The Fatah Bethlehem Conference

The Bethlehem Fatah conference—the first in twenty years—provides one more illustration of the need to reevaluate the Middle East peace process.

Somewhat confusingly, Fatah understands that the goal of the process is two states, but refuses to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people and appears to claim all of Jerusalem for the future Palestinian state, not just the eastern sector of the city, thus going far beyond the 1949 lines. And what are we to make of the unanimous decision to establish a commission to investigate how (not if!) Israel killed Yasir Arafat? The commission is said to be headed by Arafat’s nephew, former Ambassador to the UN Nasser al-Kidwa, who would presumably have both family and political reasons for obscuring any embarrassing facts related to Arafat's health in his last days. A Palestinian conspiracy theory unites rival Fatah factions and drives a shabby soap opera. How does this promote peace?

In Israel, skeptics join some Likud ministers in a knee-jerk condemnation of the entire event as a "declaration of war" against Israel. Apologists, on the other hand, will spin fanciful tales of moderation. The rest of us, left with the task of understanding the conference of the party that is Palestine's only political alternative to the expansion of the Hamas state currently oppressing Gaza, will find the news from Bethlehem overwhelmingly sad.

"Armed struggle" seems a bellwether of Palestinian intentions, but what we hear is a contradictory medley of voices. Fahmi al-Za'arir, Fatah’s official spokesperson, said: "It is not possible to rule out or to marginalize the military option." PA President Abbas opened the conference with a speech that seemed to call for civil disobedience instead of "armed struggle," but then failed to disown the military option permanently. Is this a tactic to strengthen the PA's negotiating position by encouraging the impression of a third "intifada" in the offing? If peace is the goal, why?

We can learn from the confusion of the Fatah conference that the delegates were not just playing politics. Their dilemmas are very real, reflecting the deepest flaw in the peace process as it has developed over the last two decades. The Palestinians cannot bring themselves to legitimize their enemy.

As is so often the case, in order to understand we must listen closely to what is not being discussed—the fact that Zionism is a just cause with a moral claim as valid as the Palestinians’ own claims for national rights, whatever real or perceived wrongs were committed in its name. Israelis are notably absent from the reported Fatah discussions. In their place are two-dimensional cartoonish characters with names like "occupation," "the settlements," or "the expulsion." The conference amounts to an inner debate on the dogmas of Fatah, mirroring Israeli internal debates of the 1970s and1980s that ignored real Palestinians.

Aside from their electoral fears that the Palestinian public will not understand them, one of the main reasons Fatah leaders maintain the principle of "armed struggle" is because they have never been challenged to deal with Zionism as a movement based on historical justice, and thus they genuinely do not think it is moral to relinquish the military option. Here is a foundational flaw in the peace process. While Palestinians need not become Zionists in order to achieve some kind of accommodation with us, peace requires that they recognize the legitimacy of our national liberation. Otherwise, how can they justify to themselves the sacrifices they will have to make for that peace?

The absence of any empathetic, intellectually serious attempt to figure out what makes Jews tick is, then, a striking aspect of the reports out of Bethlehem. The delegates do not appear to have had a sense of the importance of that challenge, and hence the current impasse.

This is not new. The late Edward Said's disdain for Jewish civilization was typical, as was his willingness to cherry-pick his sources so as not to upset his prejudices, as if there are no authentic Jewish sources that both justify Zionism and lead to peace. If renewed American peacemaking efforts are to succeed they must address this self-made Palestinian mental trap of delegitimizing their negotiating partner.

In this sense, one of the truly significant events at the Bethlehem conference took place when Rabbi Menachem Froman, a “settler” who is also highly regarded as a peacemaker—Arafat called him his "brother"—tried to gain entry to speak to the delegates. He was turned away.
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