A better strategy for the Palestinian Authority

Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: Alfred/SIPA)

In Palestinian-Israeli politics, Israel remembers that there are certain mutual understandings used to manage the troubled relationship only when Palestinians take actions that anger the Israelis. Only in such circumstances does Israel complain of threats to the roadmap, the Sharm El Sheikh understandings, or even the entire peace process. When the Palestinians do whatever they are asked, however, such understandings and frameworks suddenly cease to exist.

A few days ago, a statement by the Palestinian Authority foreign minister, Nasser Al Kidwa, provided just such an example. Kidwa angered Israel when he said that Palestinian militant groups will not be disarmed as long as the occupation continues. “The disarming of armed organizations is not on the table because weapons are legal as long as the occupation exists.”

Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that Kidwa’s statement was “a cluster bomb in a process that could lead to dialogue and calm”. But neither dialogue, nor calm has ever been on offer from Israel, except as a reminder that a Palestinian action — or in this case a mere statement — has prevented it.

In spite of all the lying and deception, many people worldwide still either believe or are comfortable with the idea that until Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas has the guts to “rein in the Palestinian terrorists” and to “dismantle their infrastructure”, Israel is justified in not moving forward with the peace process. The missing reality in this lopsided equation is that since the 1967 war, Israel has been much more comfortable with Arab extremists. Although the declared claim was always to the contrary, Israel felt all along that moderate Arab politics posed a challenge it was not ready to take, while extremists provided Israel with the needed excuse to oppose any genuine peace efforts, so that it could go forward with its well-planned expansionist programme in the whole of Palestine, as well as in parts of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. This applies fully to current Israeli politics, and it explains most of the difficulties the ultramoderate Abbas is facing today.

Abbas’ entire strategy is based on Palestinian renunciation of all forms of anti-Israel violence, even in self-defence, practically stopping the Intifada, and establishing an open-ended truce until the United States or the international community succeeds in convincing Israel to start a meaningful dialogue with the Palestinians. Miraculously, Abbas succeeded in convincing the militants to accept a truce under uneven and severe conditions. In spite of the fact that Israel neither recognized the truce nor respected it, Palestinians have largely stuck to it.

When the list of Israeli violations, including incursions into Palestinian towns and villages, killings, arrests, continued settlement building, threats to the Holy Places and an ever-tightened stranglehold on Palestinian life grew beyond any tolerable limits, and some Palestinians reacted by counter-attacking with their primitive weaponry, Abbas succeeded, yet again, to persuade the resistance factions to hold fire, even if attacked. But instead of granting Abbas any amount of credit for the “good” work he does, Israel continues to undermine his efforts, to accuse him of weakness and indecision, and to blame him for the lack of movement towards peace.

The truth is that Israel has never wanted Abbas, or before him Arafat, to succeed, not even in meeting its own demands. If ever he succeeded, despite deliberate Israeli obstacles, in fulfilling such demands, Israel is always ready with new lists of conditions. Towards that end, the Israelis continue to provoke Palestinian reaction to undermine the truce by continuing their attacks on the Palestinians, continuing to announce plans for expanding the settlements, to ridicule any claim by Abbas that his pacifist strategy will bring his people any benefit, continuing to build the apartheid wall, inflicting unspeakable hardships on innocent Palestinians, and even declaring, in no unclear terms, that Israel is not interested in any permanent settlement of their dispute with the Palestinians.

Commonsense dictates that in such a situation there is no promise. The Israelis are not concerned about Abbas’ failure to disarm “his terrorists” — they might even be more concerned if he did. In simpler words, if all the Palestinians disarmed voluntarily, if they all declared in one voice that they would never use violence against Israel no matter what, occupation or no occupation, if they all petitioned Israel to settle the dispute the way it chose, and if they wiped out of their memories all they have suffered for six decades of dispossession since Israel was established on the ruins of their country — even if they did all that, nothing would change.

Abbas may be right to design his strategy on the basis of always turning the other cheek, because this strategy is sure to open the doors to the White House and endear him to European officials who have abandoned their once principled approach and who hope that paying aid money to the Palestinians will absolve them of the duty to forthrightly confront Israel’s crimes and obstructionism. Such a strategy, Abbas might hope, will shield the Palestinian side from any blame as well. But the outcome actually is that the Palestinian pay for their “good name” and for meaningless diplomatic gestures and measly aid with all their rights, while the Israelis take what they want, face no opposition and, if their reputation suffers for it, simply do not care.

The alternative to turning the other cheek though is not violence, but dignified politics of a kind which is entirely missing in the Palestinian Authority’s performance. The Israelis fragmented the little left of Palestinian land and the Palestinian Authority fragmented the cause by reducing it to trivial understandings dealing mainly with the symptoms of the Israeli occupation rather than insisting on ending the occupation altogether.

By continuing negotiations while Israel continued to build settlements, the PA fed the Israeli delusion that peace and settlements are compatible. One blunder followed another, until the Palestinian liberation movement, after offering unprecedented sacrifices and concessions, has destroyed itself.

Who could imagine that the leader-liberators volunteered, under the Oslo formula, to join the occupied rather than liberate them? Instead of pretending to be statesmen for a non-existent state, Palestinian Authority officials should lead mass resistance marches against the wall and against the settlements. They should lead marches of tens of thousands of Palestinians to the checkpoints and demand to be let through in view of the whole world. They should march en masse to Silwan, in occupied East Jerusalem, to prevent Israel’s occupation authorities in Jerusalem from carrying out their announced plan to ethnically cleanse the area of its remaining Palestinians. Is that not the Gandhi-style resistance everyone wants the Palestinians to follow, and for which therefore no one could blame them ?

Unfortunately, the PA has chosen a futile path of appeasement which, it hopes, will protect its illegitimate interests and disgraceful privileges, but leaves the people completely undefended; it has succeeded only in delegitimizing all forms of resistance while Israel counts its gains.

Hasan Abu Nimah is former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations.