The great American delusion

Washington thinks the Palestinian Arabs are ready to make peace.

Abbas rice talk 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Abbas rice talk 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The US planned Annapolis conference whose goals are to facilitate the creation of a democratic Palestinian state - free of corruption and militias - that will live peacefully alongside Israel is doomed to fail. The American initiative rests on several unfounded premises. The first is that Palestinian society can be reformed by outsiders. Middle Eastern societies have already proven their resistance to attempts by Western powers to change their old ways of doing business. It is naïve to believe that political and social dynamics rooted in centuries-old traditions can be easily manipulated by well-intentioned, but presumptuous Westerners. President George W. Bush should have learned this lesson from his experience in Iraq. Change among Palestinian and other Middle Eastern societies can only originate from within. And if such a positive evolution were to take place, it would more likely be brought about from within by an autocratic ruler than from the outside by well-meaning Westerners. Moreover, American power to change the foreign policy of even minor international actors must not be exaggerated. The late Hafez Assad of Syria said "no" to president Bill Clinton in Geneva (March 2000), and Yasser Arafat did the same at Camp David (July 2000). The second fallacy is that economic assistance to the Palestinians can alleviate political problems. Since the Oslo Accords in September 1993, the Palestinian Authority has received the most economic aid per capita in the world. Yet billions of euros transferred to the PA have been squandered or misused. Like some other Third World actors, the PA has been ingenious in siphoning a not insignificant amount of the aid it gets to those least in need of outside support. Moreover, economic aid is only as good as the ability of a recipient's economy and government to use it productively. Therefore, it is doubtful that sending more money to the dysfunctional Palestinian economy will do any good. The third fallacy is that Mahmoud Abbas can become the agent for change and therefore he deserves the support of the West. Abbas's record as a leader is dismal. He failed to unite the security services under one organ as he pledged and has not followed through with his anti-corruption election campaign promises. If anything, the chaos within the PA increased under his presidency. The Hamas takeover of Gaza is an obvious indication of his weakness. The fourth fallacy is that Palestinian society can be quickly transformed into a good neighbor of Israel and that a stable settlement is within reach. Since the Oslo Accords, the PA's education system, media, and dramatic militarization process has done great damage to the collective Palestinian psyche. A society mesmerized by the use of force and embracing of the shahid (martyr) ready explode among the hated Israelis will not change overnight. Numerous facets of Palestinian society have been radicalized and the widespread influence and popularity of Hamas is a clear indication of such a process. IN CONTRAST to Egypt and Jordan, where pragmatic politics led to agreements with Israel, Palestinian politics is not pragmatic and is ever more radicalized by Hamas and a young militaristic generation. What they expect to get from Israel is totally unrealistic. The differences between Israel and the Palestinians are unbridgeable. After being subjected to a terrorist campaign beginning in 2000, Israelis are unlikely to take blind risks for an uncertain settlement. Palestinian demands for bringing refugees from 60 years ago and their descendents into Israel and for control over parts of old Jerusalem are simply not acceptable in today's Israel. Moreover, Israel has already received American acquiescence for holding on to the large settlement blocs near the 1949 Armistice Lines, nor is Israel about to give up the strategic Jordan Valley. The fifth fallacy is that Hamas control of Gaza can be uprooted by intra-Palestinian politics. While Hamas's takeover of Gaza is correctly identified by the US as a victory for the Islamist forces in the Middle East and inimical to Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, a Fatah led by Abbas cannot bring Hamas back under the PA umbrella. The West Bank Palestinians are too weak to impose their will on Gaza and without territorial contiguity they have little leverage on Gazan politics. And in point of fact, it is Israel's counter-terrorist activities that prevent the West Bank falling into the hands of Hamas - not Abbas. The Americans are not likely to attain their noble objectives and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to simmer because the Palestinians cannot get their act together. I can see Egypt or Jordan deciding to increase their involvement among the Palestinians in order to limit the repercussions of the Palestinian failed state. For Israel, containing terrorism and waiting patiently for better times is probably the best course of action. The author is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.