The Critical Moment for Palestinian Unity

Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT -- What event this month is likely to reverberate across the Middle East most clearly next year? My prediction is that it will be the continued attempts by the leading Palestinian factions Fateh and Hamas to reconstitute a unified national leadership and government. If this initiative succeeds in holding elections for a new parliament and government, it will soon generate a more coherent Palestinian strategy for dealing with Israel. This in turn will allow democratic and legitimate Arab leaderships to harness their public support for the Palestinian cause in a more credible and effective manner.
The Palestinian-Israeli -- and wider Arab-Israeli -- conflict has been submerged this year beneath the tumultuous political revolts for democratic freedoms across much of the Arab world. This has been a natural process that affirms the logical order of reform, relegitimization and rejuvenation across the deeply troubled and mediocrity-riddled Arab world: The priority task is to replace corrupt and incompetent authoritarian regimes with more representative governments, and that in turn might allow Arab countries to address the challenges of Israel and Zionism more effectively -- regardless of whether they wish to do that through war or peace. For over a century, the Palestinians and fellow Arabs have been unable to do either convincingly, which is why we enter 2012 still plagued by expansionist Zionist settler-colonialism that dates back to the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897. Then as today, Zionism has never clarified its willingness to acknowledge and coexist with Palestinian nationalism and rights on an equal footing.
Incredibly -- but not surprisingly, given the combination of political serfdom and drought that has defined the lives of most Arabs for most of the past century -- we really do not have a clear idea of where most Arab men and women stand on the issue of making war or peace with Israel. Arab governments have repeatedly affirmed the 2002 Arab Peace Plan that offers peace and coexistence with Israel if Palestinian and Arab rights are simultaneously achieved. This historic gesture has fallen flat for two main reasons: Israel and the United States have thrown cold water on it, and it has generated no significant expressions of support among Arab public opinion. Government incompetence and mediocrity have only recently generated a massive reaction from their publics, but in the realm of facing the Zionist challenge they have a century-long track record.
The Palestine issue’s lack of attention during the past year of domestic Arab political revolts and revolutions (other than the unilateral Palestinian initiative to seek United Nations recognition for a state within the 1967 borders) is not a reflection of disinterest among the Arab publics. Recent venting of Egyptian anger at Israel in Cairo -- in parallel with massive and continues evidence from public opinion polling across the region -- indicates that most Arabs care deeply about standing up to the Zionist threat and achieving justice for the Palestinians. Many Arab states and people have paid a heavy price for their involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. They seem to understand better now that Arab incompetence vis-à-vis Israel is in large part a reflection of our political incoherence at home. Perhaps the novelty of more democratic, representative, legitimate and sovereign Arab governments in 2012 will start to change this equation.
The Hamas-Fateh reconciliation that has been playing itself out in slow motion for a year is a key element for this process to actually materialize. Linking the power of Arab popular political legitimacy to the diplomatic quest for Arab-Israeli justice and peace needs a unified and credible Palestinian strategy, which has been missing for many years. The prospect of elections and a new government in the Spring of 2012 would only succeed in generating a practical strategy of Palestinian resistance and diplomacy if Fateh and Hamas acted more maturely and worked together to rebuild the institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and harnessed the views of all Palestinians around the world, not just narrow, often self-appointed, political elites in Ramallah or Gaza.
Hamas and Fateh represent different historical experiences that include important lessons about mass mobilization, political and diplomatic action, solidarity and steadfastness under occupation, armed resistance, and, when needed, political pragmatism. Neither of them, however, will win any awards for democratic brilliance or achieving progress for Palestinian rights and statehood. They have little to show for their work and incumbency, and even for their many sacrifices and those of many Arab populations.
The coming months are crucial for the Palestinian people to put pressure on their fractured leadership to come up with steps to reconstitute and relegitimize a single Palestinian national leadership and political program that aligns with the wave of democratic renewal across the Arab world. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global