The Region: Palestinian politics: Onward and downward

Westerners fail to understand that extremism can be more attractive than moderation, even if "moderates" are showered with financial and political support.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
A recent Washington Post column entitled "Let's Help the Good Guys in the West Bank," provided what it thought of as good news: "Fortunately, there is a smart and honest leader of these forces: Salam Fayad, an apolitical economist (with a doctorate from the University of Texas) who is prime minister of the Palestinian Authority." The tip-off is the word "apolitical," which in this case means: completely lacking any political base or armed support and thus totally ineffectual. Unfortunately, Fayad is not Palestinian politics' future. Those who really control Fatah, shape Palestinian public opinion and carry guns are not impressed by Fayad's diploma. For many in the West, moderation is like gravity: It is impossible to reject. Yet that's precisely what Palestinian politics do. Three factors fuel this trend. FIRST, FATAH and the PA continue to be corrupt, incompetent and incapable of self-reform. Second, given the cult of violence and total victory dominating Palestinian political culture, Hamas is inevitably seen as heroic because it fights and rejects compromise. Based on underestimating Israel (always seen on the verge of collapse) and overestimating its own forces (heroic martyrs aided by history and deity), it expects to win. Compromise is treason; moderation is cowardice. This is the daily fare of Palestinian ideology and politics, purveyed by leaders, clerics, media and schools. Abbas tells his people and others that, as he said recently to an Islamic summit, Palestinians "are facing a campaign of annihilation" by Israel. The US State Department merely calls this "overheated political rhetoric," not comprehending that such talk by Abbas incites terrorism and forecloses his own options. It's easy to justify violence, but hard to rationalize making peace with those you say are committing genocide against you. That is why the PA does things like letting "imprisoned" terrorists who murdered two Israeli hikers to "escape." Every such terrorist is seen by both the PA and public opinion as a hero. Third, due to its own weakness and the strong political culture it never challenges, the current leadership cannot make peace. It knows, contrary to Western claims, that negotiating a political solution would destroy it, and acts accordingly. EVEN SO, Fatah is undergoing a radicalization process which may not displace Abbas, but will install his successor. Public opinion is also more extreme, with support for terrorism zooming upward. Fatah both heeds and feeds the trend. Ahmad Dahbour, a former high-ranking PA Culture Ministry official, now top writer for the official PA newspaper, explains: "The treacherous Zionist enemy will never permit us to lessen our revenge towards him or stray from our confrontation against him, until he is wiped off this land, which is saturated with the blood of the martyrs." What is significant is not the language's bloodthirstiness, but its open use by someone at the heart of "moderate" institutions. Both Fatah's Aksa Martyrs Brigades and the PA newspaper defined the killer of eight Jewish students in Jerusalem as one of those heroic martyrs. We are now seeing the birth of a new Fatah all right, but not the one heralded by such people as former British prime minister Tony Blair or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It is rather an even more extremist version, coming from those who wield guns, not pens, namely the Aksa Brigades. Contrary to much reportage, this is not an "offshoot" but an essential part of Fatah. Its leader, Marwan Barghouti, would be Fatah and PA head within two years if he were not in an Israeli prison for past terrorist activities. The Brigades demand Fayad's firing and replacement by "a new government that would not abandon the armed struggle." Like others in the Fatah leadership, its strategy is not to fight but ally with Hamas. Despite Hamas's bloody expulsion of Fatah from Gaza, killing Israelis wipes out all sins in Palestinian politics. That's the kind of thinking that makes the movement so impossible to change or move toward peace. Both Barghouti and Hamas's political front-man, Ismail Haniyeh, run ahead of Abbas in the polls. THE MAIN thing keeping Fayad in office is not honesty or moderation, but the fact that removing him would kiss good-bye to almost $7 billion in Western aid, which will no doubt be squandered, or worse. Worse means that much money, like the US arms abandoned by Fatah in fleeing Gaza, could end up in Hamas's hands. Or it will pass to Abbas's successor. One reason why many Westerners misunderstand the conflict and countries adopt ridiculously irrelevant policies is ignorance of how extremism is attractive in its own right. After all, Westerners reason, if people are all alike and universally pragmatic, Palestinians must want to end the conflict and get an independent state through negotiation and compromise. Why go on suffering? No "rational" person would act that way. Therefore, many in the West reach one of two conclusions: 1. Palestinian leaders want to act rationally but cannot make peace and achieve a better life for their people because Israel will not let them. This is the anti-Israel stance. 2. They are eager to do so, and if Europe and America only put in lots of effort and money peace can be quickly achieved. This is the "evenhanded" position, which always ends up demanding Israeli concessions in hopes of enabling Palestinian moderation. THESE ARE articles of unshakable faith, impermeable to evidence or experience. Whenever Palestinian leaders reject peace it must be because they were not offered enough. Westerners think Fatah and the PA merely need to raise Palestinian living standards and get a state to show their people that Hamas is a failure and the PA a success. Naturally, everyone prefers success. Well, it depends on how you measure success. As horrible as it sounds, in Palestinian politics success is still measured by the number of Israelis killed and by who never gives up the chance for total victory and Israel's disappearance some day. Sad, regrettable, but also true. On her last visit, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Abbas, "We must keep our eye on what we're trying to achieve." In US diplomatic circles, this passes for tough talk. But what Abbas is trying to achieve is quite different from what Rice wants. Given the strategic realities, Israel must deal with the PA and try to keep Fatah in power on the West Bank. But there should be no illusions. Solving the conflict won't happen. Putting it atop Western governments' agenda, blaming Israel for Palestinian intransigence and romanticizing Fatah and the PA is a big mistake. 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.