Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 August 2008
Issue No. 910
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Arrows in the quiver

The Palestinian premiership, while not without faults, has made valuable advances that should be built upon, writes Hani Al-Masri*

The Badael (Alternatives) Centre for Media and Research recently organised a "horizon scanning" seminar with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Attended by dozens of politicians, scholars and media figures representing all shades of the political spectrum, the conference had essentially a two-fold purpose. This was, first, to assess the performance of the Fayyad government just over a year since its establishment, and second, to shed light on a number of the prime minister's recent ideas and actions that reflect a new policy and perhaps a new outlook.

Some claim that this meeting was a form of electoral campaign publicity even though Fayyad has declared that he has no intention of fielding himself in the next elections or accepting a new post. They also suggest it was a tactical gambit, an attempt to pre-empt some of the fallout of an impending economic crisis or a response to Israel's flagrant bid to undermine the Fayyad government in spite of its having met all Palestinian obligations under the US roadmap plan.

The Palestinian emergency government was borne in the wake of a political and geographic rift that marked a new catastrophe in Palestinian history, albeit one of the Palestinians' own making this time. The very legitimacy of this government has been questioned because although it has tried to obtain confirmation from the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) it has not yet succeeded in this and thus remains not only unconfirmed but outside of the constitutional framework for supervision and accountability. The government also does not contain representatives of the various factions, notably Fatah. Initially, it was thought that the Fayyad government would never see the light of day without the support of Fatah and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Many in Fatah today find it difficult to believe that it lasted this long. More importantly, there has been a growing tide of opinion in Fatah calling for a change in the cabinet so as to bring onboard Fatah that has the second largest bloc in the PLC.

Nevertheless, despite the painful circumstances that led to the rise of the emergency government and questions that continue to hover over its legitimacy, it is impossible to deny that it has achieved some tangible progress, especially as regards internal security, the economy and government administration. It is sufficient here to note that the security breakdown and chaos that once swept the Palestinian territories have now largely been put behind us. On the other hand, the government has also had some major failures, the most important of which was its inability to mend the Fatah-Hamas rift in fulfilment of its duty to national unity. It further failed to halt Israeli settlement expansion, the construction of the apartheid wall and the almost daily incursions by occupation forces into Palestinian cities, villages and camps, even in Area-A territories, which are supposedly under Palestinian Authority (PA) control. Then, too, there are the mass detentions that have taken place under this government and that have cast an even darker shadow over its performance.

Prime Minister Fayyad was courageously frank in acknowledging that his government had made mistakes. But he insisted that there has been a change dictated by the experiences his government has undergone since its inception. Perhaps the reason for this change boils down to the fact that while his government has fulfilled most of its obligations under the roadmap, Israel has not responded in kind and the US and other members of the Quartet have failed to exert serious pressure on Israel to do so. It was therefore necessary to assume certain positions and take certain steps accordingly.

It is just as important to give credit where credit is due as it is to criticise. So what are these positions and steps? Which should be supported and taken forward and which are probably wrong and should be halted or changed?

The first step that drew my attention to the fact that the government was changing tack was the letter that Fayyad sent to the EU insisting that any future progress in EU-Israeli relations should be linked to Israel's fulfilment of its obligations under the roadmap. The letter, which described conditions under occupation, the aggressive policies of the occupying power and continued settlement expansion, reminded me of that distant time when the Palestinian cause stood for a national liberation movement having taken up the torch following the liberation of Vietnam. The letter infuriated Israeli authorities who, in response, held up the transfer of the customs revenues due to the PA for 10 days and then held back a portion of the revenues -- the message being that those who play with fire get their fingers burned and that the Fayyad government has no one to protect it if Israel decides to punish it.

The second noticeable development is the prime minister's declarations that he has pushed to implement Abbas's call for a comprehensive national dialogue aimed at ending the Fatah-Hamas schism and reviving national unity. He has even appealed for a grassroots campaign to pressure the factions into entering into a national unity dialogue. This, in itself, was quite an unusual move for a prime minister since heads of government, as a rule, are afraid to stimulate grassroots drives. Moreover, since politicians on all sides routinely issue calls for national unity, generally as a means to advance their own factions and to disguise their bids to solidify the breach, Fayyad knew he had to do more. Therefore, in addition to his public appeal, he proposed practical ideas, such as forming an interim national reconciliation government. This government would consist of independent figures whose presence in cabinet would alienate no one at home, in the region, and internationally, and that would be bound by no conditions that could be used to feed factional rivalries.

The importance of this government is that it would reflect a national consensus over the need to restore geographic unity without having to wait for the results of the national dialogue. As this dialogue will discuss a broad array of issues ranging from a common political programme, the negotiating process and the resistance, to the PA, its place in the Palestinian political order and reform of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, it could take many months whereas the need to restore geographical unity cannot wait. Every day of continued separation between the West Bank and Gaza gives added impetus to the rift and only serves those elements that benefit from it and seek to perpetuate it. The major advantage of the idea of an interim national reconciliation government is that it can be put into effect immediately. Implementing it cannot be interpreted as a victory or defeat for one side or the other. Also, Hamas can use it as a way out of its predicament since it need not fear that this government will affect its parliamentary majority. After all, it is an interim government and its other major task will be to pave the way for presidential and legislative elections within an agreed upon timeframe.

Another proposal Fayyad made was to bring in an Arab peacekeeping force to maintain order and to help restructure the PA security agencies on professional, institutionalised foundations. In making this recommendation he hoped to allay Hamas's fears of a bid to overturn its control in Gaza or to force it to reverse its so-called coup and restore the situation in Gaza to the way it stood before the summer of last year. After all, it would not be its rival and current enemy Fatah that would be in charge of restructuring PA security agencies but an Arab force whose role, powers and period of service would be agreed upon by all Palestinian parties. As constructive as this idea is, it would not only require Arab approval but also Israeli approval and Israel will not agree to it without exacting a price. Also, if the idea is not implemented carefully and in accordance with a more thoroughly deliberated plan it could prove detrimental to the cause of Palestinian independence and revive the spectre of the mandate era and containment.

The third extremely important development is not new. In fact, it was set into motion almost immediately upon the formation of the Fayyad government. I am referring to regular field visits undertaken by cabinet members. Fayyad, for example, has visited Nablus about 10 times and has undertaken similarly numerous and regular visits to other towns and villages. This is a remarkable shift away from the concept of the ivory tower leader who relies on reports and hearsay and, therefore, cannot truly gauge the pulse of the people.

In a related development he has visited and intensified support for those areas most affected by the annexation wall, Israeli settlement expansion and incursions by occupation forces. The visits to Beilin, Neilin and Nablus, for example, brought into play a fresh political rhetoric that urged sustaining popular resistance to closures, the construction of the wall and other attempts to encroach on Palestinian land and that exhorted the international community to take action to implement the World Court ruling on the apartheid wall. Furthermore, the Fayyad government has backed this morale boosting campaign with millions of dollars of material support to the neediest areas.

Finally, Fayyad has been increasingly cautioning against falling into the grips of the illusion that it is possible to reach a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by the end of this year. Developments on the ground combined with lack of progress in negotiations indicate that Israel is not yet ready for peace. As Fayyad has said, "There will be no solution this year, or the next. And it is impossible to predict what will happen the year after that." In his opinion, instead of waiting for negotiations to break down, the Palestinians need to be prepared for that eventuality. They must consider the alternatives open to them while simultaneously working to take advantage of the opportunity to reach a solution and accumulating the leverage needed to impose it.

It is important not to abandon the negotiating process now that the world has acknowledged the need to embody the Palestinian right to self-determination in the creation of a Palestinian state. At the same time, the Palestinians must remain on guard against the drive to erode the objectives of the Palestinian cause that has been in progress ever since Israel hid behind the so-called peace process in order to implement designs devised to undermine Palestinian national consciousness and drive the Palestinian people and their leaders into accepting solutions prejudicial to their rightful aspirations.

Perhaps the only way to halt the political attrition is for the Palestinians to return to the position they formulated in 1988 in the form of the Palestinian peace initiative. This is the line they should hold until an agreement can be reached that fulfils Palestinian demands for the right to self-determination, the establishment of an independent state on the territories occupied in 1967, and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem in accordance with UN Resolution 194. Israel must understand that until it withdraws to the pre-June 1967 borders and dismantles its settlements and the wall, there can be no peace, stability and prosperity in the region.

So there do appear to be some new arrows in the Fayyad government's quiver. The reason is undoubtedly because Israel has attempted to impose a division of labour on the PA whereby it takes responsibility for internal security, the provision of public services and other administrative tasks while Israel retains its grip over anything to do with sovereignty and preserves the right to invade, assassinate, blockade and arrest. As important as these changes are and as much as they need to be supported, the government must still come up with some ways to deal with issues related to human rights, liberties and dignity. It has not succeeded in compelling Israel to remove a single barrier, or dismantle a single settlement outpost that is illegal even under Israeli law, or to release political detainees.

If the Palestinians are to find a way out of their current predicament they need more than what the Fayyad government has offered them so far. They need a new strategy that shows that they have learned something from negotiations, the resistance, the PA experience and other experiences. This strategy must be capable of uniting the Palestinians towards the realisation of their national agenda for freedom and independence. The heart of this agenda must be the spirit of resistance, by which I mean productive resistance, resistance capable of achieving progress towards the realisation of national ends. Only this can arm the Palestinian negotiator with the power necessary to impose new realities on the ground, which can then be placed on the negotiating table. Constructive resistance must be more than just a catchword for solidarity. It must be a workable priority.

* The writer is a Palestinian political analyst.

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