Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Strong in Spite of Themselves

Now is the time for America's Arab allies to whisper advice to Washington, thanks to the resistance in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine, writes Azmi Bishara

It will take more than a speech at Sde Boker, the Negev kibbutz where Ben Gurion lived until his death, to turn Ehud Olmert into Ben Gurion II. Taking advantage of a ceremony in honour of the first prime minister of Israel in that historic location was little more than a ploy devised by someone given to petty party intrigue. The not-so-historic speech itself succeeded only in treading the well-worn paths of the "empty quarter" of politics.

Olmert's announcement that Israel would be willing to agree to a geographically contiguous Palestinian state on the West Bank is far from original. It was almost a word for word repetition of Sharon's announcement after having received Bush's letter of guarantees, the White House's version of the Balfour Declaration. Of course, what Sharon, Bush and then Olmert meant was that they would agree to a Palestinian state in exchange for the Palestinians relinquishing their demands for the right to return, for Jerusalem as their capital and even for Israel to withdraw to pre-June 1967 borders. But even this comes at a price: the Palestinians have to meet certain conditions in order to prove themselves worthy of an offer they have rejected. What are these conditions? Now we must be getting down to the point which made Olmert make his announcement. The Palestinians must accept the Quartet's conditions: relinquish terrorism, recognise Israel and abide by all previous agreements, even those Israel no longer recognises or never abided by to begin with.

Olmert, and those behind him, are trying to meddle in the Palestinian dialogue over a national unity government. They're churning the curds but in order to understand what kind of cheese they want to produce we need to recall that before this diplomatic offensive they subjected the Palestinians to an economic blockade that ultimately succeeded in forcing an elected government to concede to the need to change itself. So be it. Let there be change as long as it offers the only way out of a crisis that threatened to precipitate civil war. However, the dissolution of the present Palestinian government and its replacement by a national unity government is not exactly what Israel is after. Israel wants to force the Palestinians to accept the conditions of the Quartet and the Palestinian resistance to throw in the towel. To get this it needs the right type of Palestinian government with the right type of popular base.

The Palestinian politicians relying on international pressures on the Hamas government only agreed to the National Concord Charter grudgingly, and as a stopgap. Officially they claimed that while this document may form the basis for a national unity government it cannot form the basis for negotiations with Israel. Still they bowed to popular pressures, driven by the instinctive desire to avert civil war, and signed the charter on the grounds that it would serve as the foundation for domestic change. But what about the blockade, which is what made an elected government agree to change? No progress there. In Palestine they promised Hamas that the blockade would be lifted as soon as the national unity government was formed. Then it transpired that a new national unity government would have to accept the Quartet's conditions. The difference this time is that the debate over these conditions will take place among the members of a government with a different composition. Hunger is a powerful master and food is almost within reach. Hamas, they will say, has been very flexible till now and there is such a small distance between its current position and the Quartet's, so why not accept them? Then if Hamas sticks to its position it will be blamed for jeopardising the national unity government and obstructing the lifting of the blockade.

The national unity government is supposed to be a means to get the blockade lifted and enable the Palestinians to continue to hold out for as long as possible precisely because there is no just solution in sight. To some, however, it is no more than a tool to force Hamas into accepting the Quartet's conditions.

Hamas leaders are clearly aware of this situation and if they hadn't been, Egypt took the trouble to spell it out: Hamas had to take some solid steps towards a compromise with the Europeans and Americans. Until then it was decided to put issues relating to the national unity government on hold pending a clear assurance that the blockade would be lifted once such a government is formed and also pending an agreement over positions and portfolios. In other words, there are now two preconditions for forming a national unity government: receiving an unequivocal promise from some outside power that the blockade will be lifted and agreeing internally to the distribution of ministerial posts.

Then Olmert steps in with his speech -- erroneously dubbed an "initiative". Look at all the advantages you'll gain by accepting the Quartet's conditions compared to your current wretchedness under the blockade, he's telling them, in the hope the Palestinian people, or at least an influential segment of them, will push for settlement of their leadership issue. The speech is immediately greeted by applause from Europe, which couldn't wait to hail Olmert for his courage, even if it entailed no more than blowing the dust off of Sharon's ideas. Simultaneously, from inside Palestine, he expected voices announced these ideas were "positive" and could "serve as the basis for beginning negotiations".

As astute as Olmert thinks he is at reading the Palestinian map and intervening in favour of "moderate forces", these very "moderate forces" could reject his meddling because, even if they don't realise it, they are much stronger than before. They are strengthened by the Iraqi resistance which they hate, strengthened by Hizbullah's victory which they mock and by the fact that the US needs them more than ever now that the warmongering policy it initiated post 11 September is in crisis.

The Arabs still seem unaware they've become more powerful in spite of themselves. Perhaps they are suffering a form of jetlag from the rush of post-11 September events, because they act as though the US still wants to overthrow their regimes and, therefore, they feel that in order to get the US to back off with regard to their domestic affairs they have to offer concessions on Iraq, on Palestine and a range of other Arab issues and, above all, that they have to placate Israel. So, in spite of the fact that they don't have to ingratiate themselves to the US because now they have considerable leverage, they are still determined to play the butler ever vigilant over his employer's interests. Many Arabs are incapable of recognising their own strength when it's staring them in the face. But even if they do -- if, for example, they find people speaking to them more deferentially now in some conference or summit -- they get confused, avert their eyes, and continue taking orders. They're now so comfortably settled into playing the weakling before the American bully that any thought of standing up for themselves throws them entirely off balance.

But the fact is that with the American quagmire in Iraq, the failure of American plans to sort Lebanon out after the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri and the failure of the Israeli adventure in Lebanon to straighten that out the Arabs could adopt a tougher tone towards the US. They could, for example, pound the table and insist the Europeans and Americans accept the results of the Palestinian consensus over the national unity government as reason to lift the blockade and they could caution them as to what might happen if they refuse this demand. They, or at least some of them, could offer advice to Washington over the folly of its confrontational policy against Syria and its determination to ignore Syrian opinion.

Any sane person who knows Iraq will never regain independence and security unless its neighbours, notably Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria, agree to cooperate in restoring stability in exchange for a complete and comprehensive withdrawal of American forces. America's Arab allies are in a position to persuade Washington that such an understanding among regional powers is the sensible course of action and that to obstruct it would only compound its follies. Similarly, Washington could really use a third party to tell it to pressure its allies in Lebanon into accepting the idea of national unity and not to prod them towards civil war by means of disastrous promises and reassurances that everything will be alright and nothing changes, least of all American policy.

But, in addition to the regimes that don't realise that thanks to the Iraqi, Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements they are in a position to do all of the above, there are regimes that prefer not to offer any advice at all. They're simply happy to bask in America's attention. It's not just that these regimes have grown accustomed to the indentured servant relationship they have with Washington, they have also developed an interest in keeping the relationship on that footing. Some of these are now economically dependent upon selling their security services to the Americans and, therefore, have no desire to see American policy change. Others have linked themselves so strongly to American policies that they were as upset by the outcome of the Congressional elections as any gung-ho Republican.

Some of these countries built up their sources of strength stealthily and resolved to use every piastre they have to ensure the perpetuation of the principle that an ounce of old policies is better than a pound of new. Rather than pressing their advantages on behalf of Arab causes and in defence of Arab positions, they press for their old list of demands pertaining to their narrow interests, or the interests of facilitating dynastic succession.

These are not regimes which regard rule as an instrument for implementing political, economic and social projects that promise to enhance the welfare of their countries. These are regimes that are incapable of thinking in any other terms than the benefits of rule to those who rule.