Wednesday, January 17, 2007

For a Successful Dialogue

Above all, the Palestinian national dialogue conference needs the impetus of honesty, patriotism and integrity, because the Palestinians have few reliable allies elsewhere, writes Azmi Bishara

Out of all the fanfare surrounding Ehud Olmert's visit to Washington -- his home-away-from-home -- and all the cheers he received in Congress, what most stuck in my mind (as an observer, of course, dumbstruck like a peasant gaping between shutter slats at the goings on in a ribald party at the manor of his feudal lord) was that no sympathetic sighs or seconding grunts issued from congressmen in response to Olmert's remarks on how much he regreted the suffering the Palestinian people had to endure because of the attitudes of their leaders. Apparently, this formality of feigned sympathy does not sit well with Congress. After all, the purpose of the siege is to make them suffer, to collectively terrorise Palestinian civilians into abandoning their support of "terrorist" politicians. This is a perfectly legitimate imperial prerogative and the reason why Israel is being hailed in Congress, so there's no reason why the executioner should feel sorry for his victim. But then Congress simply does not understand the Israeli mindset that "cries as it pulls the trigger" and that "will never forgive the Palestinians for making us starve them to death." Congress is a long way from understanding how this psychological and cultural mechanism of self- justification destroys every logical and moral obstacle that stands in its path.

What most stuck in my gorge during this whole affair was the 26 May article in Yediot Aharonot about George Bush's great fondness of Ariel Sharon's political adviser, Dov Weisglass, and his even greater fondness for this man's jokes and anecdotes about Palestinians. True to today's journalistic dictum of keeping readers entertained, the article treats us to one of these. Weisglass related to Bush that a Palestinian official called up to complain about a new segment of the "apartheid wall" (pronounced by the teller with a sarcastic chortle). Having paid his verbal dues, the official went on to complain that his construction company had yet to receive payment for its work on another part of the wall. Bush roared and roared with laughter at this anecdote, according to Yediot Aharonot. Not me who recognises a typical Israeli fabrication when I see it. What got my gall is that this heroic people that is truly suffering has been made the butt of jokes to be bandied between insensitive and mindless politicians. Undoubtedly a similar sense of outrage at the insult added to injury helps explain the results of the elections that were held among this captive people.

I would also suggest that those who are sitting back and waiting to see how international pressure on the Palestinian government and society pans out, those who did not even try to persuade the Europeans to lift the blockade they were under no obligation to impose, and those who created the impression that the Palestinian people have to repent the decisions they made at the ballot box are also responsible for the injury, the insult and the results. This is, ultimately, a moral question.

Dialogue is very important; it offers a way out of all difficulties. When a situation reaches a standoff and we appear to be on the brink of disaster, "dialogue is the solution," or so we say. In fact, dialogue is a way, especially for political adversaries, to gain time and/or to avert an open clash. It gives the opportunity for alliances to be realigned or bargains to be struck behind the scenes, or for developments to unfold "in front of the scenes" but in which the participants have no direct hand, such as American actions towards Lebanon and Iran or demonstrations of the seriousness of Israel's repeated threats against the Lebanese resistance.

For the Palestinians, dialogue must function as a mechanism for defusing animosities, taking as its terms of reference the common interests of a people under occupation. The question is whether or not the forces that are engaging in dialogue are aware of what these interests are and are interested in working to promote them as opposed to promoting themselves as political elites regardless of these interests.

Inter-Palestinian dialogue has come rather late in the day. It should have been held a long time ago: ever since the second Intifada erupted. At the time, I urged that its purpose should be to reach a unified strategy for the resistance with a unified national leadership representative of all political forces. Participants in the dialogue, I said, should produce a consensus over certain fixed principles that no party can depart from negotiations, or even before negotiations, and they must agree over what types of action are legitimate or illegitimate in a resistance movement from the perspective of the collective Palestinian interest during the phase of national liberation. The language of national liberation must be associated with an era and a structure other than the ones with which we are currently familiar, because in Palestine we appear to have lost touch with that language.

Not so long ago, the central segment of the Palestinian national liberation movement grudgingly agreed to and then developed vested interests in a state-in-the-making structural entity. Although this entity had neither the independence of a sovereign state nor the dynamism of a national liberation movement, the Palestinian leadership thought it possible to take advantage of this ambiguity. They used the clout and kudos of statesmen when it suited them, but reverted to national liberation leadership when the people started to grieve of growing hardship and began to wonder why their conditions were worse and the restrictions on their personal liberties harsher than when Israel occupied them directly. At the same time, Israel, the US and those who tend to their interests in Europe also thought they could take advantage of this ambiguity. They could force certain duties and responsibilities upon this would-be state entity, yet continue to deprive it of many rights.

Under this structural situation, known as Oslo, many fundamental issues were lost, even before negotiations began, in exchange for the occupier's recognition of the leadership of this central trend, without fulfilling its aims. Then this leadership became pawn to an endless process of bartering for recognition as a negotiating partner. Throughout this phase, the approach of this leadership remained the same. It used rights as political bargaining chips instead of pursuing the politics of rights; it bartered away causes in exchange for a state instead of insisting upon the state as the solution to the causes; it abandoned the liberation movement's central aims in the drive to justify its own existence and tend to its own interests. In the process, it yielded to the occupation's demands to take on the occupier's security duties and ease the occupier's burdens towards the occupied populace. This is the segment of the liberation movement that lost the Palestinian elections. Then they began to talk about reviving the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), a name that until recently they could not utter without suppressing a derisive smile. I doubt very much that the intent is to revive the national liberation discourse the PLO stood for.

The main opposition forces, in contrast, cling to the policy of resistance and reject a settlement. They, too, have abandoned the discourse of liberation, if they ever adopted it at all. To remind those who have forgotten, national liberation discourse comprises that very fundamental concept of liberation, whereby the liberation of the land is not just an end in itself but a route to the liberation of human beings from all forms of oppression and tyranny. After all, what is the point of liberating ourselves from the oppression of strangers only to subjugate ourselves to the tyranny of those at home? If the spirit of national liberation does not "move" the participants of the dialogue, if they do not experience it with a mystic's blend of intellectual awareness and love -- if they were not brought to that assembly, like Sufi petitioners, by the light of the truth of liberation -- then why are they there and what do they hope to gain?

The current debate over Hamas's positions and a joint political agenda is important, but this is not what the dialogue should be focussing on. Reaching a consensus over these issues, contrary to what former head of Shin Bet Ami Ayalon says, won't change Israel's plans. Israel has been planning for more than a year now to disengage from the West Bank with an eye to unilaterally imposing permanent borders and annexing more land. More importantly, the US agreed to this measure about half a year ago, and signs of Washington's approval of the Israeli vision for a permanent settlement were forthcoming even before that in Bush's letter of guarantees to Sharon in April 2004, shortly before Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gaza. It is useful to create a political platform to which Hamas adheres beyond its Friday sermon and to which other parties should adhere -- and should have adhered long ago before acting on their own without mandate from the Palestinian people. However, this has nothing to do with what Israel is planning, and assurances of some members of the Zionist left to the contrary are either naïve or part of an attempt to lure the Palestinians, via a new Palestinian government, into making more unilateral concessions in advance of negotiations. It has always been my opinion that Hamas should present a programme for resistance and join the PLO. However, it is another thing entirely for Hamas to be pressured into supporting the Arab peace initiative and into joining the PLO by those who abandoned the initiative within two weeks of adopting it in Beirut four years ago in favour of persuading the US to come up with an initiative of its own, which turned out to be the roadmap, and who had previously done their utmost to marginalise and dismantle Hamas. A prime example of "saying what's right for the wrong reasons".

What the dialogue should be focussing on is how to preserve national unity in the framework of the Palestinian Legislative Council, a national unity government and a reconstructed PLO that also represents Palestinians abroad. This is vital to preserving the essential solidarity of our movement and preventing internal discord. Within this context, the dialogue should establish our unified opposition to Israeli unilateral actions and discuss how to organise a unified Palestinian drive against the practices of the occupation, such as the construction of the separation wall, the restrictions on our freedom of movement and Israeli settlement expansion in the area of Jerusalem. As important as it is to come to a consensus over a collective political platform, this alone will not alter Israel's plans. We must also take decisions on matters that have a bearing with developments on the ground, and these developments are Israel's unilateral actions. We need to come up with the principles and the methods for opposing these; for resistance is not just an idea to produce a document we can take home and read, it is an ongoing process.

In order to sustain this process, the dialogue should also be discussing how to manage the day- to-day affairs of the Palestinian people at a time when a political settlement does not appear within reach. This, in turn, means that the participants must abandon all notion of depending on the blockade to bring the Palestinian government to its knees. How constructive can a dialogue be if some of its participants are secretly praying for the fall of a government led by other participants, chumming up to the Europeans and Americans in the hopes of being rocketed into power instead? The purpose of dialogue is to succeed in creating a solid foundation for collective action, not to give the Americans and Israelis the opening to reap fruits from the blockade.

At a time when some feel that a halt to the blockade is not in their interests because they have suddenly found a way to secure popular support, at a time when leaders of sovereign nations are taking actions they are not convinced are right, and at a time when an elected government is being subjected to economic sanctions, not by virtue of an international resolution but because Washington says so whether we like it or not, what can you possibly say? Do you tell the Europeans that it is in the interests of the Mediterranean basin to make contact and talk with a Palestinian government led by an Islamist movement that has a moral and political edge over all other Islamist movements in the Arab world and that this is an opportunity for reform? They know that already, but they insist on acting contrary to their convictions.

Do you tell the Arabs and Europeans that if the Palestinian government collapses, Hamas won't go into early retirement and that even the most naïve of peace-lovers will not quite be able to bring themselves to condemn Hamas for perpetrating acts of violence, which it has halted during this entire period, but which it will resume with greater intensity and determination after having been thwarted in the performance of its duties as an elected power? Anybody who has more than a summer watermelon on their shoulders knows what to expect if they think one step beyond the aim the economic sanctions are meant to achieve. What's the point of saying anything if what's going on in peoples' minds and hearts is not what we see on their faces and hear from their lips? We cannot shrug all this off as the exigencies of tactical manoeuvring for political survival and other political pragmatics -- not when it is indicative of a moral crisis that holds nothing too sacred to transgress and no depths too deep to sink to.