Never Never Land

AFTER HAMAS was elected, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) attempted to cooperate with it. This led Israel to claim there was no one to talk to. After Hamas took over Gaza, however, Abbas officially dismissed its government and set up a Fatah version in the West Bank. Israel’s excuse had evaporated. Instead, PM Ehud Olmert and Abbas presented the new situation as a window of opportunity.

The window is fake. The mere possession of a common foe will not suffice to bring about the changes that would have to occur, and the bold steps that would have to be taken, in order for Olmert and Abbas to achieve sustainable peace.

At the initiative of US President George W. Bush, the two sides are slated to take part in an international conference on the Middle East. This is due to occur in Washington in November. According to Aluf Benn in Haaretz (September 12, 2007), the conference will provide the setting for a joint declaration by Olmert and Abbas, followed by supportive speeches from the other participants, as yet unknown. The Olmert-Abbas statement, to be formulated in advance, is supposed to serve as a basis for future negotiations.

t is a dangerous thing to hold a conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Failure does not lead back to Square One. Failure underlines the gap between the sides, and across it leaps the spark of conflagration. That is what happened after the failure of Camp David in July 2000. The result was the Second Intifada.

We have little else to expect this time. The three main players—Bush, Olmert and Abbas—are all lame ducks, each in his way.

We start with Bush. His chief problem in the Arab arena is Saudi Arabia. Despite the historical alliance between the US and the Saudi monarchy, the interests of the two don’t always coincide. (At Camp David in July 2000, the Saudis and the Egyptians refused to endorse the emerging agreement, and without their support Yasser Arafat could not sign.) Saudi Arabia is not happy, to say the least, with American policy in the region. In its view, the war in Iraq was a big mistake: by overthrowing Saddam, Bush weakened the region’s Sunnis against Iran. On the Palestinian question, the Saudi position is very different from Jordan’s and Egypt’s. While these two blame Hamas alone for the Gaza coup, the Saudis believe that Fatah also bears responsibility. Saudi anger is directed at both for violating the Mecca Accord of February this year, which the Saudis initiated, hosted and mediated. It, they think, would have enabled the two sides to coexist in peace, and it could have been the lever of a united Arab position toward a political solution. If Saudi Arabia absents itself from the Washington conference, this will signal its refusal to join the effort to isolate Hamas. The Saudi absence will give Hamas legitimacy, undermining Western efforts against it.

That is one reason, no doubt, why Abbas visited Saudi Arabia on September 11. He told his hosts that his condition for a new agreement with Hamas is a return to the pre-coup situation and a reaffirmation of the Mecca Accord. The Hamas leaders are also courting the Saudis. They too want a reaffirmation of the agreement, but interpreted as they see fit.

he second lame duck at the conference in November will be Ehud Olmert. Legally he could run again: the lameness is de facto. Since the Lebanon War of 2006, his popularity has been stuck below 10%. The Winograd Committee investigating the war was expected to force his ouster, but its final report has been postponed. He is also the focus of corruption inquiries that could place him under indictment. So weak a leader cannot make peace. Any conceivable accord with the Palestinians will arouse fierce internal opposition, but Olmert lacks the kind of standing he would need in order to face it down. He is no Ariel Sharon.

It is said that Olmert has been talking with Abbas about a declaration of principles for a permanent solution. A number of hypothetical versions have been floating about, among them the idea that the Separation Barrier will form the boundary between the two states. In exchange for the lands that the fence has swallowed, the Palestinians will be compensated with Israeli lands—in the Negev perhaps, or in the form of a corridor linking the West Bank and Gaza. The settlements west of the fence will come under Israel’s sovereignty, while those that lie deep in Palestinian territory will be evacuated. The last is easily said, but it is hard to picture Olmert pulling kids off settlement rooftops today. The settlers of “Judea and Samaria,” as they call the West Bank, are a different breed from those of Gaza.

If Olmert were to try dismantling settlements, it is doubtful that his government could survive. Politically he depends on the right-of-center coalition he has built. Its 78 Knesset members (out of 120) include 12 from the ultra-orthodox Shas and 11 from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel Our Home”). Any agreement that Abbas might accept would almost certainly drive these 23 from the coalition, leaving 55. Olmert would then have to rely on the 5 Meretz seats and the 10 Arab. Ever since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, no Israeli PM wants to depend on Arab votes. Even disregarding his unpopularity, then—or his legal problems—Olmert would lack the political clout to push an agreement through. Beyond that, there is the question of whether he would want to. He voted, we recall, against Oslo.

For all these reasons, Olmert remains deliberately vague about possible Israeli concessions. He also knows that his partner is much too weak to carry out the Palestinian side of a future accord. Why then go to a conference? Here a new kind of political creativity comes into play: let’s make a “political horizon” or “shelf agreement,” which won’t go into effect until Abbas has gained a monopoly of force in the West Bank and Gaza. The credit for this pipe dream goes to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will chair the November conference, and Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Welcome to Never Never Land.

he third duck is Abbas. He has declared that he will not run again for the presidency, which makes him officially lame, but his problem lies deeper. Abbas continues to be Number 2 long after Number 1 is gone. Even Arafat, with his reputation and charisma, could maintain a semblance of Palestinian unity only by going with the flow. Such a task is far beyond Abbas.

At the moment, oddly, help for Abbas comes less from the West than from Hamas, which has recently succeeded in making itself hateful to a great many Palestinians. Before the coup, there were mosques in Gaza that were mainly attended by Hamas and others that were mainly attended by Fatah. The Hamas mosques had Hamas-inclined preachers (imams), and the Fatah mosques had Fatah-inclined ones. Toward the end of August, Hamas replaced the Fatah-inclined imams with others more to its liking. The Fatah members went to Friday noon prayers and heard diatribes against the Fatah-led PA in the West Bank. As a result, they decided to conduct their prayer meetings outdoors. In this they were backed by the Palestinian Left and secular organizations. Hamas has forbidden outdoor prayer, sending its forces to break up the assemblies with sticks and gunfire. The image of Muslims keeping Muslims from prayer is not endearing to Palestinians. The coalition of Fatah and its supporters called for a general strike on September 10. Although not complete, it made an impact.

The growing revulsion against Hamas, however, will not suffice to turn the tide for Abbas. If he doesn’t come back from the conference in November with concrete gains —which Olmert, we have seen, cannot afford to give him—he might well resign. He could attempt, of course, to make amends with Hamas, but this would again nullify him as a partner in American and Israeli eyes. The cards, in short, are stacked against Abbas whichever way he plays the game.

The cards, it would appear, are stacked against all. “I raise my eyes to the hills,” sang the Psalmist. “From where shall my help come?”

ot, certainly, from the fourth player, Hamas. This organization continues to behave without a realistic strategy. In taking over the Gaza Strip, both in the fact and in method, it acted recklessly. It permits its own militia, as well as the Islamic Jihad, to shoot Qassam rockets into Israel, thereby presenting itself as a power to be reckoned with. But Hamas sans Fatah has nowhere to go. In the unity government, as long as Hamas shackled Fatah to its charter, there was no political horizon—there could be no talk, for instance, of an international conference. But Fatah at least gave Hamas a much needed measure of legitimacy. Upon kicking Fatah out of Gaza, Hamas hamstrung itself. Its isolation has increased. The economic blockade has become hermetic. Even in the Arab world, there is growing disappointment. We may cite one instance among many, this from Abdullah Iskandar, writing on September 10 in the pro-Saudi Al-Hayat:

“Hamas has failed in the issue that is closest to its goals, i.e. attracting people to its ideology. It has probably become blind to anything but the force of its armed men in dealing with the many growing and complex problems it faces, which culminated in the boycott of its mosques by Palestinian factions and civil society institutions…

“When Hamas justifies its practices by speaking of Law, it only states an imagined law that rejects pluralism, coexistence and opposition; a law that stipulates the treatment of factions and parties as rogue bodies that should be persecuted. Some have even compared these practices with those of the Israeli occupier’s when Israel was still present in the Strip.

“Hamas has failed in politics, as it has failed in management and in dealing with people. It has failed in presenting a sound model of its Islamic project. The movement has lost its soul.”

From where then will help come? This much is certain as well: not from Never Never Land. Fourteen years ago at Oslo, the US and Israel ignored the wider picture, seeing in a weakened PLO a window of opportunity. The result of negotiating with the weak is a weak agreement. Now, once again, they reach for a broken reed.

Soon Israel will celebrate its sixtieth year. These have been sixty years of short-sighted bullying. Its lack of willingness to reach a territorial compromise—to pay the price that Arab recognition requires—leads the region each time into deeper strife. The failure of Oslo brought Hamas to power. Now Hamas has become a significant factor. The political arena has become more complicated and more dangerous. The price remains what it has always been.

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