Middle Israel: Between Ramallah and Hanoi

Abbas, sadly, does not possess what America really needs from him: leadership.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
"A government needs 100 soldiers for every guerrilla it faces," said Fulgencio Batista in a telephone interview the day he abandoned Havana to Fidel Castro's devices. The Cuban dictator who had turned his country into a continental casino and bordello may have had a point in the narrow military sense of his situation, but the real reason for his downfall was his own corruption and unpopularity, which proved even stronger than Washington's blind backing. It was not the only time American diplomacy insisted on learning the hard way that ignoring a foreign nation's popular will, besides being immoral, is also impractical. That is what happened, for instance, in Vietnam, when the US backed Nguyen Van Thieu, whose non-leadership resulted in the fall of Saigon, and in Iran, where the Shah's conceit resulted in the people's embrace of the Ayatollahs. Now that conditional reflex is once again at play, as Washington is trying to persuade Ehud Olmert to "negotiate" with Mahmoud Abbas, the nominal Palestinian leader. The American approach is understandable. All of us in our daily lives would prefer to buy a car, rent an apartment or take a loan from someone who talks, looks and thinks like us. However, even if our interlocutor were our very clone we would still insist on him owning what he is out to sell. And Abbas, sadly, does not possess what America really needs from him: leadership. FORTUNATELY, Mahmoud Abbas is no Batista. Unlike Yasser Arafat, he hasn't stolen from his people billions of dollars, or even a penny. Moreover, unlike others who have taken a ride on the Palestinian cause, he is a real refugee whose departure as a teenager from Safed was neither his choice nor his fault, and unlike others, who spent their twenties murdering innocent civilians, Abbas spent those years teaching in an elementary school. Yet Abbas's claim to leadership is as flawed as Nguyen Van Thieu's was in its time. The South Vietnamese leader also won an election, in 1971. The only problem was that he ran uncontested. Abbas, effectively, also ran uncontested. Yes, little-known lawyer Mustafa Barghouti won 20 percent and a slew of altogether anecdotal candidates won between them 18% while Abbas won 62% of the poll that crowned him President of the Palestinian Authority. The only problem was that, like in a play from the theater of the absurd, what Abbas knocked out was empty air, while the heavyweight that awaited him in real life watched from outside the ring, leaning on the ropes, manifestly amused, confident and battle hungry. His name was Hamas. The Islamists' self-imposed absence from that contest created the illusion that the Palestinian public espouses the relative moderation for which Abbas had become famous, but in subsequent local and parliamentary elections, when given a choice between Abbas's followers and rivals, the people made a clear choice - against him. Now Washington faces a tough dilemma: Does it back Abbas, the man who treats the West with respect and violence with disdain, or does it ignore him and face up to the Palestinian voters' decision to confront all things Western? Sadly, that is one choice about which not even a sole superpower can decide, because a declaration of war is not a tango, and it only takes one. The Palestinian defiance of the West is neither new - it goes back to the Cold War, when Arafat served the Kremlin, and World War II, when his predecessors embraced Nazi Germany - nor fake; they mean it, and this attitude will only change from within and from below, not from above and certainly not from outside. What's fake is Abbas's leadership. A man who pompously promises America he will fight terror, only to then do nothing other than sermonize, is either disingenuous or ineffective, or both. Yes, the combination of peaceful rhetoric and a presidential title is tempting, but America would do well to remember the peace accord it brokered in May 1983 between Israel and a Lebanese president who was also Western minded, peaceful, and sort of democratically elected. His name was Amin Gemayel, and the deal signed with his administration soon proved meaningless, because he would not confront the bad guys, in his case the Syrians. ABBAS ALSO refused to confront the bad guys, and there is no indication he intends to do so any time soon. The referendum about de-facto recognition of Israel that the Rais is reportedly threatening to hold sounds to some in Washington promising, as did also the talk last week of him intending to build a 10,000-man force with which to confront Hamas. The problem is that this, like everything else about him since his election, is all talk. The fact is that Hamas remains unflinching in its stances, and bellicose in its actions, which in recent days included attacks on PA security chiefs Tarek Abu-Rajeb and Rashid Abu-Shabak. Now, dealing with Abbas before he actually demonstrates resolve, leadership and a fighting spirit will only convince him to continue avoiding confrontation with Hamas. America, at the same time, will soon learn the hard way that what it thought was the beginning of a beautiful relationship was actually a one-night stand with a political joke, a diplomatic charlatan, and a terrorist target. Yes, fighting one's own brethren is a very harsh thing to do; one cannot be blamed for avoiding it, and one does not necessarily deserve praise for engaging in it. Ben-Gurion's famous attack in 1948 on Menachem Begin and his colleagues on the Altalena arms boat will always remain controversial, but there is no arguing that it made people understand the man meant business, and was indeed the one with whom to do business when it came to the Jewish state. Three decades later, when Begin's turn at the helm arrived, the same truth emerged; asked once what made Anwar Sadat decide to meet with Begin, former Egyptian foreign minister Mustafa Khalil retorted, alluding to Begin's grip on the Right: "We knew he could deliver." We know Abbas can't.