but only as a platform for the "liberation of all of Palestine." Hamas, by contrast, was historically never willing to accept even this tactical concession. By signing Oslo in 1993, the PLO ostensibly turned its tactical concession into a permanent one and embraced the two-state solution. But it never said as much to its people; in fact, often quite the opposite. Whenever he was accused of selling out at Oslo, Yasser Arafat continued to invoke the 1974 plan. As Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti - now thought of as a moderate - put it in the New Yorker of July 2, 2001: "We may lose or win, but our eyes will continue to aspire to the strategic goal; namely, Palestine from the [Jordan] to the sea." IN OTHER WORDS, not even Fatah, let alone Hamas, has ever told Palestinians that they cannot have their cake and eat it too. Its leaders have never told their people, "If you want a state, you have to give up the dream of going back to Haifa and Jaffa, and make peace with Israel." In contrast, our leaders, including those from the Right, have been telling Israelis, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in his address to Congress: " For thousands of years, we Jews have been nourished and sustained by a yearning for our historic land... [But d]reams alone will not enable us to preserve a secure democratic Jewish state... We have to relinquish part of our dream to leave room for the dream of others, so that all of us can enjoy a better future. For this painful but necessary task my government was elected." The current intra-Palestinian battle is not yet between those willing to make equivalent statements to their people and those who reject peace with Israel. It is an interesting question whether the current fight will, inadvertently, lead to that second stage. Mahmoud Abbas, in this sense, may be like Mikhail Gorbachev; a reformer who tried to save a system, and ended up unraveling it. The Soviet system was based on a lie - that it was a revolution struggling for justice and equality rather than the absolute and unshakable power of its leaders. The Palestinian system's lie is that it has already decided to make peace with Israel, and that it is Israel's reluctance to cede territory that is gumming up the works. The great Palestinian secret is that its polity has not even begun to openly debate this question, much less resolve it in favor of making peace with Israel. The only Palestinian public figure I know of - and I hope to be corrected - who has unabashedly favored abandoning the "right of return" to Israel is Sari Nusseibeh, president of al-Quds University and co-signer (with Ami Ayalon) of the "People's Voice" petition. And not even he, I suspect, would be willing to say that the Jewish people have as much right to a Jewish state here as Palestinians do. Before there can be peace, Palestinians must decide they want it. The task of the international community is to take its own demands seriously enough to force a Palestinian debate and decision on this seminal question.