Journeys to the Edges of Absurdistan: The Palestinian Predicament and its Costs
Weekly Briefing on Israeli and Middle Eastern Affairs
February 27, 2008
Dr. Eran Lerman, Director Israel/Middle East Office
American Jewish Committee
The Palestinian political situation is in many ways unique. Two self-styled governments, both with rather limited capacity to govern in the usual sense of the word (which normally involves, first and foremost, the ability to make sure that no warlike actions are taken from your territory without your consent), are vying for power in a state yet to be born. All this happens amid real deprivation and misery perpetuated by conflict; and political behavior is driven by a deadly internal divide along religious and ideological lines. This has given rise, in recent days, to a spate of semi-absurd situations that serve to demonstrate just how complicated things have become.
An increasingly common “postmodern” Hebrew colloquialism describes certain events as an keta’ hazuy, a “hallucinatory segment,” as in a Salvador Dali painting; or a dream sequence in a film; or a performance by an American ultra-Orthodox rapper—or a piece of our everyday reality. An example of the latter was the unprecedented traffic jam in Sderot last Friday, when thousands of ordinary Israelis from all around the country drove into town, their car windows rolled down so as to hear the “red color” alert if the Qassam rockets were to come in, to do their shopping there to help save the stricken town’s small businesses, while the local onlookers barely held back their tears at this sudden outpouring of solidarity.
The political dynamics surrounding the Palestinian situation provided us with a few more k’ta’im hazuyim (surrealistic episodes) this week, directly or indirectly raising fundamental questions about our future (with very little to show by way of answers, at this stage):
The Great Human Chain against the Fence in Gaza—scheduled for Monday, February 25—was announced by its organizers (the “Popular Struggle against the Siege of Gaza,” purportedly an NGO, but probably a tool of Hamas’s propaganda efforts) as a continuous human chain, to be formed in protest along a 40-km. stretch of road within the Gaza Strip, some distance away from the fence. Fear soon spread, however, that this would turn into an opportunity for Hamas to repeat the scenes we witnessed a few weeks ago, when the barrier on the Gaza-Egyptian border was physically destroyed by rushing crowds, and massive numbers of Gazans, long locked in an impossible situation, poured out into Sinai. Was this great PR achievement for Hamas about to be repeated? Or would an even greater political blow be struck by forcing the Israeli side, on camera, to fire at the massed demonstrators? With tensions rising, large IDF and police forces were deployed and various scenarios rehearsed; nonlethal weapons were tested. At the political level, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on his way to a formal visit in Japan, his two key lieutenants, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, issued a joint warning to all who might try to breach Israel’s border. This, in turn, somewhat irked Olmert, who now faced criticism in the press for leaving the country at this time of high peril. But as it turned out, it was all unnecessary. They did not come. A few thousand—not 40,000, as predicted—did show up; it rained, a rare event in Gaza; and they went home quietly. After all, when the masses breached the fence with Egypt, they had stood to gain in economic terms and to help provide for their families. Now they were asked to risk their lives to make a political statement. At this, they balked, telling us something about the gap between rhetoric and reality in this part of the world.
There was also the stern warning to Israel by a prominent Palestinian politician, Yasir Abd-Rabbo, one of the signatories of the so-called “Geneva Accord” with Yossi Beilin and the Israeli left, who chose to latch onto the recent Kosovar model and threaten Israel with a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) unless faster progress is made at the negotiating table. Not an unreasonable position to take—if it were not for the fact that the Palestinians had already gone through a similar charade in November 1988, to no effect; that Arafat looked into the option in the summer of 2000, after the failure of the Camp David summit, but soon found that the world would not support him; that unlike Kosovo, the would-be State of Palestine must still renegotiate its borders; and above all, that the Palestinian leadership understood some time ago that their most potent weapon was their own statelessness and claim on the world’s sympathy. For them to take heed of Abd Rabbo’s advice would be an absurd, self-inflicted wound. President Mahmoud Abbas indeed moved quickly to squelch such speculation. But therein lies a broader question: If the Palestinians do not really want a state, and are doing rather poorly at creating national institutions (former British prime minister Tony Blair, assigned to help them do so, is increasingly frustrated), what is it that we are negotiating about?
Then came the call, this time from the Israeli side, to release one of Fatah’s most prominent leaders, Marwan Barghouti, from jail, so that he could expedite an agreement. It came from not a bleeding-heart left winger but from a former defense minister (and leader, for a while, of the Labor Party), now Minister for National Infrastructure (read, energy and water) Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer, an Iraqi-born former general with a good eye for practical politics and a tongue that sometimes runs away from him. “With all due respect for Abbas and [Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad, we want someone who can deliver,” he said. “We need this agreement more than they do.” Probably true—although it’s not always a good idea to put your eagerness for peace on the table, if you want peace talks to succeed. But the deeper question lies in the nature of the partner. If the only way to make the talks move toward a speedy conclusion is to hold them with a person convicted in a court of law on five counts of murder, thus legitimizing terror in the post-9/11 world, are they really worth having?
More questions than answers; more than a touch of the absurd, amid the serious official meetings of Olmert and Abbas, Livni and Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alaa), and the busy back channel maintained by Olmert’s right-hand man, Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon. The real solutions may lie beyond the scope of the direct interaction of Israelis and Palestinians—in the general struggle between Iran, its proxies, and its allies on the one hand and much of the rest of the region, on the other, into which the local conflicts, from Gaza to Lebanon, have been swept as if into the eye of a storm.