Monday, September 08, 2003

Palestinian Leadership

According to Haaretz, Ahmed Qureia has accepted the post of Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, replacing Mahmud Abbas who resigned a few days ago. Watching this changeover has reminded me of one of the biggest problems faced by the Palestinian cause: terrible leadership. Mahmud Abbas genuinely wanted an end to terrorism and a peace deal with Israel, but was completely unable to deliver.

Part of this was just his situation: Abbas was obviously the choice of Washington and Tel Aviv, and hence had a credibility gap with the Palestinian street. But as near as I could tell, Abbas never did much of anything except negotiate the hudna with Egyptian assistance. Like so many Palestinian leaders, we got the line that he wanted peace as quickly as possible and would make all the relevant hard choices, but the Palestinian people were opposed, and so he had to appease them. That's not leadership, that's following the crowd. Leaders help shape opinion, they don't just respond to it, and I saw no evidence that Abbas was willing to go beyond easy talk in the halls of power to actually argue his stands on issues like the right of return to marshall those Palestinians who support a peaceful resolution.

Ahmed Qureia begins his term by setting conditions: "I don't want to see more [Israeli] military checkpoints. I don't want to see assassination of Palestinians. I don't want to see the demolishing of houses." This may be a smart move, and these will sound a lot better to the world than prisoner releases, the issue I most remember Abbas talking about. I also don't want to completely absolve the Israelis from guilt over the Road Map failure - I didn't see much more from them toward addressing the real issues than some settlement removals which were speedily undone by the settler movement. Thomas Friedman's Sunday column on the security wall and why it's an issue is also a must-read. But it strikes me that some Palestinian leaders have to get out there and stop making excuses about weakness and start working on becoming stronger.

So you're worried that confronting Hamas will start a Palestinian civil war. Then don't confront Hamas - get out there and stop incitement in media you do control, changing those messages to ones which lay out the situation in realistic terms that show why the path of peace is the right path for the Palestinian people. This need not be a defeatist message. Someone can say that people like Ariel Sharon didn't start talking about an end to the occupation out of nowhere, they simply realized the occupied territories were indigestible. You could make the case that stone-throwing Palestinians who seek liberation from Israeli occupation are now in a position to harvest the fruits of their victory, despite the hateful light in which Hamas is casting their cause before the world. During the cease-fire, there were mobs that protested people plotting terror attacks. That is the constituency waiting to be harvested and made into a new "Palestinian Street."

But that would require leadership. Leadership like Israeli leaders have shown when they say in front of conservative groups that there will be no greater Israel, thus helping to shape the debate in Israeli society rather than simply riding it. Right now, the Israelis have a government firmly in right-wing hands that may or may not sign an appropriate deal, but the majorities which elected Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak can rise again, if there emerges a Palestinian leadership which cares more about the future of Palestine than their own careers. As it stands now, Prime Minister Rabin died in service to peace, but the dream of peace died in service to Yasser Arafat.

It is, of course, easy for me to sit here in the ivory tower and pontificate about these things, but I don't think that makes my viewpoint illegimate. Indeed I've always thought the outside perspective can see things in a different light just because we're not caught up in the hate and fear of the moment. Yes, Palestinians would be taking risks for peace with a government they do not fully trust. However, Israelis have already shown a willingness to take risks of their own. One of the most terrifying blogs on the internet is Allison Kaplan Sommer's An Unsealed Room. It is terrifying because of all the casual touches which show you just how small Israel is, small enough that a few suitcase-sized nuclear weapons could completely obliterate it. If 20 years from now Jordan has some anti-Israel fundamentalist government, it wouldn't take much for an army of some kind to steamroll through the whole place. These scenarios for the future are pretty unlikely, but when your consciousness remembers that it just happened 30 years ago, and when there are people around who want it to happen again, you tend to be careful.

The issues of the Middle East peace process can be solved, but for that to happen, you need leaders who can marshall the brigades of hope rather than simply follow those of fear, even at the risk of becoming a martyr like unto Ali b. Abi Talib, who was stabbed by a radical supporter for agreeing to negotiate at Siffin. Whether Ahmed Qureia (and Ariel Sharon) can display those qualities remains to be seen.


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