Appearance and reality in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

I’ve found it very to difficult to understand the utility of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks being pushed by the US today. Whatever their goal, it cannot be Israeli-Palestinian peace. In this article, commentator Barry Rubin discusses the relationship between appearance and reality.

Window Dressing

By Barry Rubin

Is there a window of opportunity for Israel-Palestinian peace right now? Let me put it this way: in diplomatic terms, looking through the window is worthwhile but, in analytical terms, I don’t think anyone is going to be able to climb through it.

The problem of the current situation poses two typical issues which often bedevil — but could be used to clarify — Middle East issues. The first is the logical versus the real; the second is the diplomatic versus the analytical.

Let us begin by what to outsiders seems a logical evaluation of the current situation. It goes something like this: Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) it controls in the West Bank are in serious shape. Hamas has seized the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian infrastructure has been devastated. There seems to be no progress toward peace or an independent state.

Given this crisis it is logical that the Fatah leadership, headed by “President” Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who seem to be moderate men, pursue a new course. They can enforce stability on the West Bank and discipline on their own forces. They can use the aid money they are getting from international donors to improve their people’s situation, build schools and hospitals, and create a viable economy. And they can make peace with Israel to obtain a Palestinian state. They can say to the Palestinians: Hah! See how we deliver and Hamas does not! We have brought you all these benefits and so naturally you must support us.

Happy ending. Curtain falls. Standing ovation from the audience. Good reviews in the media. Nobel prizes to follow.

The problem here is that this approach treats Palestinian politics as a black box without examining its inner workings. Or, to put it another way, this interpretation is totally logical but has no connection to reality.

It is worth remembering, by the way, that this is precisely the framework that was used to justify the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. Yasir Arafat and the PLO were cornered, threatened with extinction. An offer to save them by moderating them would be eagerly accepted. And once Arafat actually had to administer people — providing jobs, fixing roads, collecting garbage — he would naturally be moderated and channeled toward a comprehensive peace agreement.

True, Abbas is more flexible and less extreme than Arafat but he is also far weaker. He himself has reportedly admitted that his regime cannot stop terrorist attacks on Israel from the territory it supposedly controls. Fatah is so fossilized, factionalized, and corrupt that it is not capable of changing course. Nor does most of the leadership want to do so. They would prefer to steal aid money rather than use it effectively. And they don’t want to be considered traitors to the cause by pursuing moderation. There is no chance of their agreeing to a peace accord ending the conflict. One can only hope that they would do easier things like blocking attacks on Israel or ordering their media to stop inciting terrorism. Even that modest expectation is likely to be disappointed.

All this brings us to the second issue. The above analysis argues that all the massive diplomatic effort being waged right now is going to fall on its face. Does that mean it should not be tried at all?

In diplomacy one can try things one believes will fail if they serve some purpose and do not undermine other interests. At present this means holding talks with Arab states to try to encourage them to make some effort toward peace and reduce tensions; and with PA-Fatah to see if any progress can be made toward a political solution to the conflict.

There are also some more immediate goals at stake: helping Fatah survive because it is preferable to Hamas though the gap may be narrower than often acknowledged; and to press it to block terrorism from the West Bank and reduce anti-Israel, pro-terrorist incitement in the media and institutions it controls. Additional reasons for pursuing diplomacy include showing that Israel and the West wants an equitable peace and perhaps laying a basis for long-term efforts.

Yet this kind of thing requires balance and a strong sense of skepticism, based on the analysis that full peace is unlikely for decades and that Fatah’s drive toward political suicide seems unstoppable. This requires:

  • Not fooling people into thinking that peace is close or that there is even a good chance of achieving it.
  • Politicians not making fools of themselves by racing around to create peace blueprints, conferences, and financial give-aways which will fail in a humiliating manner.
  • Not pretending that Abbas is a great man of peace or that Fatah is a collection of moderates.
  • Not recyling the myth that peace is dependent on Israel offering more and displaying more guilt or empathy.
  • And not making dangerous concessions or taking risks to “build confidence” or prove one’s benevolence.

Ironically, offering to save Fatah leaders from bloody extinction (or at least a luxurious exile paid for by foreign aid) is not being used to press them toward reform and moderation. Rather it is being cast as Fatah doing the Americans or Israelis a favor by accepting their help without any requirement to change its behavior.

The way this crisis is being handled–even though the basic idea of the strategy makes sense–makes it more likely that peace plans will be forgotten, money wasted, casualties multiplied, and the world even more misled about the nature of a conflict which is kept going by Palestinian intransigence.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs, and author of the recently published The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). A version of this article was published in the Toronto Globe & Mail and another in the Jerusalem Post.

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