Friday, January 27, 2006

Uri Avnery - "Pity the Orphan"

[The following message comes from a recent e-mail exchange with a friend who had forwarded to me a piece by the long-time Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery, "Pity the Victim". Some passages have, unfortunately, become even more pertinent since the Hamas victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. --Jeff Weintraub]
Subject: Re: Avnery - Pity the Orphan
Date: Tue, 24 Jan 2006 09:59:11 -0500
From: Jeff Weintraub
To: X

Hi X,
What Avnery says here is partly right and partly wrong. In particular, his analysis of Sharon's strategy in dealing with the PA (under Abbas as well as Arafat) is right on target, alas.
Even if Mahmoud Abbas wanted to disarm Hamas, he would be unable to. His weak position, combined with the weakness of his Fatah movement makes such a measure impossible.
This weakness, which also finds its expression in the Fawda ("anarchy"), derives mainly from one source: the sly efforts of Sharon to undermine his position.
I have pointed this out more than once: for Sharon, the rise of Abbas constituted a serious danger. Being favored by President Bush as an example of his success in bringing democracy and peace to the Middle East, he threatened the exclusive relationship between the US and Israel, perhaps even opening the way for American pressure on Israel.
To prevent this, Sharon denied Abbas even the slightest political concession, such as releasing prisoners (Marwan Barghouti springs to mind), changing the path of the Wall, freezing settlement, coordinating the withdrawal from Gaza with Abbas, etc. This campaign was successful. The authority of Abbas has been significantly weakened.
Now Sharon's successors are using this very weakness as a pretext to reject serious negotiations with him and the next Palestinian government, calling to mind the story of the boy who, having killed both his parents, threw himself upon the mercy of the court: "Have pity on a poor orphan!"
Whether or not the weakness of the PA and its inability and/or unwillingness to act constructively is "mainly" due to Sharon's strategy is an open question, but it was certainly Sharon's intention to help promote this outcome (with help from a lot of other people, not least the Palestinian leadership itself).
However, much of what Avnery has to say about Hamas is naive at best, and even involves a degree of self-deception.
This week, the protest against the Fence was interwoven with Palestinian electioneering.
I was happily marching along in the wintry sunshine, holding high the Gush Shalom emblem of the flags of Israel and Palestine side by side. We were approaching the line of armed soldiers that was waiting for us, when I suddenly realized that I was surrounded by the green flags of Hamas.
Ordinary Israelis would have been flabbergasted. What, the murderous terrorists marching in line with Israeli peace activists? Israelis marching, talking and joking with the potential suicide bombers? Impossible!
But it was quite natural. All the Palestinian parties took part in the demonstration, together with the Israeli and international activists. [....] The green flags of Hamas, the yellow of Fatah, the red of the Democratic Front and the blue-and-white of the Israeli flag on our emblems harmonized, as did the people who carried them. [....]
The participation of all Palestinian parties was in itself an important phenomenon. It was no doubt encouraged by the Palestinian elections, due to take place this coming Wednesday. It was curious to see the same faces on the posters along our route and right next to us in the crowd.
But it also showed the importance the Fence has assumed in Palestinian eyes.
There's a dangerous element of unreality about this whole discussion. Of course Hamas would oppose the security fence/wall/barrier. It appears to have worked--in the sense of making suicide attacks inside Israel much more difficult to carry out. This is, frankly, good news for everyone on both the Israeli & Palestinian sides, except rejectionists. In discussing the fence/wall/barrier, it is absolutely essential to distinguish between (a) its existence per se, which appears to be an unfortunate necessity, and (b) the route along which it is built, which was the wrinkle that allowed Sharon to politically hijack a proposal originally emanating from the so-called "left" in Israel. Avnery doesn't make this clear at all, so his position cannot be taken seriously.
Avnery also says:
Thirty years ago, when I started secret contacts with the PLO leadership, I was almost the only person in Israel in favor of negotiating with the organization that was at the time officially designated as "terrorist". It took almost 20 years for the Israeli government to come round to my point of view. Now we are starting again from the same point.
This is partly right--an important part. But it leaves out another very important element, so that the overall picture presented here is quite misleading.
For years, the US was desperate to get the PLO involved in a diplomatic "peace process," and would have put very heavy pressure on Israel to negotiate with it ... if the PLO would accept Israel's existence in principle and indicate that its goal was no longer Israel's destruction, but instead some kind of negotiated peace. (They didn't even have to mean it, just say it.) If Arafat & the PLO had been willing & able to do this 30 years ago, or even 20 years ago, when their position was much stronger, it would have been very difficult for any Israeli government to hold out against pressure to negotiate with them. But they didn't. It wasn't until after the first Gulf War, when the PLO found itself in a position of extreme weakness and isolation, facing terminal collapse and in danger of being superseded by political forces within the Palestinian territories themselves, that Arafat finally decided to make these verbal accommodations ... which, in turn, helped to make negotiations with the Rabin/Peres government possible. But if they had done this 30 (or 20 or 15) years earlier, they would have been in a much stronger position.
In short, one could draw quite different implications from this story than the one Avnery draws, which is a bit too simplistic and one-sided. It takes two to tango. That was true then, and it's true now.
Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub