Tony Karon, in The Nation
‘Who lost China?” was the battle cry of a witch-hunt conducted in the US State Department following the 1949 victory of Mao Zedong’s communists. The department’s “China hands”, critics charged, had been woefully ignorant of the dynamics at work on the ground in China after the Second World War, and undermined the US ally Chiang Kai-shek. While the purge that followed is unlikely to be repeated, Washington may soon be asking itself, albeit quietly, “Who lost Fatah?”
Last week’s announcement by the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas that he would not seek re-election next January was a warning to the Obama administration, which had put Mr Abbas in an untenable position. Having retreated from its own demand that Israel halt all construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Washington expected Mr Abbas to open talks with the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu without conditions.
For the Palestinians, however, the settlement-freeze demand was a test of Mr Obama’s willingness to pressure the Israelis into taking steps they won’t take by choice. Mr Abbas knows that Mr Netanyahu, if it were up to him, would not yield to a viable, independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. If the US is not prepared to pressure Israel, negotiations would not only be fruitless, they would actually help sustain a reality that is relatively comfortable for the Israelis but intolerable for the Palestinians.
The Fatah leadership knows that it can’t begin to reverse its eclipse by Hamas if it remains locked in fruitless talks in perpetuity. So the insistence that there could be no resumption of talks absent a clear signal – in the form of the settlement freeze – that, this time, Washington meant business. But when the secretary of state Hillary Clinton last weekend hailed Mr Netanyahu’s “no, but...” offer as “unprecedented”, and urged the Palestinians to return to the table, it was no longer possible to sustain the illusion that the Obama administration had the political will to pressure Israel.
The writing was already on the wall for Mr Abbas last month, when Washington demonstrated a blithe indifference to his political circumstances by leaning on him to withdraw support for a UN discussion of the Goldstone findings on alleged war crimes in Gaza. Plainly, for Mr Obama, as for Messrs Bush and Clinton before him, Israel’s needs always trump those of the Palestinian leadership.
But Washington also ought to have taken a lesson from Mr Abbas’s decision to reverse himself, following a firestorm of criticism, and back the UN discussion of the Goldstone report. Forced to choose between the US on the one hand and his own people and the Fatah movement on the other, Mr Abbas could no longer be counted on to follow the bidding of the White House – as he had done throughout the tenure of the Bush administration, with precious little to show for it.
If anything, the current administration’s quiescence on Israel is far more devastating politically, both to Mr Abbas and to US interests in the wider Middle East, than Mr Bush’s war in Iraq. That’s because Mr Obama had very publicly raised expectations that the US would finally balance Israel’s security concerns against the pursuit of justice for the Palestinians. Mr Obama was seen as the Palestinians’ last hope of redress for their suffering. By refusing to hold Mr Netanyahu’s feet to the fire, Mr Obama has dashed that hope.
The very act of throwing up his hands and threatening to walk away actually demonstrates how little leverage the Palestinian Authority president actually has. (Not even the threat to withhold his candidacy will be taken seriously in Washington, since the election itself is unlikely to be held – Israel won’t allow voting in East Jerusalem, and absent a reconciliation deal, Hamas won’t allow voting in Gaza.) And leverage lies at the heart of the deadlock: a country that has occupied territory for four decades doesn’t suddenly decide to voluntarily end their occupation out of the goodness of their hearts.
Mr Abbas recognised that armed struggle is a cul-de-sac because it challenges Israel at its strongest point – the “balance of terror” briefly achieved by the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada dramatically strengthened Israel’s diplomatic position at the Palestinians’ expense, and cemented a hardline political consensus in Israel.
The sad truth dawning on Ramallah, now, is that there will be no salvation from Washington. Not now, possibly not ever. A sad truth, perhaps, but the kind that can set free those who recognise it. In the shocked aftermath of the 1967 war, Fatah took the lead in breaking the Palestine Liberation Organisation free of the tutelage of the Arab League, in a declaration of independence that put their fate in their own hands rather than relying on Arab armies to defeat Israel. Today, they face a similar challenge – declaring independence from Washington and once again taking their fate into their own hands.
The idea of a two-state solution being negotiated between Israeli and Palestinian leaders with USIsrael arbitration is in the deep freeze. Curiously enough, though, despite Israel’s intractable military dominance, it is feeling increasingly vulnerable – not to the much-hyped Iranian threat (Israel, after all, is threatening to bomb Iran, not the other way around) but to a growing sense of international isolation. The Goldstone issue highlights the trend towards holding accountable to universal standards from which it has traditionally claimed a free pass.
Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, breached not by an assault from the West, but by the rot that had festered in the society it ostensibly protected. Last week, in the Palestinian village of Bi’lin, activists managed to breach Israel’s West Bank security barrier [my link added] in a kind of “Mr Netanyahu, tear down this wall!” moment evoking Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev. The Palestinians don’t need suicide vests or rockets to put Israel on the back foot, and raise the political cost of the occupation. But the Obama administration won’t do it for them.
Tony Karon blogs at rootless cosmopolitan, www.tonykaron.com