I haven’t blogged anything about tomorrow's Palestinian elections which, in U.S. news reporting at least, seem to have been reduced to variations on the theme of ohmygodtheislamofascistsarecoming! Personally, I think that all the talk about trying to exclude Hamas from the democratic process, or threatening to not deal with a government that includes them, or warning that having Hamas in government will harm the peace process (what peace process?), is plain stupid. The primary responsibility of Palestinian political institutions is to reflect and represent Palestinian society – nationalists, leftists and islamists alike - not the wishes of the US or the EU or anyone else. And it is sheer chutzpah for Israel – which has refused to negotiate at all with the PA for five years, and failed to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians in good faith for much of the previous ten - to try to influence the elections by warning now that it won’t be able to enter into negotiations if Hamas wins the elections. An Israeli government that absolutely relies on the absence of substantive peace talks so that it can pursue its unilateralist policies is warning Palestinians that voting for Hamas will prevent a return to negotiations? Please, spare me.
The one aspect of the election campaign I do want to comment on is the news that the U.S. government is trying to prevent a Hamas victory by channelling $2 million into PA-associated projects in the Occupied Territories, in a late attempt to bolster the Fatah vote. I find that scenario ironic to the point of being laugh-out-loud. Suddenly the U.S. is in a panic because the clean-shaven, nicely dressed, secular nationalist, “good Muslims” of Fatah might lose to “The Islams”. I wonder if anybody in U.S. foreign policy circles is reflecting right now on the fact that if the U.S. had shown any propensity at all to deal in good faith with the Palestinian secular moderates over the last 15 years it wouldn’t now have to resort to a hurried infusion of dirty money to try to keep them in power? As it is, if the U.S. had sat down and tried to formulate a deliberate policy to undermine the credibility of any Palestinian party that promotes a negotiated end to the conflict with Israel – and this means essentially Fatah - it couldn’t have come up with anything more effective than the crooked mediation and the blind eye to Israeli expansionism that Republican and Democratic administrations alike have practised since the Madrid Conference.
When Palestinians and Israelis first sat down together for bilateral negotiations in the Washington talks of 1992-1993, it was the United States that laid down the parameters of the peace talks, in the form of a Letter of Understanding that specified the rules of the game. And one of the key rules of the game was that the unilateral creation of facts on the ground to prejudge final status issues (i.e. building illegal settlements on occupied land) was incompatible with good faith peace negotiations for a two state solution. “You can’t have a two state solution if one of the states has taken all the land”, as Palestinian delegate Elias Freij summed it up. But that rule of the game lasted all of three months, until the Israeli government decided to stick its toe in the water and see what exactly the U.S. would do should Israel resume settlement building. Because it turned out that the U.S. would do nothing to enforce its own rules, especially when that meant standing up to Israel in a U.S. election year.
Instead, the U.S. response was to decide that settlement expansion didn’t matter that much after all, and to pretend that the important thing was to keep up the outward appearance of a “peace process” even if this meant there was a growing disconnect between the lofty talk of ending the occupation and the reality that the Palestinian people were seeing as their land shrank before their eyes. It would have been helpful back then if someone in the first Bush Administration had realised that ignoring Israeli expansion might be expedient in terms of internal U.S. politics, but seriously undermined those parties – Palestinians and Israeli alike - who had staked their credibility on negotiations for a two state solution and on the sincerity of the Americans to enforce the rules they themselves laid down for the peace process. It would have been helpful if 15 years ago we had thought through the long-term implications of our political cowardice, but we didn’t, because it’s always easier to sacrifice the long-term needs of Middle East peace to the short-term needs of internal U.S. politics.
It would have been helpful too if someone in the Clinton Administration had had the courage to stand up and say that successive Israeli governments who used the Oslo years not to end the Occupation but to double the number of illegal settlers it planted on Palestinian land were not engaged in a peace process, but in a sham, and that perhaps we might not be willing to subsidize those governments and their phoney peace policies anymore. It’s all very well for Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright and Dennis Ross to mutter now about what a disaster for peace Netanyahu was, but it’s a bit late to bring it up now, isn’t it? If we had thought through the implications of our silence back then, we might have wondered how on earth Fatah could be expected to keep convincing the Palestinian people that the Oslo process would bring them independence, when their own eyes showed them that the Israeli presence on their land and in their lives was actually becoming more entrenched. But we didn’t give a thought to what the long-term implications of our actions would be for the Palestinian side, because it was simply easier for the U.S. to see Fatah and the PA undermined in the eyes of its own people than to denounce Israeli expansionism and annoy influential elements of our own public opinion. After all, it’s not as if the PA has an electorate to answer to, right?
And perhaps it would have been helpful if Clinton had given a bit more thought to what was likely to happen to the PA when he lumped all the blame for the failure at Camp David onto Arafat’s shoulders. Perhaps he should have realized that when Palestinians saw Arafat rejected as a “partner for peace” for his refusal to settle for an Israeli protectorate, they might finally say “If that’s the kind of peace treaty you want to force on us then screw your peace process, and screw any Palestinian leadership that tries to tell us that trusting you and your peace process will ever lead to independence”. Clinton could have thought of all that before he slammed the PA just to give Barak a boost in his coming electoral showdown with Ariel Sharon, but he didn’t. After all, its not as if the PA has an electorate to answer to, right?
And maybe George Bush the Younger could have given some thought to the fact that when you tell the Israelis they can keep their illegal settlement blocs and unilaterally write off the Palestinians refugees’ legal right to return, you are utterly undermining the credibility of every Palestinian politician who ever told his people that their national rights can be realised through peaceful, legal means, and that no amount of retroactively insisting that of course you didn’t mean to prejudice issues that only Israelis and Palestinians can settle together is going to undo the harm you have done. So go ahead and kick the legs out from under the PA, because it plays well in Peoria and it’s not as if the PA has an electorate to answer to, right?
Except of course they do have an electorate to answer to, and the electorate speaks tomorrow, and we are panicking about the answer they’re going to give. Instead of stopping to think at any time over the last 15 years about the long-term implications of our policies on Palestinian politics, we are reduced to hurriedly funnelling dodgy funding into the electoral process to buy votes for a Fatah party that our own policies helped to discredit and enfeeble in the first place. Democracy on the march, indeed.
Fatah told the Palestinians that recognition of Israel on 78% of historic Palestine, and entering talks for a negotiated solution, would end the Israeli Occupation and bring independence on what land remained. But U.S. policy over the last 15 years has shown them: No, it won’t. We have shown the Palestinians that diplomatic means will not bring an end to the Occupation, because we will use our veto to ensure that Israel will not face diplomatic sanctions for its policies. We have shown the Palestinians that legal means will not bring an end to the Occupation, because even when the International Court of Justice – the highest arbiter of international law on the planet – rules overwhelmingly in favour of the PA, we will simply announce that we do not consider ourselves bound by the law. We have shown the Palestinians that negotiations will not bring an end to the Occupation, because we will use our status as mediator in those talks not to broker a just and viable solution, but to browbeat the PA into accepting whatever is most workable for the Israeli government du jour, and most comfortable for our own internal politics.
Palestinians are not stupid. For all our arrogant assumptions that they as the weakest party will have to accept whatever crumbs we give them, Palestinians know that U.S. mediation is not the only game in town and that there are other approaches for dealing with Israel’s illegal occupation of Arab land. Palestinians look at Fatah’s approach, and see that if you enter into a U.S. dominated “peace process”, you end up with more Israeli control over your land, your movement and your daily life than when you started. But then they look at the Hizbullah approach, and see that if you refuse to recognize the very existence of Israel, and offer your occupiers nothing but 18 years of ambushes, suicide bombs and kidnappings, they will unilaterally get out of south Lebanon. Then they look at Hamas, and see that if you refuse to recognize Israel or to countenance talks with the “Zionist entity”, but embark instead on a four-year campaign of suicide bombs and Qassam rockets, Israel will unilaterally leave Gaza. What exactly is the lesson to be learned from this? We might as well just send a letter to every Palestinian household, saying “Actually, it’s true. Force really is the only language we understand” .
It would be nice to think that the panic the U.S. is in right now over the rise of Hamas might be a wake-up call that leads us to reflect on the long-term implications of our policies in the region. Ha’aretz recently contemplated the likely success of Hamas and came to the sober conclusion that: "Israel can do nothing but leave a door open to negotiations with Hamas, and regret its own continued contribution to weakening Mahmoud Abbas' movement to such an extent that Hamas has become the leading Palestinian movement". (Link). It would be nice to think that the U.S. is capable of the same kind of introspection, and of realizing there is a connection between our policies in the Middle East and the fate of secular politics and moderate politicians there. It would be nice, but realistically we have to admit that’s not very likely, because it’s easier to continue pandering to political contributors at home and buying electoral success overseas than it is to stop choosing the path of least resistance and do what needs to be done on the question of Israel and Palestine.
 The cartoon, Moon Rising Over the Arab Street, is by Amjad Rasmi for the 13 Nov 04 edition of Arab News.
 "Sharon leaves behind the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the expectation for a unilateral disengagement in the West Bank. Based on polls conducted after his hospitalization, this formula seems to guarantee victory to Kadima, be it under the leadership of Olmert, Peres or Livni. However, before they adopt the formula in its entirety, they would be wise to take a look at the annual poll conducted by Hebrew University's Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, headed by Dr. Khalil Shikaki. They would find in it a revelation or two about the price of withdrawal without agreement.
The poll, conducted in December, reveals that 82 percent of residents of the territories consider the evacuation of settlements from the Gaza Strip to have been a victory for the armed struggle. Some 68 percent believe the intifada helped them achieve national and political objectives they would not have achieved by negotiations.
The implications of these findings were reflected in the major triumph of Hamas candidates in local elections held last month in the territories. The perception that violence pays is expected to benefit candidates of the rejectionist movements in the elections". (Link)