Why Isn’t the Palestinian Authority Moderate?
By Barry Rubin*
May 31, 2009
So dreadful was the performance of Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas during his meeting with President Barack Obama that even the New York Times took notice. Usually, the Palestinians are exempt from any hint of the real world criteria applied to others.
But according to the May 30, Times editorial, the meeting was “a reminder of how much the Palestinians and leading Arab states, starting with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, must do to help revive foundering peace negotiations.”
The peace negotiations, of course, foundered almost a decade ago when then PA leader Yasir Arafat rejected a two-state solution, an historical fact that the Times and much of the Western political elite seems not yet to have absorbed. Indeed, it was that very fact that has led to the failure of any peace process and all the bloodshed since.
Naturally, given its peculiar view of the world, the Times cannot quite blame anyone but Israel and George W. Bush for this failure:
“We have sympathy for Mr. Abbas, the moderate-but-weak leader of the Fatah party. Israel, the Bush administration and far too many Arab leaders have failed to give him the support that he needs to make the difficult compromises necessary for any peace deal.”
This is the kind of paragraph by the way that should lead to reflection by anyone who was actually serious and not blinded by the strange brew that passes for the dominant ideology in Western intellectual circles nowadays. It is after all a set of beliefs which insists that Abbas-who wrote a doctoral dissertation denying that the Holocaust happened and prefers demanding all Palestinians can go live in Israel even if this stance prevents them from getting their own independent state-is better than Netanyahu. Abbas is branded “moderate” while Netanyahu is always called hardline.
Exactly what has Abbas done as the PA leader to be considered moderate, or at least moderate except in comparison to Hamas? If he had his way, he would make a deal with Hamas which would make him behave a lot more like Hamas rather than having Hamas become moderate.
At least, the Times added on this occasion: “That’s no excuse, however, for the depressing passivity that Mr. Abbas displayed” in calling for the United States to wait until Hamas joined his government or Netanyahu made concessions for nothing in return.
It is somewhat humorous that while Netanyahu has been unfairly and inaccurately blasted for supposedly refusing to talk with the Palestinians it is the Palestinians who openly refuse to talk to Israel.
At any rate, there’s nothing funnier than a newspaper editorial writer telling a dictator that he “must” do something. But why, why is Abbas so passive? Why doesn’t Abbas do what the Times wants:
“He must keep improving those forces. He must redouble efforts to halt the constant spewing of hatred against Israel in schools, mosques and media. He must work harder to weed out corruption. Unless Mr. Abbas’s government does more to improve the lives of Palestinians it will surely lose again to Hamas in elections scheduled for January.”
Those elections won’t be held at all, of course, for precisely that reason. But suppose Israel gives up land and authority to Abbas, he doesn’t mend his ways, and then Hamas–as the Times warns could well happen–takes over an independent state so as to wage warfare against Israel all the more effectively and on two fronts?
The Times might spare a moment to consider that possibility. Israeli leaders must do so: U.S. leaders should do so.
But the real reason Abbas doesn’t obey the Times is that he likes the spewing of hatred–which conforms in part with his own views–and has nothing personally against corruption. In many future editorials, the Times will no doubt never equate such behavior with Israel’s refusal to risk its existence on the good intentions of Mr. Abbas. In fact, if the newspaper were serious it would say: we know that he won’t change his behavior and that’s why Israel can’t bet its survival on his leading a peace-loving Palestinian state at the present time.
It is also interesting that the Times views Abbas’s weakness as largely due to Israel and the previous U.S. president. The real factors include his own character, his lack of political skills, his own hardline views, his failure in making any effort to prepare his people for a compromise peace, and the radicalism of Fatah itself. Indeed, to a large degree Abbas-and his prime minister Salam Fayyad-are merely “moderate” fronts which allows Fatah to seek continued Western support and funding.
The Times analysis cries out for a simple answer to the following question as well: What could or should Israel and Bush have done to strengthen Abbas? After all, a previous view of the Times was the need to help Arafat by rushing ahead with negotiations. Then when Arafat destroyed the Camp David meeting in 2000 it was explained that this was a terrible mistake and that he needed infinite time. Does it bear any responsibility for the thousands of lives lost due to the mistaken pushing and naivete about the process in the 1990s?
The Bush administration did hurt Abbas in one way, which was to encourage relatively fair elections to be held in the Gaza Strip which Hamas won. If this is what bothers the Times, however, it should say so. Or perhaps Israel hurt Abbas by not staying in the Gaza Strip and keeping settlements there since its pullout unintentionally emboldened Hamas. One would like to see the Times explain that it is now advocating Israel should do the same thing in the West Bank, followed by a roughly similar outcome.
But the Times does hold true to the belief that the Palestinians don’t really exist. They have no ideology or goals or doctrines or views of their own. It is only Netanyahu’s “refusal…to commit to a two-state solution or halt settlement activity [which] is feeding militancy and strengthening Mr. Abbas’s Hamas rivals.”
Again, the slightest reflection on this claim would show that Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert all did endorse a two-state solution with the result that militancy certainly didn’t decrease and Hamas got stronger any way.
Please remember this: since all of Hamas and much of Fatah opposes a permanent two-state solution which accepts Israel’s existence, the prospect of this outcome doesn’t make them more quiet and moderate but rather more active and etremist in a bid to block such a solution. The same applies to Iran, Syria, Hizballah, the Muslim Brotherhoods, and others, including millions of Arabs and Muslims.
They are not going to say: Obama is wonderful! He’s helping us get a Palestinian state. They are going to say: Obama is evil and those cooperating with him are traitors. They are giving away most of our rightful land and ensuring the survival of Israel. Let’s kill those who are selling us out. Failing to understand this reality is a major and dangerous fallacy on the part of Western policymakers today.
The Times‘ strategic blindness is especially visible in a passage that doesn’t quite make sense unless one takes that kind of thinking into account:
“When Mr. Obama visits Saudi Arabia and Egypt next week he must urge leaders to do more. They could help ratchet up pressure on Mr. Netanyahu with preliminary – but symbolically important – steps like opening commercial offices in Tel Aviv and holding publicly acknowledged meetings with Israeli officials.”
But how does that rachet up pressure on Netanyahu? It’s the exact opposite, as the Arab leaders understand very well. The truth is the Times refuses to say what is essential here: if Israel is going to be called on to make sacrifices, take risks, and give concessions, the Arabs have to prove their positive intentions. If Netanyahu saw such things happening, he wouldn’t feel “pressured,” he’d simply respond with compromises of his own.
The newspaper simply cannot admit that Israel has just security concerns and real reasons to doubt the other side’s reliability (not to mention the fact that even if one favors a Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem, Israel’s capital is West Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv).
The editorial ends by saying:
“For eight years, Arab leaders and the Palestinians complained bitterly because President George W. Bush wasn’t willing to invest in Middle East peace. Now that they have an American president who is willing, they finally have to do their part.”
This is disingenuous. It is the Times–far more than Arab leaders—which has been complaining. Why didn’t it have “sympathy” for Bush’s obvious problem: how and why should he put the emphasis on a peace process when the Palestinians and Arab states–who supposedly are the ones desperately demanding it–won’t cooperate.
Indeed, why should Obama do so now?
So here is what’s really important:
Suppose the Arab states do little or nothing, suppose the PA doesn’t stifle incitement, remains corrupt, continues to be intransigent. Will there ever come a time when the Times concludes that this isn’t working because the PA, Fatah, and most Arab states don’t want to make peace?
Will they ever write “We have sympathy for Mr. Netanyahu” (or even if there is a prime minister more to their liking by then) because he has to deal with an intransigent PA which doesn’t meet its commitments and spews hatred, Arab regimes which prefer to keep the conflict going, and radical Islamist forces hoping to have the chance to commit genocide?
Will this U.S. government do so?
Let’s wait and see.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org