In the Arena

Palestinian Detente Disaster

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I’ve been traveling to the Middle East as a journalist for the past 30 years. During that time, Israel has grown into an ethnically diverse, economically successful country with a strong (internal) tradition of democracy, free speech and the rule of law–a tradition not always extended toward its Palestinian neighbors, especially when Likud governments are in power. And during those same 30 years, governance on the Palestinian side has been an unrelenting disgrace–until recently, when Salam Fayyad, a U.S.-trained economist reformed the government on the West Bank and, with US help, created a tough security force that insisted on the rule of law in the Palestinian territories and was respected by the international community, including the Israelis.

But Fayyad was fired in the new accord between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas. This is terrible news. It changes everything.The success of Fayyad’s government was one reason why I was not entirely pessimistic about a two-state solution in the Middle East. Israel had always demanded, and deserved, a responsible negotiating partner. Fayyad had created conditions amenable to negotiation; the Israelis responded positively, in a limited way, shutting down checkpoints on the West Bank, but not nearly as positively as they should have–with a moratorium on new settlement construction. His firing has undermined those of us who had hoped for a more positive Israeli response to the Palestinian reforms.

Fayyad was sacked because Hamas didn’t like his security force. Needless to say, a police force more amenable to Hamas is likely to be less rigorous when it comes to anti-terrorism, if not downright subversive. The rationale for the Israeli government to respond more favorably toward the Palestinians is thus damaged, perhaps irreparably. The Fayyad government also was the strongest argument for continued US financial support of the Palestinian Authority; the rationale for such funding is now undermined as well. Finally, the stability Fayyad struggled to achieve helped create something of an economic boom, and a new middle class, on the West Bank. That progress will be harder to sustain now.

Abba Eban famously said, “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Salam Fayyad was well on the road to refuting that. The fact that Mahmoud Abbas succumbed to Hamas pressure and agreed to sack Fayyad represents a return to dismal business as usual on the Palestinian side.

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