Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Arab Left, Right and Wrong

The Op-Ed which appeared in the Lebanese Daily Star entitled ”Defend the Palestinian cause against its most unreasonable supporters” by Hussien Ibish was a synopsis of a lengthier issue paper prepared for the American Task Force on Palestine. The following is a response to the issue paper and the Op-Ed, both of which were fundamentally flawed in their approach, analysis and conclusions.

The argument laid out by Ibish, particularly in the issue paper, is errant because is it founded on two critical conceptual errors. The first error, typical of some interest groups like the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), is the assumption that the dynamics of the Palestinian political struggle (qadiyeh) is something limited to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The second error, which is clearly present throughout Mr. Ibish’s writing, is the assumption that the Palestinian political spectrum revolves around (or should revolve around) domestic attitudes and social issues. Both these errors could not be further from the truth and because of these conceptual flaws Ibish’s analysis and conclusions are likewise incorrect.

Ibish is perplexed by what seems to him to be an unlikely alliance between what he calls the Arab Left and the Muslim Right. He wonders how it is possible that Leftys like Asad Abu Khalil and Ali Abu Nimah can defend a party like the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas). Of course this would seem problematic if the Palestinian political spectrum is divided on social agendas. The reality is though that the Palestinian political spectrum is divided by attitudes toward Israel. There is the right end of the spectrum which is inherently distrusting of Israel and opposed to negotiated agreements and the left end which willingly negotiates (perhaps naively so) with Israel. The spectrum is not split on domestic or social issues and the mere suggestion of such a thing is an example of the failure to understand the conflict’s politics. If Edward Said were alive today one can only wonder about the scathing critique he would luanch at what seems to be such an orientalist analysis.

Perhaps Ibish’s motivation for painting such a picture is to navigate himself and the ATFP to the center. This attempt becomes even more apparent in the second half of the issue paper where he criticizes the so-called Arab left of taking sides and then does so himself, largely by omitting important information. For example he denounces Hamas’ claims to democratic legitimacy and lauds Mahmoud Abbas’ 63% victory in 2005 all while conveniently neglecting to mention that Abbas ran largely unopposed by serious competition in a period of extreme confusion in Palestinian political history after the death of Yasser Arafat. Secondly, while he was quick to accuse Hamas of being unprepared to govern he ignores that fact that Fateh was clearly unprepared to serve the Palestinian people as the second most powerful party in the government. Ibish points out Hamas’ failures since taking control of the government but omits the fact that Fateh refused to join a unity government.

That last point is an extremely important one. Fateh’s refusal to join a unity government immediately after Hamas’ victory in January 2006 sent the tone of the dialogue between the two parties from that point forward. The Palestinians, for the first time in history, had the opportunity to create a government that represents Islamists and secularists. It could have been the most representative and inclusive government in the Arab world. It could have been a critical moment in the history of the Arab world which led to true representation and not autocracy. It could have been a moment where a complete Palestinian national dialogue was created. It could have been....but it was not.

While I agree with Hussien Ibish that ending the occupation must be the primary objective of the Palestinian cause now and that internal division is only hurting this effort, I do not agree that the end of the occupation will bring a solution to the Palestinian problem. This is perhaps the divide on the Palestinian spectrum. There are those who see the issue being resolved after the occupation ends (if not immediately so, soon after) and those like myself, and perhaps others which Ibish calls the “Arab Left”, who believe that the end of the occupation is critical but only the first step in resolving the Palestinian problem.

Consistently, interest groups like the ATFP or government agencies like the U.S. State Department believe the politics and agenda of the Palestinian issue should be limited to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The reality however is that the Palestinian issue is deeper, both historically and territorially, than 1967. The failure to understand this point, and to strategize based on it, is the inherent acceptance of a position of weakness. The Palestinian issue can only be resolved if the equation is shifted to maximize the Palestinian position. Until then the real Arab Left will waste away while promoting negotiations with the occupier.

No comments: