The Discreet Coyness of Salam Fayyad
In a recent short article, Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, has reported on his program of building the civic and economic infrastructure of a Palestinian state, a program now into its second year of creating "facts on the ground." Pointing to the completion of "more than 1,500 projects, including the establishment of dozens of new schools, clinics, and housing projects and the construction of new roads throughout Palestine," he adds:
"Building a Palestinian state was never intended to replace the political process [i.e., the creation of sovereign governing structures], but to reinforce, and benefit, from it. The idea was to impart a sense of possibility about what might happen, what we would want to see happen: an end to the Israeli occupation and an opportunity for Palestinians to be able to live as free people in a country of our own."
Fayyad also notes that "[m]ajorities on both sides favor a two-state solution," even though the chances of such a solution's materializing remain disappointingly slim—a result, he posits, "of seventeen long years of the disruption of the political process since the Oslo Accords."
Fayyad is notably coy about the sources of this "disruption"—perhaps because a highly relevant one is his own Fatah movement, which controls the West Bank. As it happens, the movement's Revolutionary Council met over the November 27-28 weekend and issued a statement that, in its own words, ringingly "affirms [Fatah's] rejection of the so-called Jewish state or any other formula that could achieve this goal" and "renews its refusal for the establishment of any racist state based on religion in accordance with international law and human-rights conventions." Entering into specifics, the Revolutionary Council "salute[d] President Mahmoud Abbas for adhering to the basic rights, first and foremost the right of return for Palestinian refugees," demanded a complete end to Jewish "settlements," condemned the "Judaizing" of Jerusalem, and saluted "martyrs" to the Palestinian cause.
Whom are we to believe? Are we seeing inconsistency, or duplicity? After all, there is a long tradition of Palestinian leaders saying one thing in English to the world and another in Arabic to their own people. The master of the form was Yasir Arafat, but others have practiced it as well. How, for instance, to reconcile Fayyad's own 2009 assurances—to a Western audience in Aspen, Colorado—of his firm commitment to peaceful Arab-Jewish coexistence in a future Palestinian state with his public burning of goods produced in Jewish settlements? The entire Oslo process rested on similarly evasive foundations, with Israeli and Western officials choosing to hear only what they wanted to hear from their Palestinian interlocutors and convincing themselves that the rest was aberrant, noise or trivia.
The contrast between Fayyad's veiled formulas and the Revolutionary Council's explicit pronouncements points up the gulf between two disparate Palestinian projects: state-building, and nation-building. The former has made impressive gains, thanks to tremendous infusions of Western and especially American aid (not least to subsidize the Palestinian security forces being trained by the now departed General Keith Dayton). But the process of building the Palestinian nation is quite a different matter. As the Revolutionary Council's statement shows, the organized Palestinian elites still promote the settled themes of resistance, violence, and rejection of Israel as a Jewish state.
Can the state and the nation be brought into synch? Nothing is impossible, but there is no blinking the obstacles. Having rejected a separate state in 1947, Palestinians fell under Jordanian and Egyptian occupation. In the ensuing years, they built a national identity founded on anger, "steadfastness," self-pity, resentment, and entitlement. The only positive elements in the mix were sentimental folk yearnings for a romanticized village past and the image of a resilient exile.
In the 1980s, a window opened when local, grassroots organizations ("village leagues") moved to the forefront of developing Palestinian civil society, holding out the possibility of a non-radical, non-PLO-controlled national narrative based on achievement rather than aggrievement. But by 1993, with the signing of the Oslo accords, all this had been pushed aside by Fatah. Since then, any such initiatives have found even more threatening competition from Islamist organizations like Hamas.
If anything, then, the fundamentals of official Palestinian identity remain the same as they were decades ago: the outward symbol may be the technocrat Fayyad, but many in his movement, and some Westernized Arab intellectuals, still call for "armed struggle." As has been thoroughly documented, Palestinian media and textbooks relentlessly push this traditional narrative and compete with Palestinian Islamists in demonizing both Israel and Jews.
In these conditions, there can be little expectation of a new Palestinian national identity, based on acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, and of Jews as humans, emerging any time soon. And even if, nevertheless, a Palestinian state should arise out of a combination of Fayyad's efforts to create "facts on the ground" and the West's money, it will necessarily be a fragile entity whose main role will be to function as a human shield for others attempting to exercise their vision of "Palestinian rights," whether in a secular "greater Palestine" or in an Islamic Palestine purified of Jews. The fruition of any more positive state-building enterprise will have to wait until Palestinian nation-building catches up.
Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.
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