What drives Palestinian politics?

As always, the reason Western plans don’t work out is that we imagine that everybody in the world thinks exactly as we do. They don’t, especially the Palestinians. Are you reading, Secretary Rice?

Palestinian Politics: Onward and Downward
By Barry Rubin

March 23, 2008

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 Fayyad, 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, Fayyad is not Palestinian politics’ future. Those who really control Fatah, shape Palestinian public opinion, and carry guns aren’t impressed by Fayyad’s diploma.

For many in the West, moderation is like gravity: it’s 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 their own forces (heroic martyrs aided by history and deity), they expect 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 U.S. 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’s 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. They know, contrary to Western claims, that negotiating a political solution would destroy them, and act 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, 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 to 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 from someone at the heart of “moderate” institutions. Both Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the PA newspaper defined the killer of eight Jewish students in Jerusalem as one of those heroic martyrs.

We’re now seeing the birth of a new Fatah all right, not the one heralded by such people as former British prime minister Tony Blair or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but rather an even more extremist version. It’s coming from those who wield guns, not pens, namely the Al-Aqsa Brigades. Contrary to much reportage, it is not an “offshoot” but essential part of Fatah. Its leader, Marwan Barghouti, would be Fatah and PA head within two years if not in an Israeli prison for past terrorist activities.

The brigades demand Fayyad’s firing and replacement by, “A new government that would not abandon the armed struggle.” Like others in the Fatah leadership their strategy is not to fight but to 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 to move toward peace.

Both Barghouti and Hamas’s political front-man, Ismail Haniyya, run ahead of Abbas in the polls. The main thing keeping Fayyad in office is not honesty or moderation but because 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 U.S. 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, 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. Either:

  • Palestinian leaders want to act rationally but cannot make peace and achieve a better life for their people because Israel won’t let them. This is the anti-Israel stance.


  • 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 “even-handed” position which always ends up demanding Israeli concessions in hopes of enabling Palestinian moderation.

These are articles of unshakeable faith, impermeable to evidence or experience. Whenever Palestinian leaders reject peace it must be because they weren’t offered enough. Westerners think Fatah and the PA merely need 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, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Abbas, “We must keep our eye on what we’re trying to achieve.” In U.S. 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 of Western governments’ agenda, blaming Israel for Palestinian intransigence, or romanticizing Fatah and PA is a big mistake.

. . .

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA). His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

Technorati Tags: ,

Comments are closed.