The Region: Abbas is trapped

He cannot make peace either with Israel or with Hamas.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
T.S. Eliot wrote memorably in The Hollow Men: Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the shadow. In the case of the peace process and all the great ideas for fixing everything in Arab-Israel relations, the shadow has been Palestinian leaders' unwillingness - and now also inability - to make a compromise agreement ending the conflict. Close examination of the movement's ideology, organization and structure shows why this is true. Exactly 40 years ago, in 1968, Yasser Arafat and Fatah took over. That same year, Arafat laid down two principles that have dominated the movement ever since. First, in July 1968 he changed the PLO Charter, emphasizing the group was no longer a follower of Arab states but both independent and the struggle's leader. But at the same time he stated: "We are an extension of the hundred million Arabs." It proved hard to have it both ways, though Arafat usually managed the tension adequately. Today, the Arab world's real support for Fatah and for the Palestinians generally is minimal, though many in the West still don't notice that. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas recently said, "Our Arab relations are at their best. We do not have any problems with any Arab country." Well, not exactly. THE REMAINING backing does not include financial aid (the West pays the bills), direct military involvement, or strenuous diplomatic effort. Instead, it mostly revolves around demanding that the US solve the problem while the regimes focus on their own real priorities. Second, back in 1968, Arafat mandated the goal as total victory bringing Israel's disappearance. Thus, "armed struggle" was the main tactic intended to "maintain an atmosphere of strain and anxiety that will force the Zionists to realize that it is impossible for them to live in Israel." Since then, Israel has prospered, the Palestinians have suffered, and Hamas has seized that slogan. But it also remains a central plank for Fatah. Today Abbas puts the main emphasis on diplomacy. But most of his colleagues and constituents are still focused on glorifying violence and insisting on ultimate, total victory. What he can do, or even say, is quite limited. On January 13, for example, Abbas briefed the PLO Central Council in Ramallah about President George Bush's visit and relations with Hamas. It was not a demagogic speech aimed at scoring points against Israel or attacking the US - some things have changed - but rather a soberly given presentation, albeit one steeped in wishful thinking. QUITE NOTABLE, however, is that Abbas uttered not a word showing readiness to compromise or preaching the virtues of peace with Israel. Nor has he changed anything in the schools or the PA-controlled mosques and media, whose virulence and enthusiasm for violence continues. Fatah's symbol, displayed next to Abbas, still shows all of Israel as Palestine. Abbas dares not challenge his constituents' fervent beliefs. He merely insists that the PLO is still "the Palestinian people's sole legitimate representative," despite the fact that Hamas is not in it. To conciliate Hamas he offers it a large minority share in the PLO, which Hamas rejected even when it was weaker. In addition, the PA will spend 58 percent of its aid money on salaries for its employees in the Gaza Strip, thus subsidizing Hamas's bureaucracy. Ironically, money given by Western donors to strengthen Fatah and weaken Hamas will help the latter, and no one will complain about this reversal of their intentions. Abbas discusses the Annapolis conference and Bush's visit only in terms of Palestinian demands, without mention of Palestinian obligations. Yet without telling his people that violence is outmoded, that coexistence with Israel is necessary, that terrorists attacking Israel must be punished, and that refugees need to be resettled in a Palestinian state, he cannot build popular support for doing these things. On the contrary, such concepts are still seen as treason to the cause. Abbas knows this, and, as a result, takes none of the steps needed to achieve peace. ABBAS DOES present a softer line, up to a point. He opposes shooting rockets from the Gaza Strip at Israel, as well as Israeli retaliatory raids. He even recounts that when Israel offered to let people leave the Gaza Strip freely for study, work, or medical treatment abroad, Hamas refused and even fired "on any crossing that was opened [in order] to close it." But his treatment of Hamas's "coup" in the Gaza Strip seeks to evade the problem. Israel, he complains, holds him responsible for what happens in Gaza, claiming this is an excuse. And he shows nationalist solidarity with Hamas against Israel, in effect giving the Islamists veto power over any strategy or solution. Yet how can Abbas, Fatah and the PA claim to be the sole representative of the Palestinians when they don't control over half the land and people they supposedly represent? How can Abbas do anything when most of Fatah is closer to Hamas than to Abbas's more moderate impulses? HIS REGIME, then, simply cannot deliver an agreement ending the conflict. Not only cannot Fatah regain control of the Gaza Strip, it will be lucky to hold onto the West Bank. "Fatah is now convalescing," Abbas assures colleagues, "and, God willing, you will witness that it will fare very well" in the future. Yet nothing has changed in Fatah. The Arafat crowd, veteran leaders from decades of PLO intransigence, still rule. Whatever Abbas's personal views, there are few moderates in Fatah; nor would they back their supposed leader if he actually tried to stop cross-border attacks, punish terrorism, end incitement, clamp down on internal anarchy, or make a deal with Israel. This leadership, moreover, is being challenged by the "young guard," which decries the "old guard's" corruption and suggests it has become too soft. The new generation is by no means more moderate. Its reference point is not the 1990s peace process, but the 1980s intifada. Many, or most, of the young guard prefer a deal with Hamas to one with Israel, and a return to systematic armed struggle. At best, they believe a peace treaty can come only after Israel is expelled from the West Bank, a task that would take decades and, if ever fulfilled, would whet their ambitions for total victory. Abbas is trapped. He can neither defeat nor make peace with Israel; and neither defeat nor make a deal with Hamas in which the latter would accept Fatah's leadership. Nor can he control his own organization, end the chaos in the West Bank, or implement an economic development program. That is his "shadow," as T.S. Eliot put it. His only asset - though a considerable one - is that the West, including Israel, will ignore all these problems and pretend otherwise. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.