Dec 02 2003

Needed: Palestinian Leaders with a political backbone

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

The last minute confusion on the Palestinian side prior to the signing of the Geneva initiative has once again revealed a major weakness in the Palestinian political position. An absence of a political backbone.

Yaser Arafat, the Palestinian president is known to have been a major supporter of the initiative which has been spearheaded by former minister of information Yaser Abed Rabo, an Arafat confidant. As long as the public was not making any sounds, the Palestinian leadership, especially the Fatah central committee, was ok with the initiative placing pressure on the Israelis. But no sooner than the public pressure surfaced than the Palestinian leadership, especially in Fatah, publicly back tracked and withdrew any kind of political cover to those involved in the initiative.

To be fair, Palestinian skeptics have strong a long history of missed opportunities to go back to. A plethora of peace initiatives, agreements, and proposals have gone unfulfilled only to leave those publicly associated with them with egg on their face. Even political initiatives with the names of senior US officials like Mitchell, Tenent and Zinni, connected to them have ended up in the world’s political archives.

Nevertheless, the official Palestinian position, especially in the main stream Fatah leadership should not go without criticism. As member of the Palestinian legislative Council Hatem Abdel Qader said on the eve of the signing, we need a better idea of what the Palestinian strategy is. The Geneva Initiative has revealed a weakness on the Palestinian side to deal with some difficult issues. For example, Palestinian leaders are convinced that the issue of the right of return will not be implemented. Four million Palestinians who constitute the 1948 refugees and their dependants are simply not going to return to their homes and lands in Israel. This is not only a basic political reality, but an important recent poll conducted in countries surrounding Israel has revealed that less that 10% are actually willing to go back and live in Israel.

But the Palestinian leadership continues to refuse to deal head on with this issue and come clean with the Palestinian population. Hardliners say that this internationally guaranteed right should not be unilaterally compromised. They say that it might be considered as part of a package deal where they can trade it for some concrete results on the ground. Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh strongly dispute this argument. Professor Nusseibeh who courageously dealt with this issue long before the Geneva Initiative says that it makes no sense hold out on an issue that everyone, including your adversary already knows that you are willing to compromise. Instead, Nusseibeh, who co authored with former Israeli intelligence chief Ami Ayalon, the Peoples Voice says that the Palestinian leadership must be honest with its people. Nusseibeh, like the authors of the Geneva Initiative also disagree with the conventional wisdom that opts for a gradual approach to solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead of a road map to peace, that allows the public on both sides to place obstacles in the way, the new Palestinian thinkers want a plan that envisions the end goal. This way, they say, the public on both sides will know what the ultimate goal is, so that political leaders will not be susceptible to the negotiations bazaar where the powerful can dictate the final results of talks.

Whatever the tactic, the latest controversy over the Geneva Initiative reveal a leadership crisis in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On both sides, leaders appear to be trying to reflect public opinion rather than mold it. This is especially true on the Palestinian side, were as a reflection of past failures, President Arafat and the leaders of the mainstream Fatah movement appear to choosing to please the Palestinian public rather than encourage them to rethink worn out political positions, tactics and strategies. Statesmen have to tell people what they need to hear and not what they want to hear. If our leaders can display such courage, and political backbone, the public at large will follow them. Until then, people-based initiatives such as those spearheaded by Palestinians like Yaser Abed Rabo and Sari Nusseibeh will continue to take front stage.

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