By Barry Rubin
"Rice Wins Concessions from Israel," read the Washington Post headline after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit. Rice herself told reporters her goal was to further Israel-Palestinian Authority (PA) talks by getting Israeli concessions to "improve the quality of life" for Palestinians.
She listed ten different Israeli concessions including: removing 50 roadblocks, easing checkpoint procedures, increasing travel and work permits, backing economic projects, letting 700 U.S.-trained PA security men deploy, and giving the PA armored vehicles and night-vision goggles.
Rice claimed success, saying talks are now "moving in the right direction."
Are they? Will these concessions make the PA more stable or moderate? No.
One wonders if we’ll ever see the headline: "Rice Wins Concessions from Palestinians." I doubt it.
How should one score this outcome: Israel 10, PA 0, because Israel might get international credit for taking risks for peace? Or the opposite, PA 10, Israel 0, since the former side got all the material gains?
Certainly, the PA isn’t bragging. On the contrary, it denies Israel gives anything and doesn’t take advantage of such measures--or the huge aid it receives--to improve its’ people’s quality of life. That’s something only Westerners care about.
To comprehend its worldview and strategy, consider PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s March 29 speech to the Arab summit in Damascus. That presentation, along with the summit itself, shows the trap in which Arab politics is stuck.
Even Abbas’s opening Koran quote presents a paradox: "If you will aid the cause of Allah, He will aid you, and plant your feet firmly." Abbas’s rivals, both in Hamas and among his own Fatah radicals, say that’s what they do: follow divine will and feet-planting by rejecting concessions and continuing war to total victory.
His second point is a professed confidence "that we all do agree that...a joint Arab stand and action suffices" to bring success. This line, used for 50 years, is wrong on both counts: there’s no Arab unity and even if there were it wouldn’t suffice. Indeed, this was a most divisive Arab summit, with the Saudis and Jordanians leading opposition to Syria’s attempt to seize control of Lebanon.
His third theme was that while Palestinians "remain committed to the option of a just peace, the two-state solution...Israel pursues its aggression and occupation, the construction of settlements, and the Judaization of Jerusalem." Rather than portraying Israel’s current government as wanting a deal he says it aims to seize all but "a few isolated areas."
This is the government that withdrew completely from the Gaza Strip and is willing to pull out of most of the rest. Yet according to him, it "seeks to undermine the possible establishment of an independent state on the land of the Palestinian people."
But if so, how can the Palestinians make peace with Israel? Why is Hamas wrong in saying that only victory through violence can work?
In his telling, Israel’s aggression is unprovoked. He speaks of "barbaric attacks, causing hundreds of defenseless victims," and its evil intent to "undermine the possibility of reaching a peace agreement...."
He basically ignores constant attacks on Israel from Gaza and offers no credible way to deal with them. He merely asks Hamas to give him Gaza and return to being one party in a PA-dominated system. This won’t happen. Hamas will keep attacking Israel and trying to take over the West Bank. For all this, he blames not Hamas—with whom he desperately tries to conciliate—but only Israel.
Here’s the trap: Hamas (and elements in Fatah) attack Israel, Israel responds, Abbas cites this as proof Israel doesn’t want peace, and thus negotiations cannot succeed. His bottom line: "The Israeli government seeks by the power of its occupation to impose a political solution on the ground according to its own wishes."
Meanwhile, instead of competing with Hamas, the PA uses Western aid to subsidize Hamas, spending, according to Abbas, 58 percent of its budget on Gaza and paying salaries for 77,000 employees there, more than it has itself! In theory, this projects PA influence; in practice it ensures Hamas holds power. He gives Hamas money unconditionally while begging it to hand Gaza back to him.
While Abbas has no strategy for regaining Gaza or making peace with Israel, his rivals have a clear, simple program appealing to reigning passions and worldview. As Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah puts it: "The Zionist entity can be wiped out of existence. Our nation is stronger now than ever before." Only "Zionist-American propaganda" –in which he includes Abbas—wants to fool Arabs and Muslims into thinking they "don't have any hopes of winning."
The U.S. State Department excused Abbas’s speech as just rhetoric. But that’s untrue. Abbas feeds the Hamas-Iran line by demonizing Israel and implying negotiations are useless. He’s not even trying to win his own people’s support by improving their lives.
We’ve become so used to this behavior that we forget there’s an alternative. Abbas could say: "Israel is ready to make peace with us if we prove we’ll keep our pledges. Let’s defeat the radical Islamists, stop the attacks on Israel that breed conflict, end incitement to violence, reform our own regimes, align with the West, and get an independent state."
Israel needs to work with Abbas and keep him afloat as the lesser of two evils to Hamas. But Abbas is incapable of making peace or regaining Gaza. His PA regime might fall to Hamas or be taken over, on his not-distant retirement, by still-dominant Fatah radicals even more eager to ally with Hamas and return to armed struggle.
Here’s where Rice, and much Western policy, is wrong. By not demanding and getting PA concessions and by giving money unconditionally they ensure not only that peace will fail but that there will be decades of conflict ahead.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://www.gloriacenter.org and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal http://meria.idc.ac.il. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).
Professor Barry Rubin,Director, Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://www.gloriacenter.org
http://meria.idc.ac.il Editor, Turkish Studies