Imagine this. You’re prime minister of a regime that isn’t yet a state. You are praised in the Western media as a great moderate man of peace. You represent a people who the U.S. president says is in an intolerable situation. You supposedly want a country of your own. Indeed you’ve announced you will get a state in two years, something conceivable only if your negotiating partner agrees. You’re dependent on contributions from Western democratic countries that want you to make a deal. Your rivals have seized almost half the land you want to rule and work tirelessly to overthrow your regime and very possibly to kill you personally.
But here comes a big opportunity.
You are invited by your negotiating partner to its most important meeting of the year. All the other side’s top leaders and opinionmakers are listening to you.
And that country’s second most powerful leader has just made a very conciliatory speech praising you personally, urging peace, offering concessions, and telling his own people they must be ready to give you a lot.
What do you do?
Make a warm conciliatory, confidence-building speech, showing by substantial offers that you, too, are willing to compromise; stretching out your hand in order to build friendship and ensure you get a country?
Hey, we’re talking about the Palestinians here! And as I say over and over again: anyone who thinks the Palestinian Authority (PA) is going to make peace hasn’t been paying attention to what they say and do.
So here is what PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told the audience at the Herzliya Conference, held at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), following Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s conciliatory speech:
–Israel must immediately start pulling out of the rest of the West Bank, without getting anything in return.
–It must immediately stop all construction on settlements, including apartments now being completed.
–Israel’s army should never enter PA-ruled areas. Even if the PA refuses to arrest those who have murdered Israelis or won’t stop planned attacks, Israel’s army must do nothing, despite the 1993 agreement between the two sides permitting this. Fayyad said this isn’t necessary because the PA is taking care of these matters. But this makes no sense: when Israel sees that to be true it never orders incursions in the first place.
–Israel should end its blockade of the Gaza Strip, even though the Hamas movement ruling there refuses to make a deal with the PA, openly announces its goal of destroying Israel, and smuggles in as many weapons as possible. Moreover, as soon as it feels secure again, Hamas will launch new attacks on Israel. Fayyad claimed, however, that if Israel did so, the PA could then build government institutions in the Gaza Strip, though it has no control whatsoever there.
–He openly stated that his goal was to mobilize international support and create such a strong state apparatus that the world would pressure Israel to end any presence in the West Bank or east Jerusalem, apparently without the Palestinian side giving anything.
–While Barak said that the “roughness” of the region made it harder to give the Palestinians everything they wanted (for example, the PA could be overthrown by Hamas; subverted by Iran and Syria; unwilling or unable to stop cross-border attacks), Fayyad responded that once Israel left all of the West Bank the region would become more stable and peaceful. That’s a rather questionable assertion.
It is true that he ended by saying:
“The Israeli people have a long history, they have pain, they have ambition, and like you, we Palestinians have our own history. Right now we are going through lots of pain and suffering. And we have one key aspiration, and that is once again to be able to live alongside you in peace, harmony and security.”
Yet he addressed none of the points in Israel’s own peace plan: an official end to the conflict if there is an agreement; resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Palestine; an end to incitement (which would be easy to do) to kill Israelis; limits on the militarization of a Palestinian state; or recognition of Israel as a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian Arab Muslim state (the PA constitution says that Islam is the country’s official religion).
This was not an extremist speech or one seeking conflict. Fayyad is probably the most moderate guy in the PA leadership. He was doing about the best he could. But that’s the point. He has no base of support, isn’t a member of Fatah, and doesn’t really represent Palestinian thinking. He is in office for one reason only: the Western donors demand it. Fayyad, and arguably the PA leadership as a whole, don’t want a new war with Israel. But Fatah will sponsor one if it thinks such a step is advantageous or needed to out-militant Hamas.
Equally, Fayyad couldn’t go any further than he did because he knows that his Fatah bosses, Palestinian constituents, and Hamas enemies would throw him out if he offered the slightest concession to Israel and demanded any less than everything they want.
We will see how much progress Fayyad makes over the next two years in building strong and stable institutions. Yet it should be understood that what he is doing is not a way to convince Israel that both sides can reach a compromise peace but to persuade the world to force Israel to make compromises without the PA having to do so.
The irony is that it doesn’t matter what Barak says, except to show the world that Israel wants real peace and to encourage Israeli voters to back Labor as a party that balances a strong desire for peace with a smart sense of security for the country.
Barak warned the right-wing in Israel that it would be a mistake to oppose a genuine two-state solution, an outcome that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu-like Barak–has accepted. But the defense minister also urged the left-wing not to be naïve.
Here’s a fascinating example of how the world generally interprets the situation. Read this paragraph from the Washington Post coverage carefully:
“But there was a common thread, too, with each acknowledging an international consensus on the idea of two nations. Barak said that Israel risks becoming ‘an apartheid state par excellence’ if it does not negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood soon, and Fayyad said the work being done in the West Bank on governance needs to be matched by political progress.”
The two statements are supposed to be parallel. Barak says: Israel must get rid of the West Bank for its own good. Fayyad says: progress must be made in negotiations, in the context of a speech in which he asked for a long list of Israeli concessions and offered nothing in exchange. These statemens are not parallel. A parallel statement would be if Fayyad had said something like:
The Palestinians risk becoming permanently mired in violence and backwardness unless they negotiate terms for Israel feeling secure in giving up the territory.
Since 1993 not a single Palestinian leader has ever made a speech to his own people like Barak’s, never said that they should have to give up something to get a state, never urged the media and public debate to become more moderate.
Four days before Fayyad’s speech, here is the Friday prayer sermon given in Nablus by the imam appointed there by Fayyad and broadcast on the television Fayyad controls:
“The Jews are the enemies of Allah and , the enemies of humanity in general, and of the Palestinians in particular…. Jews will always be Jews. Even if donkeys cease to bray, dogs cease to bark, wolves cease to howl, and snakes cease to bite, the Jews will not cease to be hostile to the Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad said: ‘Whenever two Jews find themselves alone with a Muslim, they think of killing him.’ Oh Muslims, this land, these holy places, and these mosques will only be liberated when we return to the Book of Allah, and when all Muslims are prepared to become mujahideen for the sake of Allah, in support of Palestine, its people, its land, and its holy places.”
How can this be reconciled with Fayyad’s claim that the sole aspiration is “to live alongside you in peace, harmony and security”?
Note that this is a Palestinian Authority, not a Hamas, cleric speaking. Note, too, that while Fayyad’s speech is covered around the world, sermons like these are never quoted in the Western media. This is not to say that the sermon is real and Fayyad’s views are fake, it is to say that the sermon is meant to shape Palestinian politics and public opinion and what Fayyad says is meant to shape Israeli and Western politics and public opinion. Fayyad, a figurehead, is not going to make anything change and he isn’t even going to try. Nor does Fayyad have any control over the ruling party, Fatah, whose leadership is still hardline on goals and negotiations, though not on more immediate issues.
The Israeli audience applauded Fayyad because it does want peace and prefers him to all the worse alternatives, especially Hamas but also those in Fatah. Yet few have any illusions that peace is at hand or that Fayyad is going to deliver it.
* Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge), The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).