Monday, December 21, 2009

PFLP sides with Fateh on Palestinian unity deal

Maan is reporting that the leftist, secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has sided with Fateh in support of the national unity deal. Deputy Secretary General of the PFLP Abdul Rahim Mallouh criticized Hamas' refusal to sign the deal and accused the Islamist faction currently entrenched in Gaza as working to stall Palestinian national unity. The proposed unity deal is not without criticism from smaller factions, including Mallouh's PFLP, which intends to introduce several amendments to the document.

However, the PFLP has been generally supportive of the deal and seems to be exercising a rare show of support for Fateh, which it has criticized in the past for Fateh's willingness to collaborate and negotiate with the Israeli government.

While a small but significant secular faction siding with Fateh on the unity deal does place greater pressure on Hamas to agree to the proposal which would create an interim governing committee to set up elections, Hamas is likely to fight back against the rhetoric of Fateh and the PFLP and push for an arrangement similar to that reached between Hezbollah and Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri's government. In that deal, Hezbollah joined the Lebanese government but was allowed to keep its weapons and manage its own security forces.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Real Mr. Palestine

The Real "Mr. Palestine": Palestinian National Initiative Secretary General, President and Founder of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, Palestine Legislative Council member Dr. Mustafa Barghouti.

A Palestinian with similar motivations, sense of purpose, and passions as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Barghouti was recently published in the New York Times, urging immediate action in the face of catastrophic consequences concerning the failure of creating a Palestinian state.

The full, masterfully written call to action can be read here. A few spectacular quotes:

Javier Solana, just prior to completing his stint as European Union foreign policy chief, claimed Palestinian moves toward statehood “have to be done with time, with calm, in an appropriate moment.” He adds: “I don’t think today is the moment to talk about that.” When, precisely, is a good time for Palestinian freedom?

If Israel insists on hewing to antiquated notions of determining the date of another people’s freedom then it is incumbent on Palestinians to organize ourselves and highlight the moral repugnance of such an outlook.

In the face of European and American inaction, it is crucial that we continue to revive our culture of collective activism by vigorously and nonviolently resisting Israel’s domination over us.

A new generation of Palestinian leaders is attempting to speak to the world in the language of a nonviolent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions, precisely as Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of African-Americans did with the Montgomery bus boycott in the mid-1950s. We are equally right to use the tactic to advance our rights. The same world that rejects all use of Palestinian violence, even clear self-defense, surely ought not begrudge us the nonviolence employed by men such as King and Gandhi.

The demise of the two-state solution will only lead to a new struggle for equal rights, within one state. Israel, which tragically favors supremacy rather than integration with its Palestinian neighbors, will have brought the new struggle on itself by relentlessly pushing the settlement enterprise. No one can say it was not warned.

And of course, reiterating what everyone already knows:

There comes a time when people cannot take injustice any more, and this time has come to Palestine.
Here, an article I wrote several months ago on Dr. Barghouti:

Civil society development and the path to democratization requires a careful planning, nuanced response to endlessly changing factors, societal determination, luck, and the innovation of brilliant, motivated individuals. In the Palestinian case, a stateless society attempting to achieve both the dominant national goal of statehood and the underlying political goal of stable democracy, the stakes are decidedly higher. Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, an economic and humanitarian blockade of the Gaza Strip, an autocratic and corrupt political regime, and the rise of religious extremism and violence has made the situation extremely difficult for those attempting to bring about needed political and social reforms and humanitarian relief. For over 60 years, a handful of individuals have realized this need for reform and have put the Palestinian people first, determined to bring real relief to the individuals suffering the most – Palestinian civilians. One man above many others has brought about lasting, sustainable change in the area of health and civil society development, Dr. Mustafa al-Barghouti.

His approach has required tenacity in the face of an iron-fisted occupation, determination to circumvent both Palestinian and Israeli government opposition, and innovation to deliver top-notch medical services to a downtrodden, impoverished, stateless society. His innovations extend far beyond the health sector where he established the highly effective Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, reaching into civil society development through his founding of the political coalition Al-Mubadara (The Palestinian National Initiative) and HDIP (Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute) and even causing a stir in the largely autocratic realm of Palestinian politics through his participation in Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections (running as an independent candidate and under Al-Mubadara). Dr. Barghouti has achieved a great deal in the last three decades of civil society, international solidarity, and political activism and much can be attributed to his innovative views of how best to serve the Palestinian populace, his internal drive, and the societal and educational opportunities he has reaped to benefit from.

Dr. Barghouti was trained as a medical doctor in Moscow in the early 1970s, studying internal medicine and cardiology. Upon return to the West Bank in 1978 he took a position practicing emergency care and medicine at one of Jerusalem’s best Arab medical facilities, Maqased Hospital. In 1979, Mustafa founded the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, a non-governmental organization which provides health care, training, and emergency services in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A decade later Dr. Barghouti co-founded the Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute (HDIP) – a health sector think tank representing an alliance of over 90 Palestinian community organizations and publisher of the Palestine Monitor, a collaborative effort to raise awareness about the health, humanitarian, and political situation for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Although he had been an active member of Palestinian student organizations during his study in Moscow and a standing member of the Palestine People’s Party (a Marxist-leftist political organization) since his return, most of his work had been non-political and concentrated on health and humanitarian needs of refugees and civilians in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In 1991 however, Dr. Barghouti became intimately involved in the Palestinian politics when he served as a delegate to the Madrid Peace Conference aimed at finally bringing a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After the Oslo peace process and the establishment of a Palestinian government in Ramallah, Mustafa al-Barghouti realized the next real place for change required him to enter the political arena in full. He ran unsuccessfully for the Palestinian legislature in the first governmental elections in 1996 as a member of the People’s Party (PPP). Undeterred from politics, but skeptical of the Marxist leanings of his former PPP, Barghouti took his innovative political style and experience with successes in civil society development and left his former party to establish the Palestinian National Initiative (Al-Mubadara) with longtime associate and Palestinian scholar Edward Said. The two intended to build a reformist, inclusive alternative to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the corrupt and autocratic ruling Fatah party, and Islamic militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He continues to serve as the party’s general secretary today. In 2005 Mustafa al-Barghouti ran for president of the Palestinian National Authority promising, “I will demand total and complete reform, fight any form of corruption, mismanagement, and consolidate the rule of law.” He finished in second to Fatah rival Mahmoud Abbas, garnering 20% of the vote. Although he was unsuccessful in his first electoral bids, his candidacy and high standing among the majority of Palestinians raised a great deal of awareness regarding the flaws in both the major parties – Hamas and Fatah, bringing about piecemeal reforms in both of their electoral platforms. In 2006 Dr. Barghouti was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council on the Independent Palestine List – a coalition of independent parties hoping to provide, “a truly democratic and independent ‘third way’ for the large majority of silent and unrepresented Palestinian voters, who favor neither the autocracy and corruption of the governing Fatah party, nor the fundamentalism of Hamas.” Following his electoral success he served as Minister of Information in the short-lived Palestinian unity government. He continues to be an outspoken critic of the PLO and PA for corruption, terrorism, and authoritarianism and supports non-violent resistance as the most effective means of overcoming Israeli occupation. He sees a peaceful resolution possible based on two states with Palestine in the 1967 territories, its capital in Arab East Jerusalem, and a compromised solution to the refugee crisis. Dr. Mustafa al-Barghouti, a Ramallah-based doctor and activist, has been a constant voice of political innovation and reform in a situation where developments have been sorely needed.

Mustafa al-Barghouti was born into near-perfect conditions which allowed him to become the innovative, driven, successful politician and activist he has been for over 30 years, similar in many ways to the business “outliers” Malcolm Gladwell describes in his recent book, “Outliers” on success. His opportunities spurn from timing (including when he was born and the events of his early life), his socioeconomic status, and his professional pursuits. Dr. Barghouti was born in 1954 (13 years prior to the Israeli invasion and occupation of the West Bank) in Jerusalem and grew up in a small village outside Ramallah. Mustafa was born into a large, well-known, socially and politically connected family, the al-Barghouti clan, which includes many notable figures in business and politics. He was exposed to politics almost from the moment of birth. In the 1950s, his village Deir Ghassaneh was part of the leftist opposition to Jordanian rule over the West Bank. Dr. Barghouti remarked on his early influences, “I grew up surrounded by internationalist, progressive literature – our family’s viewpoint was always shaped by opposition to social justice, rather than by nationalism.” At the age of 14, the 6-day War commenced, which began the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Mustafa claims this as a formative time in the development of his political and social views. “Those few days reshaped me,” he explained, “I felt a huge amount of responsibility. My childhood ended then. We were now under occupation. It was the beginning of a life mission: how do we become free?” As a child and into his adolescent years, Mustafa al-Barghouti took part in waves of mass protests and demonstrations and visited his uncles, jailed for political reasons, in Israeli prisons. During the early and mid-70s, Barghouti studied abroad to achieve his doctorate at a Moscow medical university, which influenced his views on Marxism and social justice, but which also placed him outside of the Palestinian territories at a time when Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization was becoming increasingly popular in both the territories and the diaspora. For this reason Dr. Barghouti never became captivated by the PLO, but instead was greatly skeptical of its leaders and desires, preferring to develop the internal democratic and social movement inside Palestine outside of PLO institutions and structures. Dr. Mustafa al-Barghouti’s influences, early upbringing, and situation of birth caused him to be exposed to the Israeli occupation during his formative, adolescent years. Had he been born earlier, it is quite likely he would have been abroad during the start of the occupation and not had the same influences to become deeply involved in the Palestinian movement. Any later, and he might have been too young to understand the implications of the start of the occupation. His upbringing spurned him to become heavily involved in humanitarian struggles.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mr. Palestine

With confidence in the peace process at a near-historic low the Israeli and Palestinian regimes have increased their reliance on unilateral moves in order to achieve their territorial and political aspirations. The most recent example of this trend is the 65-page comprehensive development plan put forth by appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The document outlines unilateral steps the Palestinian Authority should take in order to create a de facto state in the West Bank by 2011 and as Dr. Fayyad explained, "end the occupation, despite the occupation."

Dr. Fayyad explained in an interview with the Times of London, "We have decided to be proactive, to expedite the end of the occupation by working very hard to build positive facts on the ground, consistent with having our state emerge as a fact that cannot be ignored. This is our agenda, and we want to pursue it doggedly."

The Fayyad Plan focuses on both political and economic development in the West Bank in order to build state institutions and increase foreign investment opportunities with the obvious overarching goal of ushering in a de facto Palestinian independent state.

The document is remarkable in its thoroughness. It reads like a political manifesto, painstakingly detailing the goals of the Palestinian national movement and specific measures the Palestinian Authority should take to increase economic growth and reform political institutions in the Palestinian Territories. It is a comprehensive reform package as well, not just representing a shopping list of what Dr. Fayyad would like to see accomplished, but including dozens of lists of detailed steps each specific ministry of the Palestinian Authority can take to implement the needed reforms.

The Fayyad Plan was devised to achieve several key aims: as a hedge against the failure of U.S.-mediated final status negotiations, to build the legitimacy of the PNA in the eyes of the Palestinian people in time for possible parliamentary elections in 2010, to curry support for Palestinian statehood from the international community, and to pressure the Israeli government with the threat of a unilateral declaration of independence amidst building international displeasure with the continuation of the occupation of the Palestinian Territories.

Much has been said about Dr. Fayyad and the document that bears his name. Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times coined the term “Fayyadism” to refer to Dr. Fayyad’s ideology to win support by building accountable, democratic institutions and then lauded it as, “the most exciting new idea in Arab governance ever.” The U.S. and UN both expressed similar satisfaction with the Prime Minister’s announcement. The Fayyad Plan represents an attempt at “self-empowerment” and, “challenges other players to step up to their responsibilities,” remarked the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Robert Serry. The Middle East Quartet, composed of the EU, U.S., UN, and Russia has also embraced the Fayyad Plan.

The response from Israelis and Hamas leaders has been decidedly more negative. The official Israeli position has been to ignore the announcement of the Fayyad Plan, though several key ministers, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have publicly derided the plan as a threat of Palestinian unilateralism. Hamas, entrenched in the Gaza Strip, is also publicly opposed to the plan, commenting that it follows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s concept of “economic peace” too closely.

With the release of such an ambitious and concrete plan for Palestinian economic and political development it is no wonder many commentators are beginning to view Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as a bold reformer, a defender of accountable, transparent democracy – an anti-Arafat even. The Fayyad Plan addresses nearly all of the criticisms Palestinian, Israeli, and international actors have lobbed at it. Aside from the continuing Israeli occupation and economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian national movement has its fair share of serious problems that preclude the attainment of a just and lasting peace agreement. The most pressing of these problems, the political and geographic split between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fateh in the West Bank is a distinctly Palestinian problem that is regrettably left unmentioned in Dr. Fayyad’s document.

Institutions of Dr. Fayyad’s Palestinian National Authority suffer from rampant corruption, a serious lack of transparency, failure to promote the rule of law, less-than-professional behavior of Palestinian police and security forces, economic uncertainty, and creeping authoritarianism – all problems that must be addressed in order to build the credibility and legitimacy for an independent Palestinian state.

Can “Mr. Palestine” boldly build a democratic de facto Palestinian state in two years?

Dr. Fayyad represents a fresh face in Palestinian politics and seems to be a very promising politician, one that could potentially encourage the development of democratic principles in Palestine. His Third Way party ran on a platform of ending corruption and fighting for democracy. The problem is that many analysts misread Fayyad’s autonomy in the caretaker government and his support among the Palestinian population. Salam Fayyad is just not the prominent, charismatic politician ready to crush corruption and authoritarianism in the PA that many analysts hope to believe. Winning only 2.4% of the vote in the 2006 parliamentary elections, Dr. Fayyad is little more than an untested technocrat with little political base.

Dr. Fayyad has accomplished very little democratic political development during his time in Palestinian politics and has pursued or acquiesced to some outright undemocratic policies. Earlier this year a broadcasting ban was placed on the popular Al-Jazeera television network by the PNA for reporting negative comments about late Fateh leader Yasser Arafat by a prominent Fateh official. Fayyad was largely implicated as the driving force behind the ban, ordering the Attorney General to pursue charges against the popular news network. Under considerable popular pressure, Fayyad relented and allowed Al-Jazeera to resume broadcasting, but it’s hard to imagine how muzzling the press is good for democracy. More recently, Dr. Fayyad said nothing about the undemocratic reelection of Mahmoud Abbas as head of Fateh at the party’s first internal election in decades. The entire spectacle brought back all too many bad memories of Arafat’s authoritarian, unaccountable rule over the areas of the Palestinian Territories he controlled.

Recent Palestinian surveys shed some light on Fayyad’s support among Palestinians. A solid 48% oppose the Fayyad caretaker government as opposed to 42% who support it. An abysmal 32% regard the performance of his government as good or very good. Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas-led de facto regime in the Gaza Strip beat Dr. Fayyad, with 41% rating it as good or very good.

It seems rather clear that Fayyad is being used as window dressing on Mr. Abbas’ presidency to give his government and his policies greater legitimacy, to curry favor with the West, and to give the appearance that corruption is being curbed. Salam Fayyad has precious little autonomy within the caretaker government and is rarely allowed to pursue his own policies. His reform plan, while laudable and sorely needed, is unlikely to be implemented because little in the way of accountable political structures exist in the PNA. Building a culture of transparency and accountability in an unelected government ruling by decree is impossible in the current political climate.

The Fayyad Plan will not allow the Palestinians to take hold of their own destiny and forge a de facto Palestinian state. The ambitious plan will require either Israeli ambivalence toward the plan or outright endorsement of the PNA’s desire to reform its institutions and create political “facts on the ground” to compete with Israel’s growing settlement enterprise. Either way, the Israeli government will have a great deal of influence in what the Palestinians are able to accomplish.

The plan contains an economic development package that Dr. Fayyad, given his economic credentials, would be well-placed to administer. The problem with this however, is that the economic reforms the Fayyad Plan lays out are impossible for the Palestinian National Authority to implement without Israeli approval of the project.

Two major infrastructure projects Dr. Fayyad hopes to build are a high-speed rail to Jordan and a new international airport in the Jordan Valley. Neither the border between the West Bank and Jordan nor the Jordan Valley are currently controlled by the PNA and thus would require major changes in Israeli policy to allow for the transfer of land and major construction projects to commence. The PNA simply lacks the authority to implement the reforms Dr. Fayyad envisions for the economy, and the need to cater to Israeli authorities for permission and permits to pursue development projects cuts deeply into the Palestinian public’s respect for and perception of legitimacy of their government and leaders.

The Fayyad Plan also includes a generous tax scheme to encourage foreign direct investment in the Palestinian economy. While tax benefits could certainly help in this realm, political uncertainty, continued Israeli occupation, and the current security environment greatly discourage any real investment.

Salam Fayyad’s plan for economic development is full of many tested ideas for improving the Palestinian economic picture, however, it fails to acknowledge the extent to which many of the most important projects will rest on Israeli approval. In an attempt to hedge against the failure of political negotiations between Israel and the PNA and forge a unilateral path to Palestinian independence, the Fayyad Plan sets up the PNA for endless, bickering talks over minute economic matters with various less-than-friendly Israeli leaders who will attempt to extract concessions from the Palestinians for each major project.

Democratic principles have been severely and continuously repressed by both Hamas and the Fateh-led Palestinian Authority since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007. Fayyad’s stint as Prime Minister has done nothing to end corruption or provide accountable government. The “national emergency” of Palestinian factionalism has simply provided the justification for both regimes to stifle dissent, make arbitrary arrests, and consolidate the power of the state in the hands of a few leaders. Palestine is not becoming more democratic but less and Fayyad has been able to do very little to reverse this trend. His comprehensive Fayyad Plan is a catalogue of reforms sorely needed in the Palestinian Territories, yet it seems clear the current political impasse will prohibit its implementation, and Dr. Fayyad is not the Mr. Palestine some want him to be.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Palestinian elections in January?

Perhaps. Maan is reporting that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will issue a decree demanding presidential and legislative elections before January 25. Sources close to the president indicated that his West Bank government is willing to pursue reconciliation efforts with Hamas up until the date of the announced elections.

It is unclear whether Hamas would be allowed to run for West Bank positions, if Gazans will be allowed to vote, or if Gaza offices will appear on the ballot as a symbolic attempt to build a government-in-exile for the Gaza Strip.

This appears to be Abbas' latest move to force Hamas' hand in reconciliation efforts, pushing them to either join a unity government or relinquish their offices and participate in comprehensive national elections. If elections do go forward, it will only increase Abbas' favor with the West, although it runs the serious risk of driving a wedge even deeper between the rival factions if Hamas is now allowed or refuses to participate. Abbas is taking a serious gamble as well. Palestinians will not accept a new government as legitimate if all factions, including Hamas, are not involved in the process.

Abbas is expected to announce the date of the new elections before October 25 and more details should be revealed at that time.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Be Back Soon

I just recently moved to our nation's capital and have been rather busy, so as you might have noticed - the hard-hitting, timely analysis of issues concerning the ongoing peace process has been absent. I'll get back to the semi-regular posts soon enough, probably early next week. Rest assured I will make up for the short break with a longer, better written piece I have been asked to write. As soon as I'm done I'll post it here for your enjoyment!

Thanks for your patience!


Monday, August 31, 2009

Hamas jumps on the Holocaust denial bandwagon

via Matt Yglesias.

Hamas is not exactly making a very good case for persuading Western governments to engage them in the peace process. If I was leading the rival Fateh faction, I'd advocate that the Palestinian Authority introduce a unit on the Holocaust into West Bank schools. The worst PR move one can make in the Middle East is to follow Ahmadinejad's lead and publicly deny the atrocities of the Holocaust. Regardless of your opinion on the effect of the Holocaust on Zionism and the founding of Israel, denial of a basic historical fact is certainly not the way to win an argument or attract supporters.

New joint Israeli-Palestinian poll yields troubling results

The Palestinian Center for Policy Survey and Research has combined forces with the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to gauge Israeli and Palestinian attitudes regarding the peace process and domestic policy. The results do not bode well for peacemakers. In general, both Israeli and Palestinian support for a solution along the lines of the Geneva Initiative (seen largely as the best hope for a just and lasting solution to the conflict) has consistently declined. The full joint press release for the survey can be found here. I have outlined some highlights from the report below:

American involvement:

Both Israelis and Palestinians are skeptical of President Obama’s intentions, however, positive attitudes toward the president are increasing among Palestinians and decreasing among Israelis – due in large part to the administration’s request that Israel halt settlement expansion in the West Bank. 49% of the Israeli public wants Obama the United States to play a more active role in the peace process, while 61% of Palestinians seek the same.

The Peace process:

Surprisingly, and perhaps most depressing for those interested in peacebuilding efforts, a majority of 59% of Israelis do not currently believe Israel has a partner for peace negotiations. Only 27% believe such a partner does exist. Because the actual poll questions were not included in the report it is impossible to ascertain whether this attitude refers to the lack of a unified Palestinian government or opposition to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The poll indicates that support for the Saudi Peace Plan is increasing with 64% of Palestinians now supporting a process along the lines of that agreed to by the Arab League. Despite the increase in support, only 40% of Israelis indicated they could support the Saudi plan.

The Geneva Plan, long regarded as the most pragmatic, realistic, and workable solution to the decades-long conflict, is slowly losing support among both the Israeli and Palestinian populations. Only 38% of Palestinians support a plan similar to that posed by President Clinton. A larger percentage (46%) of Israelis support the Geneva Plan than Palestinians, but that percentage does not constitute a majority and is slowly declining.

The survey polled both Israelis and Palestinians on individual issues related to the peace process and found disturbing results, indicating that both populations were less than ready for a settlement based on what many mediators believe is the only workable solution.

Both Israelis and Palestinians are evenly split in their support for a solution which includes an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank with the exception of some settlement areas that make up less than 3% of the area that would be swapped with equal amount of land given to the Palestinian Authority adjacent to the Gaza Strip.

Neither population supports a limited right of return or compensation for Palestinian refugees. Just over one-third of Israelis and Palestinians support a refugee solution along these lines. The same percentage supports dividing Jerusalem as the capital of both states.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently asserted that he would support the creation of only a demilitarized Palestinian state. While 56% of Israelis support the establishment of a Palestinian state under this condition, only 24% of Palestinians support this type of limit on full sovereignty.

Despite several unsettling revelations, two questions (asked only to Israelis) yielded very interesting results and allow some small degree of hope. 52% of Israelis support including Hamas in the peace process if it is needed to reach a compromise. Furthermore, a majority of 66% of the Israeli public support talks with a Palestinian national unity government that includes Hamas. Interestingly, more Israelis are willing to talk with Hamas than are willing to halt settlement activity.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Juan Cole comments on the Fayyad Plan

Juan Cole at his Informed Comment blog has shared his initial reaction to the announcement of Fayyad's unilateral plan for Palestinian statehood. Cole's comments are short and less than cohesive (he seems to just list the major challenges that will complicate Fayyad's goals), but he does provide a good quote:

"If there is going to be a two-state solution, as Obama insists and toward which the Fatah government in the West Bank is now moving quickly, it will depend on level-headed Israelis who recognize that the occupation of the Palestinians is actually a threat to Israel."

Cole, like myself, is skeptical that such a plan is even possible without major Israeli assistance (or at least a pledge not to torpedo it at the first possible opportunity. The rightist Likud party in Israel is in charge now and is openly against any such plan that allows the Palestinians to have even marginal control over their own political or economic development.

I like Juan Cole; he doesn't mince words. Maybe it is time more pro-peace commentators strongly voiced their opposition to the Netanyahu government on the grounds that it is simply not interested in a real, comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and openly wished for the collapse of the Likud-led administration.

As the sole voice of this blog, I am not at this point ready to take the same stance as Cole. I am not convinced that the Israeli leftist pro-peace camp even has enough support to play a major role in any government or that the centrist Kadima party will pursue good-faith negotiations any more than Likud. The Israeli left (and the pro-peace camp that is the backbone of the movement) seems to be in semi-permanent hibernation at the moment and I refuse to wish in vain for the impossible. Obama pressuring an unfriendly Netanyahu regime may actually be better for the peace process than a friendly relationship between Obama and Kadima - which will lead to nothing. There's probably no real support for pressuring Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak, kinder, gentler Israeli politicians. Support does exist to lean hard on Netanyahu, whose character was summed up perfectly in the immortal lyrics of Dr. Seuss:

You really are a heel.
You're as cuddly as a cactus,
You're as charming as an eel.

Your heart's an empty hole.
Your brain is full of spiders,
You've got garlic in your soul.

You have termites in your smile.
You have all the tender sweetness
Of a seasick crocodile.

Given the choice between the two of you
I'd take the seasick crocodile.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Palestinian negotiator Erekat: "I am a fact on the ground."

Palestinian lead negotiator Saeb Erekat recently took several questions concerning the peace process from readers of Israeli daily Haaretz. The transcript is in somewhat broken English (it's difficult to determine whether the errors are poor translation from the original English or Erekat's limited English abilities), but certainly readable - and very telling of the general Palestinian position on several major issues.

Here are a few informative, intriguing, or flat out hilarious quotes from Erekat:

On Israeli settlements:

"Negotiation is about giving and taking, but those Israelis who want to advocate the settlements, they are making peace with themselves and not with me."

On religion in the conflict:

"If you read Judaism, Islam and Christianity very carefully, you will find that the three religions advocate peace, saving lives, healing, forgiveness ... Why is it that the most vicious calls to conflict come from mosques and synagogues?"

On American mediation and the Obama administration:

"Obama will make not peace for us, it is Palestinians and Israelis that will have to make the decisions. Americans will help, but Palestinians should not make a mistake. If peace is to be made, no one will impose a decision upon us."

On democracy in the Arab world:

"The bigger picture in the region is how we go - do we go in the vehicles of [Osama] bin Laden or the vehicles of democracy?"

"Two things will determine the future: Peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and democracy in the Arab world. Anyone who says Arabs are not ready for democracy is a racist."

(Edward Said would certainly agree with Erekat's frank comment that the Western belief that the Arab world is not ready for democracy is more an example of the West's Orientalist beliefs than any anti-democratic Arab culture.)

On Hamas:

"That's what we are challenging Hamas with - we want to go to the ballot, not the bullet. And that's why we need an end game with Israel. If I have an end game agreement showing the two-state solution, Hamas will disappear, if I don't, I will disappear. That's the fight. It's about me saying it's doable, through peace."

(The Israeli government and the Obama administration should recognize this reality immediately. The longer Palestinians sit in occupation, the stronger Hamas will become and the Israelis will then truly not have a negotiating partner.)

On recognizing Israel as a Jewish state:

"I'm not going to call the shots for you. I'm not going to stop you from circumcising your boys, I'm not going to stop you from going to synagogues. You can call yourself whatever you want. If you want to call yourself the biblical, united, eternal, holy, milk and honey land of Jewish Israel, submit your name to the UN. Your name is the State of Israel."

(For clarification, Erekat is here referencing that Israel has generally had trouble defining itself between religious and secular principles. He finds it unbelievable that Palestinians would be asked to characterize Israel when Israelis have largely been unable to do the same.)

Erekat's best line:

"By the way, I am a fact on the ground, I don't intend to disappear. Many people thought I would disappear. Wake up. I am here and here to stay. My generation is extending its arms to you, saying let's be good neighbors. You are eating up the same territory that I am supposed to build my state on."

Based on personal experience and readily available Palestinian opinion polls, I believe it is pretty clear that Erekat's statements reflect the sensitivities of the Palestinian public. Israelis and Obama take note.

Unilateralism reigns when confidence is in short supply

Updated Below

With confidence in the peace process at a near-historic low (despite President Obama's involvement) the Israeli and Palestinian regimes have increased their reliance on unilateral moves in order to achieve their territorial and political aspirations. The most recent example of this trend is the 65-page development plan put forth by appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The document outlines unilateral steps the Palestinian Authority should take in order to create a de facto state in the West Bank by 2011 and as Fayyad explained to, "end the occupation, despite the occupation."

Fayyad continued, "We have decided to be proactive, to expedite the end of the occupation by working very hard to build positive facts on the ground, consistent with having our state emerge as a fact that cannot be ignored. This is our agenda, and we want to pursue it doggedly."

The Fayyad plan focuses on both political and economic development in the West Bank in order to build state institutions and increase foreign investment opportunities with the obvious overarching goal of ushering in an indisputable, undeniable de facto Palestinian independent state.

Of course if one remembers (and few still do), the Palestinian Liberation Organization unilaterally declared independence from Israeli occupation in 1988, a move that was recognized by roughly 100 countries. It is unlikely, even if Fayyad was to be able to build a state within a state under occupation, that one could ever consider the PA a "de facto" state without control of its own borders or full sovereignty over its actual territory. Building democratic institutions is certainly a laudable goal worth pursuing, even under occupation, for the Palestinians but gaining independence and ending the 42-year occupation of the Palestinian Territories is almost exclusively based on Israeli goodwill to allow a Palestinian state to exist in the first place.

The most ambitious goals of the Fayyad plan - rail lines to neighboring Arab states to increase trade and an airport in the Jordan Valley (which Israel exercises full military control over) - would need Israeli approval. Even the unilateral steps of political and economic development Fayyad seeks can never really be unilateral while the Territories remain under Israeli occupation.

Fayyad's words can be taken in a very positive way - that the PA is truly ready for democratic political development and self-sustained economic growth (despite the challenges to both of occupation) - or in a very negative way; one could easily interpret the reliance on unilateralism as a serious lack of even basic confidence in the peace process. If President Obama hopes to achieve anything in the Holy Land, he needs to act quickly to restore confidence among moderate, Western-friendly Palestinian leaders like Fayyad. If Obama does not even have Fayyad behind him, reconciling Netanyahu and Abbas are years in the distance.


The New York Times surprisingly picked up this story and included a couple of Israeli responses to the Fayyad plan.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz:
“This is contrary to all the agreements signed between the sides. There is no place for unilateralism, no place for threats, and of course, there will be no Palestinian state at all, if any, without ensuring the state of Israel’s security.

Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon: “Artificial dates and arbitrary deadlines never worked in the past, but caused only damage and would not work now. If the Palestinians want a state they should stop terrorism, incitement and declare an end of the conflict and of all claims.

Steinitz seems to be suffering from hypocritical selective memory syndrome when it comes to past agreements signed between the sides, as his Israeli government refused to answer to 2003 Road Map commitments such as halting settlement expansion or clearing illegal outposts in the West Bank. His own government has been no stranger to unilateral moves, as the entire point of this post was to show how lack of confidence in the peace process breeds unilateralism. Israel has never really had confidence in the process, and their long history of unilateral moves is clear proof of that. The Fayyad plan illustrates that the Palestinians now have just as little confidence.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

...and We're back!

After a week exploring the sprawling, gargantuan, carbon dioxide-spewing, yet all too beautiful masterpiece of human society that is New York City with this blog's biggest fan (based solely on site views as diligently reported to me by Google Analytics) Holy Land Peace is back and ready to continue providing my loyal readership with hard-hitting, timely news and analysis of all things peace-related in that sun-parched, ethno-religious melting pot (if the pot was filled only with maple syrup, food coloring and vegetable oil; you can mix them all up but what's the use, they'll all end up separating in the end out of mistrust of the other) I like to call Greater Israel/Historic Palestine/the Holy Land.

Full disclosure: NYC provided a beautiful distraction from the perpetual frustration and soul-crushing disappointment of following Middle East politics and I must admit that I did little to keep up with Holy Land happenings. However, several events are worth briefly noting - though none carry any real, pressing cause for concern. Here is a quick rundown of the week's events:

Al-Qaeda is in the Gaza Strip!?
No, they are not, yet almost every media outlet that covered the bloody firefight between Hamas de facto government forces and the unknown extremist militant Islamic group Jund Ansar Allah alleged or insinuated that the group's very existence indicated that Al-Qaeda had infiltrated the Gaza Strip. The organization has no actual links to Al-Qaeda and appears to be little more than another small, hastily organized group with little influence on Palestinian politics. These groups - of which Palestinian Islamic Jihad is another such one - have been largely kept in check by Hamas, especially since the end of the the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip. The groups are somewhat inspired by other Islamic militant groups such as Al-Qaeda, holding similar ideology, and are disillusioned by what they view as Hamas' caving to Israeli and American pressure to become more moderate. The group's membership (including it's leadership) was all but wiped out during the Hamas attack on a mosque held by Jund Ansar Allah, an attack which claimed the lives of 28 Palestinians and wounded an additional 120. The real danger here is in spreading the myth that Al-Qaeda groups or foreign fighters have infiltrated the Gaza Strip, an allegation that I am certain will be propagated by those not interested in a real peace process, but instead looking to make permanent the Israeli occupation over the Palestinian territories. Hamas seems to be easily capable of controlling, through violence if necessary, competing Islamist organizations in the Strip and it is important for Western analysts to see a reformed and politicized Hamas as a viable conservative alternative to fundamentalist groups such as Islamic Jihad or Jund Ansar Allah. Consolidating political power and legitimizing its own rule in the Gaza Strip seem to be the current primary goals of Hamas and the Obama administration, Israel, and Fateh should act accordingly and begin attempting to engage Hamas in limited ways to gauge the possibility of including the group in attempts to revive the peace process or rebuild a Palestinian unity government.

Huckabee Holds Extremist Views on the Holy Land
Apparently former Republican presidential hopeful and fundamentalist Christian Mike Huckabee asserted his belief in Greater Israel (meaning Israel from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River - de facto annexation of the Palestinian Territories and their people to Israel). Why this was surprising to so many commentators escapes me. Mike Huckabee's views on Israel are informed almost exclusively by the Bible and his opinions toward the peace process are based on his literal interpretation that the Jewish people must reoccupy the entire Holy Land in order to usher in the second coming of Christ. Huckabee is a fundamentalist and hardly a viable Republican candidate. He does not believe in the two-state solution and never will, his religious belief precludes this. His views are the same as extremist Israeli settlers and Hamas militants: the Holy Land must be either all Jewish or all Muslim, coexistence is heresy. It's best just to write Huckabee's statements off as the ranting of a non-influential anti-peace blowhard. I'm not even going to tag Huckabee in this post.

Shhhhh... September Will Come with a Surprise!
I have little concrete information on this aside from rumors reported by several major media outlets and thus little analysis to share, but it seems the Obama administration is planning to release its preliminary plan and timeline for a new Middle East peace process sometime in September. Haaretz has reported that Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli PM Netanyahu will be meeting Obama in Washington for trilateral talks. More updates as events warrant.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Get ready for the long haul

Issues festering below the surface of the conflict mean negotiations will need to focus on more than just two states for two peoples:

New links added

I have added a few new links to relevant blogs about U.S. foreign policy and Middle East current events. Enjoy them at your leisure!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Friedman's Fayyad Folly

If I was a superhero New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman would be my arch nemesis. He would mischievously zoom around a fictitious brown and grey, run-down city spreading vague generalizations, misinformation, overly simplistic explanations for complex phenomena, and wandering metaphors among the unsuspecting, innocent populace. His nefarious goal: to convince every last one of our metaphorical city’s inhabitants that he is a brilliant expert on all internationally concerned things – global warming, Middle East politics, globalization – you name it, Tom Friedman wants to be everybody’s go-to guy for it. Our hero (yours truly, of course) would swoop in and start an epic battle of words with Friedman, attempting to convince the public that his op-ed articles are nothing but shallow generalizations and ideas spawned from our villain’s Bushian habit of thinking with his gut while on assignment in exotic locales. This would be a tragedy rather than a comedy of course. The hero would talk and talk and no one would listen. Friedman would be offered a prominent position at the New York Times and I would wade in obscurity on a little-known blog – doomed to live as an internet hermit in a virtual cave overlooking the once proud city.

If you have made it this far, congratulations, because what I have attempted to produce is a Friedmanian wandering metaphor. I am proud of its accuracy in portraying his style.

Metaphors aside, Thomas Friedman’s most recent crime against the American intellect was a two-part declaration of his unending love and respect for appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. In the first part of his op-ed, entitled “Green Shoots in Palestine,” Friedman praises the efforts of Fayyad to build strong democratic state institutions characterized by transparency, accountability, respect for the rule of law, and independent judiciary, and checks on executive power. He coins the term “Fayyadism,” which, “is based on the simple but all-too-rare notion that an Arab leader’s legitimacy should be based not on slogans or rejectionism or personality cults or security services, but on delivering transparent, accountable administration and services.” He also asserts that Fayyadism calls for the building of state institutions before securing Palestinian independence. Friedman calls this concept, “the most exciting new idea in Arab governance ever.”

There are many problems I (and Marc Lynch) have with Friedman’s article, but first I want to clarify who Salam Fayyad is to allow me to explain everything he is not in refutation of Friedman’s assertions. Salam Fayyad is an American-educated, Western-supported, highly-respected economist who held several positions at the International Monetary Fund before jumping into Palestinian politics. His name has generally been held in Western circles as synonymous with efforts to end corruption and reform the political institutions of the PA. He served as Finance Minister from June 2002 until November 2006, was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council as a member of his Third Way party (which he helped co-found with Hanan Ashrawi and Yasser Abd Rabbo). Third Way won just 2.4% of the nearly one million votes cast, clearing the minimum threshold by only 4000 votes and eking out two of the 132 seats in the legislature. After winning election, Fayyad served as Finance Minister in the Hamas-Fateh unity government until Hamas seized control over the Gaza Strip and President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed Hamas ministers from the government. Abbas then tapped Fayyad as Prime Minister in violation of Palestinian law, justifying the appointment due to “national emergency.”

My problem is not with Salam Fayyad, but with Friedman’s reading of what is going on in Palestinian politics. I do not doubt Fayyad’s intentions to curb corruption and build strong democratic institutions in the Palestinian Authority. He represents a fresh face in Palestinian politics and seems to be a very promising politician, one that could potentially encourage the development of democratic principles in Palestine. His Third Way party ran on a platform of ending corruption and fighting for democracy, and I believe it (along with Mustafa Barghouti’s Al-Mubadara) represents the very best that the Palestinian political system has produced. The problem is that Friedman misreads Fayyad’s autonomy in the caretaker government and his support among the Palestinian population. Salam Fayyad is just not the prominent, charismatic politician ready to crush corruption and authoritarianism in the PA that Friedman lets on.

His “Fayyadism” is a laughably ill-conceived concept that is poorly named and even more poorly defined. Friedman’s assertion that providing civil services and transparent administration in exchange for votes and support is a radically new concept in the Arab world, or that Salam Fayyad represents the leading edge of such a movement is demonstrably false given recent Middle East history. Two groups are revered and respected in much of the region for their development of social services in low-income areas and corruption-free administrations: Hamas and Hezbollah. Both organizations (which employ violent militant wings as well) beat Fayyad to the punch and were the first to push back against the unaccountable, authoritarian secular nationalist regimes in Palestine and Lebanon. If anything, “Fayyadism” should be more appropriately named, “Social Islamism.” Hamas won the 2006 PLC elections on a platform of ending the rampant corruption of Abbas’ Fateh party and by demonstrating that they could provide needed, accountable social services to the population. Hezbollah’s popularity (which has translated into electoral success in Lebanon) is largely based on their provision of social services such as hospitals and educational programs that the Lebanese government has continually failed to provide. The UN believes that Hezbollah provides hundreds of millions of dollars of social programs every year. Admitting that this concept actually originated with groups most of the Western world consider terrorist organizations is understandably inconvenient for Friedman, so he apparently just names it after a Western-backed Arab politician, historical facts be damned.

Aside from the inconvenient truth that “Fayyadism” actually originated with local Islamist groups, Friedman ignores that his hero Fayyad has accomplished very little democratic political development during his time in Palestinian politics (and has pursued or acquiesced to some very undemocratic policies). A few weeks ago I commented on the reporting ban placed on Al-Jazeera by the PA for reporting negative comments about late Fateh leader Yasser Arafat by a prominent Fateh official. Fayyad was largely implicated as the driving force behind the ban, ordering the Attorney General to pursue charges against the popular news network. Under pressure, Fayyad relented, but it’s hard to imagine how muzzling the press is good for democracy. More recently, Fayyad said nothing about the undemocratic reelection of Abbas as head of Fateh. The entire spectacle brought back all too many bad memories of Arafat’s authoritarian, unaccountable rule over Palestine. Abbas ran unopposed and 700 unknown Fateh delegates were bussed into the conference just before the vote to insure that Abbas received enough votes – moves ripped right out of Arafat’s playbook.

Fayyad is just not the prominent, popular politician that Friedman insists he is. As I stated earlier, he barely won his seat in the PLC – despite running on centrist platform to crush corruption and institute greater democratic policies. The other relatively unknown independent party Al-Mubadara even won more votes than Third Way, mainly because it was doing exactly what Hamas and Hezbollah do: providing medical and social services where the PA had failed. The most recent PCPSR survey (which I have cited in several prior posts) sheds some light on Fayyad’s support among Palestinians. A solid 48% oppose the Fayyad caretaker government as opposed to 42% who support it. An abysmal 32% regard the performance of his government as good or very good. Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas-led de facto regime in the Gaza Strip beat Fayyad, with 41% rating it as good or very good. Here is perhaps the most telling statistic that refutes Friedman’s claim that Fayyad is actually fighting corruption: 70% of Palestinians believe corruption continues in PA institutions, with only 27% believing it will decrease. The fact is, Fayyad has just not been able (or willing) to combat corruption and institute democratic principles. Only 42% rank the status of democracy and human rights in the PA as good or very good. Finally, only 26% view the Abbas/Fayyad government as legitimate, 4% less than those who see Hamas as the legitimate regime.

Though Friedman does not let this on, I worry that Fayyad is being used as window dressing on Abbas’ presidency to give his government and his policies greater legitimacy, to curry favor with the West, and to give the appearance that corruption is being curbed. Salam Fayyad has precious little autonomy within the caretaker government and is rarely allowed to pursue his own policies.

Friedman seems to think that the trend toward accountable government in Palestine (which I believe is nothing more than a figment of his imagination, accountability has plummeted in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the violent fall of the unity government) will spill over into neighboring Arab regimes, causing a domino effect of blossoming democratic principles. Please do not hold your breath that the monarchies in the Gulf and Jordan or the secular dictatorial regimes in Egypt or Syria will reform because of Palestinian examples. There’s no such thing as the Iraq domino effect, and Palestine certainly won’t be the catalyst for democratic political development either – especially given the undemocratic nature of Palestinian politics right now.

I cannot say in stronger words how wrong Friedman is about Palestinian political development. Democratic principles have been severely and continuously repressed by both Hamas and the Fateh-led Palestinian Authority since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007. Fayyad’s stint as Prime Minister has done nothing to end corruption or provide accountable government. Abbas continues to hunt down, imprison, and torture Hamas affiliates, regardless of if they have committed any actual crimes. The “national emergency” has simply provided the justification for both regimes to stifle dissent, make arbitrary arrests, and consolidate the power of the state in the hands of a few leaders. Palestine is not becoming more democratic as Friedman would have his readers believe, but less and Fayyad has been unable to do very little to reverse this trend.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Update: Officials claim Americans WILL pursue border negotiations first

Yesterday I posted a short commentary on the U.S. pursuit for a one-year settlement freeze from the Israeli government. I advocated that the duration of the freeze is not all that important as long as the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations begin with final borders, one of the most challenging and important issues of the conflict. With Washington soon to propose a comprehensive Middle East peace plan with a year and a half timeline for negotiations, Haaretz is reporting that the Obama administration is strongly considering recommending that the parties address borders first.

This is a refreshing break from past American proposals which have generally focused first on small issues as a way to build trust before they attempted to solve the major issues of borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem. I outlined the benefits of addressing the large problems first yesterday, but feel that in light of finding that the Obama administration and I share similar views on where to start negotiations I would elaborate further on why focusing on the larger issues first is the more prudent policy.

Past peace initiatives such as the 2008 Annapolis Conference, 2003 Road Map, and 2001 Camp David process have focused first on very small issues that do not result in any tangible benefits for the Palestinian or Israeli people. As negotiations go on, both sides tend to play along but remain disturbingly skeptical about a final agreement. Small issues may get resolved but this does not result in a more trusting atmosphere for negotiations. Both parties stay cynical that the other will not compromise enough on the large issues: the Israelis worry the Palestinians will not accept a refusal to accept enough refugees; the Palestinians harbor concerns that the Israelis will not agree to acceptable borders or to divide Jerusalem. By the time talks on the most important issues begin public support for negotiations has already dwindled because the people see little tangible benefits from the talks and officials have little patience left, believing they've already given too much on the small issues. It then become easy for one or both sides to torpedo negotiations over irreconcilable differences on one of the big issues.

Starting on borders after obtaining a freeze from the Israelis forgoes initial successes on small issues in order to achieve an agreement that provides real benefits on the ground for the Israeli and Palestinian people, hopefully increasing their support for continued negotiations. Successful talks on borders would also create real trust for tackling the other challenging issues as well, without providing cover for either side to discontinue negotiations. Once borders have been solved in a way that is satisfactory to both sides, storming out of talks over a minor issue like flyover rights will require the spending of far too much political capital with American mediators.

Solving borders first also eliminates the cause of the current awkwardness between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations as it renders a settlement freeze unneeded. Israelis will be able to develop wherever they desire on their side of the border, as will Palestinians. If Palestinians in the West Bank (where the border negotiations are concerned) are allowed to build freely on their side of the border without interference from settlers, the separation barrier, or IDF patrols that protect the settlements the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas will achieve a rare victory over its rival Hamas. Focusing first on borders after obtaining an Israeli settlement freeze is a win-win situation for all parties involved: the Palestinian people, Israelis, the PA, and the Obama administration.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

U.S. seeking year-long settlement freeze

Haaretz has reported that the Obama administration has requested that the Israeli government agree to a one-year settlement freeze in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The U.S. team has referred to a possible freeze as a "deposit" on the peace process in return for gestures from the Palestinians and other Arab states. Israel has indicated it would be willing to halt construction in specific areas for no longer than six months, and has argued that projects already underway must be allowed to be completed. Special envoy George Mitchell and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu are to meet later this month to finalize details on the freeze.

Pushing for and achieving even a temporary settlement freeze is the right policy for the Obama administration to pursue. The move builds Obama's credibility among the Arab states and allows the constructing of "facts on the ground" (Israeli settlements in areas sought by the Palestinians and the UN for the future Palestinian state) to be halted. Settlement expansion greatly undermines good-faith negotiations between the two parties, however the duration of such a freeze is unimportant if final status talks on the border between Israel and Palestine and the future status of Jerusalem are immediately pursued following the settlement moratorium. Past peace initiatives have generally delayed negotiations on such major issues until the very end, hoping that agreements can be made on smaller issues that will build trust and allow for a favorable atmosphere for the more challenging issues such as borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. If an agreement can be reached, however, on borders at the beginning of such talks, concrete improvements would be available for both Israelis and Palestinians. An internationally recognized and supported agreement on borders would allow Israel to build freely and without scrutiny on their side of the border. The Palestinians would benefit from increased freedom of movement and an end to settlement expansion that causes land confiscation, travel delays, the separation wall, and general economic and social uncertainty.

A prudent idea may be to convince the Israelis to agree to an initial three-month settlement freeze in exchange for a reciprocal gesture from the Palestinians or Arab states (temporary commercial flyover rights perhaps). During the freeze, negotiations over borders and Jerusalem - and only these issues - would take place with the hope of reaching an agreement that would make extending the freeze unnecessary. Once the agreement is in place, both sides would take steps to recognize the new borders and begin to make preparations to finalize these borders as the internationally supported demarcation between two sovereign states.

If an agreement cannot be reached before the temporary freeze in construction, the U.S. should pressure both sides to extend their temporary gestures until the border issue can be resolved.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Maybe we need two Clintons on Obama's ME team...

Clinton was not able to gain too much during his first try at Middle East peace, but perhaps after some success in North Korea, he's ready for a second chance:

Monday, August 3, 2009

Obama to launch Middle East peace PR campaign

If there was ever a more telling reminder of just how far off Middle East peace really is, I'm not currently aware of it: President Barack Obama has decided that his Israel-Palestine team will launch a determined public relations campaign to persuade Israelis and Arabs to support his comprehensive plan for Middle East peace. Yes, a PR campaign for peace - what a world indeed. When you find the need to convince people that peace rather than perpetual war is ultimately in their best interests, you might consider rethinking your decision to expend precious political capital on the Middle East.

The Obama administration announced that his team will grant interviews to several Arab and Israeli media outlets to explain the American position on the peace process, gaining public support and bolstering his credibility with all parties in the process.

For the past several weeks dozens of political pundits, policy wonks, and media outlets have been advocating that Obama engage the Israeli public with the same kind of dialogue that he did the Arab world with the much-heralded Cairo speech. The New York Times editorial board strongly urged the president to talk directly to Israelis in an attempt to convince them to pressure their own government (led by rightist PM Benjamin Netanyahu) to accept a temporary settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Many Middle East analysts have declared that the public pressure placed on Israel by the White House is leading to an impasse of the peace process and that Obama either needs to back down on his demand that Israel halt settlement expansion or talk directly to the Israeli people to address their concerns.

Many of the same talking heads who advocate an American PR campaign in Israel have criticized the administration for levying pressure on Israel to halt settlement construction while asking nothing of the Palestinians or Arab regimes. Special Envoy George Mitchell (who appears to be running point on the American diplomatic team) gave a rare interview in which he attempted to clarify erroneous reports by asserting that rather than demanding gestures only from Israel, "we are asking everybody to do things."

Aluf Benn, an editor at large of the Israeli popular leftist newspaper Haaretz recently penned an opinion piece advocating an Obama PR push that was featured prominently in the New York Times. The Times then only two days afterward published an op-ed from their editorial board which was basically a reprint of Benn's, urging Obama to directly engage the Israeli public in order to convince Israeli PM Netanyahu to accept a settlement freeze. Benn argued that, "the Arabs got Cairo; we got nothing," and made the assertion that Obama had pursued a fresh dialogue with nearly every country on the map except for Israel. The Cairo speech, while directed primarily at Arab audiences was also intended for Israeli ears and included declarations of support for the continued alliance between the U.S. and Israel and urged Arab and Israelis to work together with the United States to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. Obama has spoken to Israelis, Arabs, and the entirety of the Middle East on numerous occasions. The problem is, rarely does the bully pulpit (which Benn advocates when he's not telling Obama to drop his demand for a settlement freeze) work across borders. Levying real pressure on foreign leaders rather, is a proven strategy.

Talking to Israel (as many highly qualified and well respected experts advocate) is in no way an inherently bad thing, but I believe the policy has several serious drawbacks that have not been adequately examined.

First (and most importantly), direct media dialogue with the Israeli people will be seen by Netanyahu, his rightist coalition, and his many Israeli and American supporters as a direct confrontation and unwanted meddling in the intimate affairs of another foreign state. If Netanyahu feels like Obama is attempting to circumvent his authority and appeal directly to the Israeli public it will only strengthen his and his supporters' will to defy Obama's demands as a assertion of sovereignty. Furthermore, Obama does not only risk further distancing himself from Netanyahu and deepening the impasse, the possible gain from such a policy is inconsequential. The Israeli public is evenly split on its support for even a temporary settlement freeze and half of the population firmly believes Obama is siding with the Palestinians. Aluf Benn asserts that Obama needs to serve as the catalyst to start an honest, vigorous debate over settlements in Israel. This is simply ludicrous. The pages of Benn's own paper are daily filled with articles from leftists and moderates alike backing a settlement freeze and urging the government to pursue one. The problem is not that no debate is taking place in Israel, the problem is that Israeli society is obsessed with "security." A settlement freeze is largely seen as compromising on what matters most: Jewish safety in Greater Israel. The debate has already taken place and Israelis have decided for 40 years that despite their relative discomfort with the continued occupation of the Palestinians, Jewish settlements must be allowed to thrive in the West Bank for the security of the state. Barack Obama has no chance to cause a serious introspective ephiphany on the settlement enterprise in Israel. A precious few Israeli voices do cry out in the wind (none of them those of major political figures) that the settlements are unsustainable, harmful to Israel's long-term security needs, and a major obstacle to a political solution with the Palestinians, but these are far from enough to change the opinion of the society as a whole. Adding Barack Hussein (the Israeli right is keen on using his middle name to remind the public of his Muslim sympathies) Obama's words to those whispers will not change the situation. Benn urges Obama to convince Israelis to support his policies, but Benn himself rejects the call for a settlement freeze in the same article. The risks to launching a time-consuming PR campaign to directly engage the Israeli public and circumvent Netanyahu far outweighs the benefit of persuading a marginal amount of the Israeli public to pressure the prime minister to follow Obama. There exists no real chance for direct appeals to shake Netanyahu's rightist coalition either. As it stands now, the PM is popular and not suffering in any significant way by defying the Obama administration. Obama risks reaching a "point of no return" in his relationship with Netanyahu by embarking on a PR campaign directed at the Israeli public. Netanyahu may simply close down and play hardball with Obama, refusing to work with him at all and asserting that the American president in meddling in the intimate affairs of another sovereign state.

I believe those that advocate a PR campaign greatly overestimate Obama's influence. Yes, the Cairo speech received favorable press in the Arab world, but its leaders are not clamoring to fulfill Obama's demands that they make their own goodwill gestures to Israel. His fine words may have given him more credibility on the Arab street than any U.S. president in the last 30 years, but it did not translate to concrete actions by Arab regimes. Put simply, the state of democracy in the Middle East is abysmal and Arab leaders have no real reason to listen to their own people, even if they would cry out for their governments to work with the Israelis. (That was actually hard to type and keep a straight face.) Even the Palestinians, who have more of a functioning democracy than most of the Arab world, do not have much control over the actions of their leaders. Both Fateh and Hamas are now basically ruling by decree in the West Bank and Gaza respectively and refusing to listen to the desires of their own people. Palestinians have been strongly urging the factions to reconcile and form a unity government for over a year now, but this popular urging has not translated into any real pressure for the parties to reconcile. Only when Egypt became involved did Fateh and Hamas take any real steps toward reestablishing a central Palestinian government. Because of the lack of real democracy in the Arab world, Obama's PR campaign directed at the Arab and Israeli street will not work. The street (especially in states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and the Palestinian territories) does not have the means to pressure the political elites to follow Obama.

So what are the other options?

Quite frankly, Obama's team needs to double their efforts to coax real confidence-building gestures from the various parties: a settlement freeze, easing of the Gaza siege, and allowing freedom of movement in the West Bank from the Israelis; reconciliation, political reform and institution building, and an honest effort to curb militants from the Palestinians; and normalization gestures such as allowing Israeli commercial flights to transit Arab airspace from regimes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab regimes.

Obama's efforts to convince the parties to make gestures should include ending settlement expansion, Palestinian reconciliation, the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the opening of Gaza's borders for humanitarian aid, easing restrictions on movement in the West Bank, and normalization from Arab regimes toward Israel. The Obama team must provide each party with an obligation they must fulfill and an incentive they will receive upon completion. Once real confidence-building gestures are traded, good-faith peace negotiations aimed at finally ending the conflict can begin and should start by confronting the major issues of Jerusalem, borders, settlements, security, and refugees.

With the amount of carrots the U.S. provides to the major players in this conflict in the form of weapons and military aid, such a process should not be difficult. The Obama administration should signal its intent to base various forms of aid on concrete contributions that further the peace process. This is how non-essential aid should work. Countries that support American policies such as regional stability and peacebuilding should receive the lion's share of our non-essential aid budget.

The Obama administration does not need to worry about the Israeli or Arab public. It only needs to focus on providing the leaders of these countries the incentives necessary to persuade them to pursue a good-faith, honest peace effort.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Is Obama's "tough love" paying off?

Under continuous pressure from President Barack Obama and his Israel-Palestine team (special envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly ordered a construction freeze on a 900-apartment project in the Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev in East Jerusalem. The neighborhood in question lies beyond the Green Line on land captured by Israel in 1967 and claimed by Palestinians as the future capital of their potential state.

The announcement was made following a meeting between Mitchell and Netanyahu in Israel. Ordering a construction freeze in East Jerusalem (which Netanyahu has repeatedly indicated is not on the negotiating table and will remain united under Israeli sovereignty forever) will greatly undermine continued settlement expansion in the West Bank, and the move may in fact be an opening gesture to the Obama administration, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the Arab world in general. In exchange for a partial settlement freeze, Netanyahu may be testing Obama's ability to convince Arab and Palestinian leaders to make reciprocal gestures to the Israelis.

Though I've never been a fan of this kind of incremental approach to peacemaking (for it allows both sides to easily break the flow and derail negotiations), the situation may be so mired in an impasse that these type of goodwill gestures may be needed to build trust for comprehensive good faith negotiations. This gives each party an opportunity to show they are truly serious about the peace process: The Israelis will show a willingness to freeze settlement construction and ease restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement; the Palestinians can continue to work to fulfill their Road Map obligations to fight and disrupt terrorism; the Arab League can show they intend to make real gestures toward normalization with Israel; and the Obama administration can work to prove to skeptics on all sides that the U.S. can influence the sides to advance the peace process. Leaning on Israel to freeze settlement activity is a very prudent method to show the Israelis that the administration is serious about peace and to show the Arabs that the U.S. is ready to be an honest broker in pursuit of regional peace and stability. If the U.S. backs down on such demands, it would have lost credibility with Palestinians and the Arab League and it would embolden the Netanyahu administration to spurn Obama's efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Huge problems still persist (including Palestinian factionalism and West Bank settlement expansion), but this is a very hopeful sign for Holy Land peace. It has been a while since I've felt hopeful - it's a good feeling.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Reconsidering the two-state solution: FPWatch

"To me, the one state solution always seemed too abstract, like some sort of academic simplification that can only be brought up by someone who didn’t spend a single day in the region. If they did, they would have surly understood that the fate of this bi-national project might resemble that of Yugoslavia rather than Canada's."

I agree wholeheartedly. FP Watch asks, "where are we heading to if such a [two-state solution] will never exist?"

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Update on Palestinian views of the PA police

Over the weekend I posted the following concerning PCPSR's poll of Palestinian attitudes toward reconciliation, the two-state solution, and trust in their governmental institutions. I left you hanging with the following and promised to find out the reason:
"A final thought-provoking matter concerning Palestinians' trust of their police institutions (especially the PA) is the rather high number (23%) of West Bank Palestinians that answered "other" when asked why they did not submit a crime report to police. Only 4% of respondents from the West Bank indicated that they did not want the crime to become public knowledge, compared to 10% in Gaza."
PCPSR Director Dr. Khalil Shikaki was kind enough to send a quick reply when I asked him about the issue. "The difference between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has to do with access to police facilities. Most rural West Bank lack police presence due to Oslo agreement restrictions. All 9 West Bank cases were in villages where access to police services is limited." Many villages are still under direct military and civilian control of the Israel Defense Forces because they are categorized as Area C under the 1994 Oslo Accords. Palestinian police are rarely able to enter these places even for routine police work, though based on the satisfaction of most Palestinians toward the PA police, I'm not sure they'd want them there anyway...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Palestinian hopelessness, in pictures

Earlier today I posted about the negative effects Palestinian hopelessness was having on the peace process and reconciliation efforts.

The BBC has several photos of Gaza six months after the recent war. Rubble is an infertile soil for the seeds of peace.

Palestinians think very little of their own government(s) too

The PCPSR report I referenced in my last post also has some very telling indicators on how Palestinians view the PA in the West Bank (ruled by Mahmoud Abbas) and the de facto Hamas-run regime in Gaza. Palestinians have little trust in these governments and the length individuals go to avoid the system (especially the police) is troubling to say the least.

Corruption has long been a problem in the Fateh-dominated Palestinian Authority, deriving from Arafat's authoritarian leadership over the faction even prior to the establishment of the PA. Current President Mahmoud Abbas was supposed to bring positive democratic reforms to the government and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was seen as a promising candidate to cut deep into the PA's corrupt economic practices (which comprised mainly of granting Fateh loyalists monopolies over various industries and withholding permits to opposition members).

Most Palestinians, however, have been less than satisfied with the PA's performance. The PCPSR study indicates that almost 70% of Palestinians believe there is still corruption in PA institutions while only 27% of respondents believe it will decrease.

On the issues of democratic practices and respect for human rights, only 35% of Palestinians believe the current status of the PA concerning these issues is good or very good. This figure drops to 30% when the question was asked about human rights and democracy under the Hamas regime in Gaza.

Only 43% of Palestinians have been satisfied with the leadership of Abbas since his election in 2005. Keep in mind of course that Mr. Abbas has been effectively ruling the West Bank by decree since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007.

The most troubling aspect of the survey for me is the level of mistrust that characterizes the relationship between Palestinians and their police and security services - comprised mainly of young faction loyalists at the present.

12% of Palestinians interviewed reported being the victim of a crime (either violence or theft) in the last year. Of this number,
"43% saythey have submitted a complaint to the police and security services and 56% say they did not. 35% of those who did not submit a complaint say the reason they did not submit one is that they do not trust the police while 44% say the police can not do anything to help them. 26% of those who did submit a complaint say they were satisfied with the police work in the investigation to uncover the circumstances of the crime while 73% say they were not satisfied. The levels of satisfaction with the performance of the police among those who submitted a complaint are similar in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip."
Troubling indeed. But wait, there's more (if you've had time to digest the fact that almost 75% of Palestinians are unsatisfied with the police and a whopping 44% view them as incompetent stooges reminiscent of the Keystone Cops.) There are some major differences in the public's view of police services between the West Bank (Fatehstine) and the Gaza Strip (Hamastan). When the responses are broken down by territory, 50% of crime victims reported the incident to police in the West Bank while only 36% did so in the Gaza Strip, indicating that individuals living under the PA have greater confidence in the the police than those under the thumb of Hamas. However, Palestinians in Gaza have greater trust in the police but simply do not believe they will be able to address the problem. Mistrust of the police is about 10% higher in the West Bank (40%-30%). 20% more respondents from Gaza than the West Bank claimed the police could do little about a committed crime (52%-32%).

A final thought-provoking matter concerning Palestinians' trust of their police institutions (especially the PA) is the rather high number (23%) of West Bank Palestinians that answered "other" when asked why they did not submit a crime report to police. Only 4% of respondents from the West Bank indicated that they did not want the crime to become public knowledge, compared to 10% in Gaza. I am certainly in no position to speculate as to what this "other" category contains and why the responses were so high. I will e-mail the PCPSR directors and try to find more information. Stay tuned...

The Palestinian people on reconciliation

Updated below

Hamas and Fateh have delayed once again reconciliation talks aimed both at creating a unity government to administer both the West Bank and Gaza Strip and ending bitter feuding between the two political factions. A seventh round of talks has now been pushed back until August 25, indicating that Palestinian leaders from the two most powerful parties are not in any real hurry to change the status quo.

The Palestinian Center for Policy Survey and Research (my go-to guys for Palestinian opinion beyond the incompetent, stubborn, authoritarian leadership) has shed some light on what the Palestinian people think about reconciliation. The full report can be read here.

The poll was done in late May, but if you have tuned into Middle East news since then, you'll know full well that nothing substantial has changed. If you have not been obsessively following the region, don't worry, everything is still the same as it was since the beginning of the year.

Some interesting conclusions from the report:

Why won't the factions reconcile? "Findings fo the second quarter of 2009 show a stable balance of power between Fateh and Hamas compared to the situation in the first quarter." There it is, the status quo benefits both factions, who now find themselves at a relative equilibrium. While Hamas and Fateh benefit from this fractious, yet stable arrangement, the Palestinian people do not. Of course, the factions have shown little regard for the basic interests of the Palestinian people over the last several months. Their communal desire to keep the Territories politically fractured is not surprising in the least. Factional fighting is causing worry among the general population with 55% of respondents voicing concern that a member of their family might be injured by members of one of the factions. This number rises to 65% in the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian people are hopeless about ending the Israeli occupation, but also "have no confidence in the ability of Fateh and Hamas to reach a reconciliation agreement." In short, the Palestinian people are disillusioned by Israel and their own leaders and hopeless that their situation will improve. Segueing from cause to effect - the hopelessness is indisputably linked to support for further violence in the conflict as PCPSR points out, "Support for launching rockets from the Gaza Strip against Israeli communities across the border increases considerably among the pessimists and decreases among the optimists." Obama's good-will gestures are not just feel-good measures, they help to create a real attitudinal change on the ground and plant the seeds of peace.

The Palestinian people are dismayed by the poltical factionalism and are worrisome about its effects on life in the Occupied Territories. "Findings also indicate that the overwhelming majority (90%) believes that the price of Fateh-Hamas conflicts is high or unbearable. 60% believe that Palestinian society can endure the price of division between Fateh and Hamas for less than a year or for a few years."

Despite their worry, Palestinians are also hopeless about their leaders' ability to reconcile, either with help or without. "60% believe that neither Fateh nor Hamas are able to unilaterally settle the conflict in its favor by military or political means and therefore they need dialogue while 22% say that the conflict between the factions can not be settled unilaterally or even through dialogue.

However, despite a desire for Hamas and Fateh to reconcile Palestinians are evenly divided on the issues of reconciliation, with 50% insisting that a unity government must accept all previous agreements signed with Israel and 44% rejecting the condition.

A hopeless, despairing Palestinian populace does not benefit any actors in the conflict, be it Fateh, Hamas, the Israelis, the Egyptians, or the Americans. The 51% of Palestinians that support the launching of Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip against Israeli border communities will only increase if people see no hope for improvement in their daily lives or in the peace process. Instead, Palestinians continually see the opposite: more settlements gobbling up more agricultural land, more separation fence dividing Palestinian communities, more checkpoints strangling Palestinian society and the economy, piles of rubble still untouched since the war in Gaza, and factional fighting claiming innocent lives in the West Bank and Gaza.

A full 70% of Palestinians believe it to be impossible to reach a comprehensive peace agreement with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The despair just keeps piling up...

Update: Here an interesting morsel from the poll results that was not mentioned in the survey summary: Palestinians rank reconciliation as the most important priority facing Palestinian society today, above the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip and the opening of borders.

PA reconsiders Al-Jazeera suspension

Appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has reportedly backed down on suspending the operations of the popular Al-Jazeera television network over its broadcast of comments made by senior Fateh leader Farouq Qaddoumi implicating President Mahmoud Abbas in conspiring to kill his predecessor Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian Authority accused Al-Jazeera of incitement and spreading "false information" and announced it would sue to network and suspend its West Bank operations until the conclusion of the trial. Fayyad has apparently backed down on the suspension but has decided to continue and try and prosecute Al-Jazeera under the 1995 Press and Publications law, which allows for freedom of the press as long as broadcasts to not undermine the "high interests of the Palestinian people."

Fayyad's decision was panned by a slew of media and rights organizations in Palestine, including Human Rights Watch, the Palestine Media Forum, the International Federation of Journalists, and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. 60% of Palestinians regularly tune into Al-Jazeera, making it the network of choice for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Bruno's "Terrorist"

Updated Below

Sascha Baron Cohen's new film "Bruno" features Cohen boldy and bravely confronting what he calls a Palestinian "terrorist" named Ayman Abu Aita. The star of Borat, Cohen recently appeared on David Letterman to talk about how he used CIA contacts and a team of security professionals to get an interview with this bloodthirsty killer.

Dion Nissenbaum has more over at Checkpoint Jerusalem.

It seems pretty clear that Cohen paints an extraordinarily flawed picture of the Palestinian territories, and his outright bragging on Letterman about his courage playing a gay man under fire in the West Bank (where he tried to get himself kidnapped) does nothing but propagate the same old stereotype about Arab societies in general, and Palestine in particular. This is quite ironic when his movie purports to illuminate just how intolerant individuals are when it comes to the homosexual community. I guess Cohen feels the need to break a window in order to build one.

There is absolutely no reason for Cohen to brag about his adventure into Bethlehem (with or without his crack security team). The city is tame and quiet for the most part. I remember even describing it as "sleepy" during my visit. The impressive Church of the Nativity sits outside of a large public plaza called Manger Square. Palestinian Christians and Muslims mill about the narrow streets buying goods at the outdoor market not far from the square. Keeping with tradition, the Imam of the large mosque across the square from the Nativity Church keeps the keys to prevent bickering between the various Christian sects that have set up shop in the church. No security detail is needed to wander aimlessly around the city. Tourism is down so much since the second Intifada that vendors and Palestinian children alike take notice and immediately offer their hospitality as a reward for making the trip few make these days. In fact, during my six months in the West Bank (living in a rented apartment in the Palestinian college town of Birzeit) the only moments I felt genuinely unsafe involved Palestinians AND Israeli soldiers. Regardless of where I traveled - with only rudimentary Arabic skills - Palestinians were pleasant and hospitable and I rarely felt as if I was being viewed with suspicion.

Cohen, in his quest to illuminate intolerance, displays his own faults in accepting without questioning stereotypes about Palestinian society.

Update: A Palestinian friend of mine made an interesting and insightful comment about Bruno's terrorist visit: "I suspect Cohen is hiding behind the fact that he's making a pseudo-documentary, and that when he introduces this guy as a terrorist, it is 'Bruno's naive description' and not Cohen's." Cohen would certainly have an easier time writing off criticism concerning this issue had he not appeared on Letterman as himself rather than Bruno and boasted about the trip.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

PLO lashes out over Qaddoumi comments

The PLO has wasted no time in moving to disparage and punish Farouq Qaddoumi for remarks he made in Amman, Jordan insinuating that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas conspired with Israeli agents to kill his predecessor Yasser Arafat. The popular Al-Jazeera television network's operations in the West Bank have been suspended by the Fateh-dominated Palestinian Authority for reporting on the comments. The PA charged Al-Jazeera with incitement against the government and spreading false information. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad appears to be spearheading the effort to censor Al-Jazeera.

The "false information" charge appears to be false in itself, as the Palestinian Liberation Organization has lashed out at Qaddoumi over his alleged comments. The PLO is not alleging the senior Fateh party leader was misqouted or misattributed to him, but that Qaddoumi is a senile, deranged shell of a man, seeking to sew the seeds of chaos in order to grab more power in Fateh. They have threatened to remove him from PLO.

Here is a smattering of what the PLO has said about Qaddoumi:

He has "lost his psychological balance" and is suffering from a "sick mind." "Apparently his advanced age is responsible for the remarks he made," said former PA security chief Mohammad Dahlan.

The PA sets a dangerous authoritarian precedent by suspending the operations of a media outlet that simply printed comments stated by a top Fateh official. To shut down such a popular sattelite network (60% of Palestinians regularly tune in, making the station the most popular in Palestine), the PA shows how truly worried it is about its legitimacy, it's power relative to Hamas, and controlling speech to save the "national interest."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Palestinian Authority's creeping authoritarianism continues

Updated Below

Since the Oslo Accords and the subsequent implementation of Palestinian self-government in the form of the Palestinian National Authority, governance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been characterized by a kind of dangerous creeping authoritarianism where the PA has attempted to undermine or co-opt Palestinian civil society organizations (NGOs, media outlets, other political parties) in an attempt to gain firm control over the lives of the Palestinian people. Yasser Arafat began this trend in earnest, but the election of current president Mahmoud Abbas was supposed to bring about comprehensive Palestinian governmental reform, eliminating rampant corruption, establishing and defending the rule of law, and strengthening the separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. Small steps have been made by Abbas, but certainly not what he initially promised or what most Palestinians and Western commentators hoped for.

Continuing this trend of creeping authoritarianism, the caretaker government appointed by Abbas moved to sue and suspend the operations of the Al-Jazeera television network in the West Bank. The truly Orwellian Palestinian Information Ministry (can anyone show me a regime with an "information ministry" that isn't characterized by creeping or outright authoritarianism?) accused the Qatar-based network of inciting Palestinians against the PA, sympathizing with Hamas, and spreading "false information." The allegations stem from a report broadcast by Al-Jazeera and several other television networks in the West Bank which cited comments made by senior Fateh leader Farouq Qaddoumi accusing President Mahmoud Abbas of conspiring with Israeli agents to assassinate his predecessor Yasser Arafat.

The Information Ministry released a statement containing the following:
"Al-Jazeera has always dedicated a wide portion of its broadcasts to incitement against the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority. Despite repeated requests to be impartial in its coverage of Palestinian affairs, the station continued to incite against the PLO and the PA. The latest false news was aired yesterday. We expect media outlets operating in Palestine to go about their work in a way that does not contradict Palestinian national interest and rule of law."
The ministry's comments are certainly indicative of the soft-authoritarian nature of the Palestinian Authority. (Perhaps by publishing this I will not be allowed back in the Occupied Territories for "incitement and false information.") The PA has long used the assertion that organizations must not act to contradict the "national interest" as a foolproof method to assert control over independent civil society organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Of course, the PA alone has the power to assert what exactly the Palestinian national interest is and unsurprisingly this does not include criticizing the less than democratic PA and the confused and increasingly irrelevant PLO. Furthermore, what exactly does it mean to ask media outlets to work in a way that does not contradict the rule of law? Isn't that just a convoluted way of saying it is illegal to break the law? The PA certainly could use a refresher course on the rule of law, as the current appointed government has not constitutional legitimacy to be ruling the West Bank and President Abbas is basically ruling by decree. Of course, since the inception of Palestinian self-government the Fateh-led PA has never really shown a strong commitment to the rule of law.

The Palestinian Media Forum strongly criticized the PA for its Al-Jazeera suspension and warned that the government was acting similarly to the Israeli Defense Forces, shutting down media outlets it deems a threat.

The Al-Jazeera network fired back against the PA suspension stating, "The Palestinian Authority's reaction reflects a repression of the freedom of media and a refusal to tolerate the opinions of others." Al-Jazeera's statement could not be further from "false information" but it certainly incites Palestinians to demand the reform they deserve from their government.

Update: Ma'an News, my go-to Palestinian media outlet has highlighted the relevant section of the Palestinian Basic Law pertaining to the freedom of press. Chapter 2, Article 14 reads:
"Every person shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and expression and publication of his opinion either orally, in writing or in the form of art or through any form of expression, subject to observance of restrictions imposed by law for the respect of the rights or reputations of others, the protection of national security or of public order or of public health or morals."
That certainly has far more qualifiers than any free press advocate would like, but it appears the case against Al-Jazeera would be flimsy at best. Printing Qaddoumi's actual words in no way infringes on the rights or reputations of him. Alleging that the comments endanger national security or public order is a long-shot at best and a hilarious joke at worst. Reporting that Fateh is facing serious internal factionalism is not "news" in any sense to Palestinians. The disputes have been embarrassingly public since the Gaza takeover in 2007 and power struggles within Fateh and the PLO have been known for decades.

The most disappointing development in all of this seems to be the collusion of Western-backed "reformer" Salam Fayyad in Al-Jazeera's suspension. Fayyad himself ordered Attorney General Ahmed Al-Mughani to pursue the suit agains the network. While Fayyad ran for Palestinian Legislative Council under the Third Way party and was appointed PM by Abbas for his independent credentials and Western support, it seems he has grown much closer to Fateh and abandoned his role as independent reformer as of recent.

The Palestinian Center for Policy, Survey, and Research reports that nearly 60% of Palestinians regularly tune in to the Al-Jazeera network, nearly six times the number of the second most popular station, Al-Aqsa TV.