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No Springtime for Palestinians?

In his May 19 speech celebrating the Arab Spring, President Obama expressed enthusiasm for the "movements for change" that have been unseating tyrants previously supported or tolerated by the United States. In language echoing that of his despised rival George W. Bush, he adopted as his own the idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East, not only as a bedrock principle of American foreign policy but as an approach that will actually increase the chances for peace and stability. 

In outlining his new vision, an abrupt if unacknowledged departure from his earlier policy, the President propounded six "principles" that will henceforth guide the American response to the region: opposition to repressive government combined with support for the rights of free speech, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, equality of men and women under the law, and "the right to choose your own leaders." It "will be the policy of the United States," he summed up, "to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy."

Among those commentators otherwise gratified by the President's turnabout, some focused on conspicuous omissions from his list of regional problem areas, notably Saudi Arabia. Many more focused on the last third of his speech, where he illogically and unhelpfully pivoted from the issue of democracy to the stalled Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations. Less noticed but even more striking is that in doing so, he tossed overboard his own major theme: the transformative power of Arab democracy.

Do not the Palestinians themselves, at least as much as any of the other peoples of the Middle East, need a new beginning of consensual government? And might not a springtime of freedom among them blossom into a force for peace and reconciliation in the Holy Land? Either the thought never occurred to the President or his advisers—a sign of criminal negligence—or it occurred and was, correctly, dismissed as fatal to their misbegotten plans for a rapid "solution" of the conflict with Israel.  

Consider Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians suffer under a regime so repressive that Mubarak's Egypt seems like a bastion of liberty by comparison. How did this regime come about? In August 2005, the Israeli government led by Ariel Sharon went beyond what the President is now pressuring Benjamin Netanyahu to do: namely, accept as a negotiating principle the return to the pre-June 1967 lines with "land swaps."

Six years ago in Gaza, Israel voluntarily withdrew its forces all the way back to the pre-1967 lines, without even asking for land swaps that would have preserved the Jewish settlements there. Not only did the withdrawal from Gaza make possible the birth of a Palestinian mini-state, but, in an added bonus, Israel turned over to the Palestinians a thriving flower industry to help jumpstart the local economy. Their response: first they destroyed the donated greenhouses, then they systematically destroyed any semblance of democracy or civil rights in their "liberated" territory.

Following the practice of the Muslim Brotherhood, itself consciously modeled on the practice of 20th-century European fascism, the Hamas terrorist organization participated in one election, one time. In its lightning coup, leaders of the rival Fatah party were murdered in their offices and thrown from the roof of the parliament building.

Hamas's official 1988 charter calls explicitly for the replacement of Israel by a Palestinian Islamic state. Through its indiscriminate rocketing of Israeli towns, Gaza's ruling party has made clear that it means what it says. For Hamas, the 1967 line is of little interest; the struggle has always been, and remains, over the 1947 lines, set by the UN in the partition plan calling for a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian Arab one. To ensure that all Palestinians remain steadfast in that armed struggle, Hamas rapidly stamped out the last vestiges of freedom of speech, press, and religion, and consolidated its control over independent civic institutions.

And yet, despite its horrific human-rights record, the Hamas regime in Gaza has received nothing like the disapprobation and pressure for democratic reform directed by Washington against the far more moderate governments of Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain. Nor has President Obama ever suggested to its leader, Ismael Haniya, that he either move toward reform or move out. To the contrary: even as the administration hectors Israel to loosen its economic and military sanctions, it  props up radical Islamist rule in Gaza by contributing hundreds of millions of dollars toward the salaries of Hamas officials. When it comes to the region's most totalitarian and war-obsessed regime, the President's newfound grasp of the linkage between political freedom and a more peaceful Middle East is nowhere to be seen.

Then there are the Palestinians living on the West Bank under the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA). There, the picture is undeniably somewhat brighter. President Mahmoud Abbas's efforts to build, with the generous help of outside donors, some of the economic and political infrastructure of a future independent state have brought an expansion of civic institutions and the emergence of a Westernized entrepreneurial and professional class. To that extent, the prospect of further and genuinely democratic reforms has been enhanced.

But only to that extent. The ruling Fatah party, for instance, has still not relaxed its near-absolute control of political speech, the very touchstone of a free society. Not only are supporters of Hamas regularly imprisoned without any judicial process but, more significantly, there are no independent media and certainly no public debate regarding peace negotiations and future relations with a Jewish state.

On the problem of the 1948 Arab refugees and their descendants, the single most important issue affecting the future of all Palestinians, the West Bank under President Abbas might as well be a one-party state. No dissent is tolerated from the official line, promulgated by Abbas time and again: the absolute "right of return" to Israel of the surviving refugees and their millions of descendants. To the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians confined to camps in the West Bank itself, the PA's propaganda apparatus continues to pledge an imminent day of deliverance—as if Abbas did not have it within his writ to tear down the walls of those camps tomorrow and help their wretched inmates integrate themselves into the surrounding society.

On May 15 of this year, commemorating the Palestinian nakba (the "catastrophe" of Israel's independence), PA television played songs and presented pageants about the imminent return of the refugees to Jaffa and Haifa. The following day, just prior to the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, Abbas published an op-ed in the New York Times repeating the lie at the heart of the nakba "narrative": that in 1947-48, the Jews of Palestine launched unprovoked attacks against defenseless Arabs, forcing them to flee their own country, and that not until after these acts of aggression did five foreign Arab armies intervene to save what could be saved.

No one living under Palestinian rule dares publicly question this lie. No historian dares offer his people a balanced account of the 1948 war, of who attacked whom, and of the reasons for the flight of the refugees. As long as this remains the case, the "right of return," far more than any question of borders, will remain the principal roadblock to successful peace negotiations.

Open debate in Israel's vibrant political democracy has led to significant reconsiderations of its policies in the territories won in the 1967 Six-Day war, culminating in a consensus for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. We will know that Israel has a partner for peace negotiations when, with or without his help, President Obama's six principles will have struck roots among the Palestinians themselves and drawn them into the light of freedom.

Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute.

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Mark Goldberg on May 25, 2011 at 7:45 am (Reply)
Your correspondent has clearly not read Benny Morris's account of 1948, nor James Wostenholme's of post-occupation Gaza.

Neither men could be called leftists, yet both offer a much more nuanced account than this very skewed and somewhat tired rhetoric.
Ellen on May 25, 2011 at 9:09 am (Reply)
Good piece, Mr. Stern. You should send a copy to Thomas Friedman at the NYT Editorial page, whose quality is now well beneath even a second-tier journal (except the occasional Maureen Dowd bitter fruits piece). Bibi Netanyahu is right on target in all of his demands. They are minimum demands. It's Friedman himself who is the dinosaur, not Bibi.

Friedman ignores the inconvenient fact that everything he recommends was already tried at Oslo and disastrously failed, or offered to the Palestinians and turned down before. There is no peace partner for Israel on the Palestinian side, and never has been. They want to role back the clock to 1947, and it's not going to happen. The Oslo segment of Israeli public opinion has disappeared, in the meantime, and the Israeli electorate is now a center-right electorate, unlikely to move left again. He is very out-of-data in his understanding of Israel.

The Palestinian leadership can't allow self-criticism because if they did, the truth of how badly they have led their imprisoned constituency would lead to their permanent banishment, just like Ben Ali and Mubarak. So, they will continue to peddle lies, and Israel will continue to build settlements. This is the absolutely preordained outcome of their policies. They have no one to blame but themselves.
Jacob Arnon on May 26, 2011 at 10:15 am (Reply)
Mark Goldberg "Your correspondent has clearly not read Benny Morris's account of 1948..."

Mark I read Morris' "1948" and his book supports Sol Stern's view not yours.

Morris is very clear that the Arabs in Mandate Palestine launched attacks on the Jewish communities and started the first Arab war against the Jews who fought to defend themselves.
David Kruse on June 7, 2011 at 6:44 am (Reply)
As with many of Sol Stern's articles, this one is a mixed bag. Here are some points to consider, some of which I already covered in my reply to his City Journal article 'The Nakba Obsession':

1. Sharon's withdrawal was a ploy to stall the peace process and avoid any political process with the Palestinians. As Dov Weissglass, Sharon's lawyer, told Ha'aretz: 'The disengagement is formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians...And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.' Basically, Sharon wanted the Palestinians to 'turn into Finns.'

2. 'Al-Naqba' is a perfectly appropriate way for Palestinians to describe Israel's birth. Because of Israel the Palestinians were expelled from their homes and had their land taken from them. The Haganah used terror to rid the land of Palestinians. As early as 1936 Ben-Gurion wrote to his son 'The Arabs must make room for the Jews of Eretz Yisrael...if they resist, we will remove them by force.' Who 'started' the '48 war is a moot point; the Zionists wanted the land, and Israel dispossessed a nation of its territory and fragmented a whole society to get it.

3. No, Obama is not going the wrong way about dealing with Hamas and Israel. Obviously Israel has to loosen its already crushing occupation: Palestinians can't think about peace if Israel chokes off their livelihood or keeps stealing more of their land and giving it to settlers. How are the Palestinians supposed to make a land-for-peace deal if Israel steals the very land it's supposed to be giving away? Or how can there be hope for Palestinian sovereignty if Israel's won't even allow Palestinians to move around freely in their own land?

Yes, Hamas is a gaggle of terrorist thugs, but they should not be excluded from any future negotiations. Shlomo Ben-ami, who negotiated with Arafat and Clinton in 2000, points out that Hamas is going through the same dialectic Fatah went through in the '80s before it recognised Israel's right to exist. An exaggeration? Ismail Abu Shnab, a Hamas spokesman, said, 'What is the point in speaking rhetoric? Let's be frank, we cannot destroy Israel. The practical solution is for us to have a state alongside Israel...When we build a Palestinian state, we will not need these militias; all the needs for attack will stop. Everything will change into a civil life' Hamas is disciplined and honours its ceasefires (it's Israel which violates the ceasefires!) It's only a matter of time before Hamas recognises Israel. It has to if it wants to be relevant; Palestinians will not long support a group that holds up the peace process.

4. Stern is right to say Israel currently has no peace partner in the Palestinians - for the moment. Not much headway can be made during civil war. Obviously the Palestinians will have to sort out their own mess before they can deal with their occupiers.

5. Stern is right to castigate the right of return as an obstacle to peace. Palestinians ostensibly recognise a two-state solution, yet insist on a demand that will end the Jewish state through demographic pressure - creating one state wholly under Palestine. It doesn't take a genius to see that Palestinian motives are at best questionable.

Theoretically, the right of return is a just demand. Practically, it is an impossible demand, and would cause a greater injustice than the one it aims to resolve. Maxime Rodinson, no friend to Israel, eloquently touched on this point: 'If the consequences of pressing a just claim are liable to be calamitous or unjust, and too fraught with practical difficulties, there may be grounds for suggesting that it be renounced.'

Moshe Sharrett, Israel’s second Prime Minister, said in June 1948: “[the Arabs] must get used to the fact that [their wish to return] is a lost cause.” Those words have divided Palestinians and Israelis for over sixty years. These words must now be repeated to bring them together.
Mo on June 8, 2011 at 6:08 am (Reply)
Mr. Kruse: No. 2 of your list is bunk. Most Palestinian Arabs left because of fear of war, their own leadership prompted them to Ephraim Karsh's painstaking work on what happened, "Palestine Betrayed".

I don't deny there were instances of Arabs being forced out by Israeli troops, but these were few in size and number. The vast majority were terrorized by their own leadership. Benny Morris, who earlier in his career would have agreed with you, has changed and now believes that it was not the Jews that deliberately engaged in "ethnic cleansing, while we know that Jews were being murdered in 1921 and 1929 because they were JEWS and living in then-Palestine

Palestinian suffering? Ramallah is booming economically. Even Gaza is improving, and what holds them back is the emphasis on the 'struggle', the internecine fighting between Hamas and Fatah, and Hamas and other orthodox Muslim opposition.

A few seconds of a search engine will back up these assertions.

Finally, this bit of risible nonsense: "Let's be frank, we cannot destroy Israel. The practical solution is for us to have a state alongside Israel...When we build a Palestinian state, we will not need these militias; all the needs for attack will stop. Everything will change into a civil life' Hamas is disciplined and honours its ceasefires".

If true, then why doesn't Hamas rewrite the charter calling for Israel's destruction? Hamas honors its unilateral cease-fires when it hunkers down after murdering 15 year old school children on a bus; the Hamas leadership lost a great many to IAF missiles; so after perpetrating a terrorist act, Hamas immediately calls for a cease-fire to try to keep Israel from targeting its leaders as before, i.e. these cease-fires are a LIE, a cynical ploy to get away, literally, with murder.

It is not, either, that Israel would never negotiate with Hamas, but won't with a Hamas dedicated to murdering Jewish Israelis and officially keeping its goal of the destruction of Israel. Hamas takes that out, says what YOU wrote above, follows through on it (though the militia question is another lie, as the different militias exist because of disparate political views and rivalries. Do they really NEED these many militia groups as...defense against Israel? Hilarious.
David Kruse on June 9, 2011 at 7:26 am (Reply)
Dear Mo,

I didn't say Hamas will change overnight. I said it is showing signs of gradual change. I should have made this clearer, and that's my fault.

Hamas, having now been drawn into the political process, is now finding that it has to 'normalise' itself to accommodate its altered status. As a political organisation it has to deal with the inevitable compromises and dialogues that politics entails. Khaled Mashal, head of Hamas' political bureau, told an Egyptian magazine that the elections forced Hamas to acquire a legal status in the territories. This, he said, could only mean that Hamas would become part of the political fabric of the Palestinian leadership, which would inevitably mean she would have to conduct negotiations with Israel.

But, as Shlomo Ben-ami says, 'It would of course be wrong and misleading to present Hamas' political transformation as a smooth and peaceful affair. As has always been the case with similar movements in the past, the transition to the realm of pragmatic politics is bound to be torturous and ridden with ambivalence.'

Yes, Hamas is still committed to destroying Israel. But it can change. Hamas is more practical than religious; Muhammas Gazal, a Hamas leader, said, "Hamas' charter is not the Qur'an...we are talking about reality, about political solutions.' It behoves Israel to be wary of Hamas, but neither can she ignore her.

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