Only Losers from the Likes of Abbas, Rice and Olmert
by Rami G. Khouri Released: 5 Mar 2008
NEW YORK -- The tragedy of the Palestinian people is not only that over and over again they get slaughtered by Israeli gunfire, dozens at a time -- militants and civilians alike -- while their land is encircled, choked and colonized. It is also that they must suffer the added ignominy of an increasingly bizarre American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who seems to live in another world where she believes her pleas can restart peace talks; and of a Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who has transcended the political dysfunctional to historical levels of the pathetic and tragic.
It is hard to imagine a worse situation than that which now defines the Palestinians of Gaza. The world does not accept their right to use military means to resist occupation, strangulation and assault -- while Israel is allowed to use any means it wishes to kill hundreds at a time, as it did last week; nor does the world accept the right of the Palestinians to democratically elect Hamas as their leadership.
When Israel attacks and causes even more suffering for the Palestinians, President Abbas suspends his peace talks with Israel. Rarely in modern diplomatic history has an elected figure acted with such well intentioned, but emphatic, meaninglessness. Hollow is too soft a description of Abbas’ gesture. He has totally abandoned any sense of moral responsibility as the elected president of the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, deciding instead to confront Hamas in an all-or-nothing political battle.
Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip last year was a serious political challenge to Abbas, which Hamas says was done to avert a Fateh- and American-backed plan to remove it from its elected leadership position. Whatever the truth may be, the answer can only be for the Palestinians to stop fighting among themselves and resume talks to form a national unity government.
Hamas and Abbas both once enjoyed that very rare element in the Arab world: the legitimacy of incumbency following clean elections. Were they to join forces -- as they did briefly last year under Saudi Arabian auspices -- they would create conditions for a unified Palestinian stance that could ultimately offer hope for a serious real peace negotiation with Israel. The Palestinian negotiators would have been taken seriously because they truly represented their people.
Instead, Abbas has foolishly accepted the American and Israeli shortsighted policy of trying to smash Hamas, rather than acknowledging and grasping its legitimacy, and trying to join forces with it for shared credibility, respect and impact.
If Hamas were a rogue criminal movement or small gang, it could perhaps be confronted with force. But it is not. It was freely elected, even if something of an electoral fluke. It represents a historic, indigenous reaction to the failed policies of pleading and relying on the United States that Fateh and Abbas himself have pursued for over 40 years -- policies that only saw continued Israeli colonization, assault, mass murder, imprisonment, and inhuman collective punishment of entire Palestinian communities.
Hamas’ approach, based on resistance, defiance and steadfastness until Israel treats the Palestinians with respect as equal partners, is not sure to succeed; it is very likely to see continued strife and many dead and injured -- in Palestine and Israel.
It also reflects a wider trend throughout the Middle East, where many individuals and entire movements have resorted to religious-based self-assertion as the appropriate antidote to Arab docility, corruption and failure.
Abbas’ dilemma is that Israel brutalizes the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank while it talks peace with Fateh, and Israel now will also continue to brutalize the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank because Abbas has suspended the peace process. Abbas has given Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a timely gift: the opportunity to claim that there is no Palestinian partner with whom to talk peace, so Israel can therefore continue using military means to achieve its goals.
The Palestinian president’s gesture of suspending peace talks is a cruel confirmation of his marginal status, and his utter invisibility on the Israeli, American and international scene. The fact that Condoleezza Rice is now in the region to talk to him and Olmert merely accentuates the vacuousness of this tripartite effort: a Palestinian president who does not matter, an Israeli prime minister who does not care, and an American government that is oblivious to both of these realities.
It is difficult to see how further Israeli military attacks against Gaza will achieve peace and quiet, after 40 years of assaults and many years of direct occupation did not do so, and in fact generated more fierce resistance in the form of Hamas and other militant groups.
Many more Palestinians and Israelis will die and suffer injury and losses in the days and weeks ahead, but needlessly so, because their war will not result in a victor on either side, only more and bigger losers.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2008 Rami G. Khouri