Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Reviving the Palestinian cause

Trump thinks Middle East peace may be easier to attain than others have thought. He fails to account for Israel’s dependence on conflict, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Along with most members of my generation I lived almost all of my life in some relationship with the Palestinian cause. We demonstrated for it as teenagers and students in the 1950s and 1960s. We served in the army in the 1970s at the time when the occupation extended to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. We were participants in intense and heated discussions over questions of war and peace in the 1980s and 1990s. We have grown grey, if not bald, before seeing the liberation of Palestine and after loss and despair spread to other Arab lands, some of which succumbed to the tumult of revolution, to the ravages of terrorism or to the predations of foreign intervention. Along the way, the Palestinian cause, itself, dwindled in comparison to other crises. The internal Palestinian rift between Gaza and the West Bank no longer seems so alarming now that Syria, Sudan, Iraq and Yemen have split apart, if not officially then at least in practical de facto terms. Nor is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese territory the only foreign occupation, now that Iranian, Russian and Turkish occupations have spread into other Arab countries. Even the pain of seeing historical and holy places under the Israeli thumb is now rivalled by violation of other historic and holy places in the “Fertile Crescent” and Yemen.

The Palestinian question seemed to have vanished from the media, apart from the story of the Palestinian rift that resurfaced in the Arab media from time to time, depending on the actions of Palestinian leaders, the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, the movements of Khaled Mashaal between Doha, Ankara and Tehran and determination on the part of the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League to reaffirm that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) is the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in every resolution related to the Arabs’ “central” cause adopted in annual Arab summits. Sometimes there would also be talk of the “third intifada”, which would quickly subside because actual practices seemed to have more in common with terrorism than with “resistance”.

Meanwhile, Israel under Netanyahu began to cast itself on the international stage as the sole tranquil, prosperous, stable and democratic state in a region that is up in flames and exports terrorism to the rest of the world. This region is the Middle East, which has suddenly expanded so as to stretch from the borders of China in the east and to the Atlantic coast in the West, and from the Turkish-Russian borders in the north to the Horn of Africa in the south. As the Middle East and its problems expanded and grew, the Palestinian question shrunk, even if it remained large and burning in the hearts of the Arabs and Palestinians.

But suddenly, the Palestinian cause has re-emerged. The beginning was last year when President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, in a speech in Assiut, brought up the Palestinian cause and urged that it not be forgotten. The general idea of his remarks was that as long as there was a search for a comprehensive settlement to the major problems and crises in the Middle East, then perhaps the Palestinian question could be resolved in this broader framework in order to realise stability in this region, which has been shaken and torn by a succession of military and political earthquakes during the past six years. Since then, talk of the Palestinian cause picked up again. The subject may not have elicited the same ardour and zeal as it did in the past, but nor was it greeted with the same coolness or indifference as had been the case since the beginning of this decade.

In this context, Shai Feldman, director of the Crown Centre for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, wrote an article for 1 May edition of The National Interest, called “Trump Has a Shot at Arab-Israeli Peace”. Feldman was writing on the occasion of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ recent visit to Washington for talks with US President Donald Trump. Feldman had written a previous article in a similar vein for the same periodical in which he argued that the fact that General Mattis was secretary of defense, that General McMaster was Trump’s national security advisor and that Rex Tillerson of Exxon Mobil was secretary of state, could lend impetus to a pragmatic approach to the Palestinian cause that simultaneously appreciated the complexities and subtleties of the question. These officials represented a shift from idealists, such as Steven Bannon and company, to experts which, he said, would benefit the Middle East peace process.

Feldman’s second article was even more optimistic. He writes that despite the many crises that Trump has had to deal with, such as that which led him to bombard the Shayrat military base in Syria, the mounting crisis with North Korea and the naval movements in the South China Sea, managing the confusing relationship with Russia, not to mention such domestic issues such as the healthcare law, immigration, taxes and the wall on the border with Mexico, Trump “finds time for Palestinian-Israeli peace making”. So much so that he recently sent his chief negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, on two trips to the region to sound out the views of leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah and to meet with Arab leaders.

Interestingly, Feldman concludes that maybe what were described as Trump’s shortcomings in handling US diplomacy, such as his inability to grasp the details of various issues, may actually be advantages. Perhaps his focus on concluding a “big deal” is what it takes to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as opposed to the focus on the many tiny details and incremental steps that were the subject of all previous negotiations and documents during the past quarter of a century. In fact, Trump, himself, offered some hope in this regard following his meeting with Mahmoud Abbas when, on the subject of resolving the conflict, he said, “Frankly, perhaps it’s not as hard as people have been saying all these years.” Abbas, for his part, seemed up to the task. He said, “Mr President, it’s about time for Israel to end its occupation of our people and of our land after 50 years.”

Trump has thus put the “Palestinian cause” back onto the discussion table in the Middle East. It will probably be on the agenda of his forthcoming Middle East tour in which he is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia and which also appears likely to include Israel, the West Bank, Amman and Cairo. If so, the trip will underscore the Arab dimension to the conflict and lend weight to the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for a settlement that will strike a “big deal” with the whole of the Arab world and not just between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

However, we must not allow optimism to cloud our eyes. There are some countries in the region that thrive on the conflict because it is their main key for perpetuating instability and extremism. There is also Hamas, which hastened to issue a statement that it called a “document” and that was sufficient to reassure its followers that nothing has changed in its basic positions while hinting to some Western circles that it was keen to join the ranks of peace-seekers. The fact is that Hamas, together with the intransigent Israeli right, are the foremost obstacles that will stand in the way of Trump as they stood in the way of his predecessors.

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