from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

"Soft Bigotry," Secretary Kerry, and the PLO

February 2, 2014

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Secretary of State Kerry continues to press forward in his negotiations with Israelis and Palestinians, seeking some sort of "framework" document that would be an acceptable basis for future negotiations. We’ve been here before: the "Roadmap" of 2003 was supposed to provide such a basis and was accepted--with reservations--by both sides. My guess is that Kerry will succeed, if success is defined as keeping both sides at the table.

But what if success is defined as moving the Palestinians closer to having a decent, democratic political structure that can lay the foundation for eventual statehood?

What has Kerry, and what has the Obama administration, demanded of the Israelis to move forward? At various times a freeze of all construction has been demanded, and for ten months prime minister Netanyahu complied. For this effort, which had a significant cost in Israel’s domestic politics, Israel and Netanyahu received no benefit. More recently, Israel has been pressured to release dozens of  convicted murderers from its prisons, at an even greater political cost. That cost was then increased several fold when the murderers were received by PLO chairman (and PA president) Abbas as honored citizens.

And what has been demanded of the Palestinians? What will be demanded as part of the Kerry proposals? In my view, the answer is nothing--nothing at all. In a recent trip to the region I found universal agreement that in the last year corruption in the PA has increased greatly. The United States has not reacted in any way, thus delivering the message to Abbas that we do not care. The reception given to the murderers is just one piece of the overall picture of glorifying terrorism and terrorists, which continues apace. This is what is called "incitement" in the diplomatic lingo, and like its predecessors (including the Bush administration) the Obama administration complains occasionally but does nothing about it. And it is worth noting that Abbas was elected president in January 2005, and is in that sense in the tenth year of his four year term. There are no serious plans for elections, and once again the United States does not seem to care.

So that’s the picture: in return for coming to the negotiating table, and now for staying at the table, we overlook everything else the PA/PLO does. We overlook the illegitimacy of the government, the glorification of terror, and the spreading corruption. The clear U.S. message is that nothing really counts but sitting down with Kerry and the Israelis. I have no doubt that whatever document Kerry produces will say something about "incitement" and perhaps even something about better "governance," a code word for reducing corruption.  And I have no doubt that six months later nothing will have changed. The Palestinians are not stupid and they can distinguish easily between real pressure and mere words.

President Bush once noted the "soft bigotry of low expectations" in our domestic context, and the term is useful here. For it is bigotry to believe that more cannot realistically be expected from the Palestinians. And it is very damaging to any hope for a decent, democratic, independent state some day. Neither the political culture nor the institutions of democracy can be built this way. That was the great error of the Clinton administration, which dealt with Yasser Arafat as if he would one day be the George Washington of Palestine instead of the corrupt terrorist he was. The error is being repeated now, as we ask Abbas for one thing only--to sit at the table--and overlook all else.

The irony here is that Abbas got his job as prime minister, in 2003, when the United States and the EU forced Arafat to create the post and fill it (and also put in Salam Fayyad as finance minister) because we came to believe that defining the borders of Palestine was not the prime goal. Instead, defining what would be within those borders was more important: was it to be a corrupt terrorist state, or one that was building toward a decent government under the rule of law? Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, Santayana famously said. Here we go again, drawing maps of border compromises when inside Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians are further from developing the institutions they need than they were when Barack Obama came to office.

 

 

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