Middle East Insight: Re-legitimizing the Palestinian Leadership: Is it possible and if so, how?

This is the first in a series of occasional commentaries and analyses coming from the Middle East Institute.

By Michael C. Hudson

Pity the poor Palestinian leadership!  As if things weren’t already bad enough for them, mired in that swamp known as the ‘peace process,’ now Al Jazeera has pulled the plug on a trove of confidential documents that do not exactly attest to their negotiating skill.  A leak of documents leads to a leak of legitimacy.

In fairness, the Palestinians have been dealt a weak hand.  Israel is unified, prosperous, secure and unconditionally supported by the United States.  The Palestinians are beleaguered: under siege in Gaza and under occupation in the West Bank.  They are not well served by the Arab governments and not taken seriously by the U.S.  To be sure, their cause is just and they enjoy widespread international support, but as realist scholars remind us ‘might’ usually trumps ‘right.’   So we should not be expecting miracles from Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues.

Nevertheless, Palestinians have a right to expect their leaders not to trade away fundamental principles without consulting their followers or obtaining significant benefits.  But the Palestine Papers indicate that the Palestinian negotiators were ready to concede the fundamental right of return for Palestinian refugees and control of Arab East Jerusalem and even authority over the Muslim holy places to others for minor concessions such as a freeze on settlement building, when the very existence of settlements should be the issue.  Worse still, the evidence that the Fatah-dominated leadership of the Palestinian Authority colluded with the Israelis in attacking—and even assassinating—Hamas officials, and that their leaders criticized the Egyptians for insufficient diligence in their collaboration with Israel to seal the Egypt-Gaza border might lead ordinary Palestinians to wonder which side their leadership was actually on. 

No durable settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can come about without legitimate Palestinian leaders.  Only strong, wise and credible leaders can negotiate and ‘sell’ the compromises that may be necessary for a negotiated solution.  But can the PA-PLO leadership now restore its tattered legitimacy?   To ascertain the bases of legitimacy (and illegitimacy) it may be useful to look back at the history of the Palestinian national movement.   This is a complex story but two dynamics stand out clearly.  First, the most credible leaders have been legitimized from within the Palestinian community, but they have lost legitimacy the more they ingratiate themselves with external actors.  Second, the most effective legitimacy formula, if you will, combines resistance with what we might call an Islamic-inflected discourse of territorial nationalism.  

During the British mandate period the most effective leaders were those who stood up most firmly against the occupation: the Husseinis were more effective than the Nashashibis.  Later, when Hajj Amin al-Husseini aligned himself with Nazi Germany, his star faded.  The British vilified Shaykh Izzidine al-Qassam as a gang-leader and a terrorist during the violent events of 1936-39, but he enjoyed popular support as a resistance leader fighting for homeland and Islam.   In the 1960s when the Palestinian resistance movement began to take shape, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement gained traction both for ‘armed struggle,’ in contrast to most of the Arab regimes, and for a certain affinity with political Islam.  By comparison, the Palestine Liberation Organization, newly created by those Arab regimes to ‘manage’ the Palestine issue, was initially suspect, as was its first president, Ahmad Shukairy.  One of the reasons, perhaps, that the ‘progressive’ left wing of the Palestinian resistance failed to garner the broad base of support enjoyed by Arafat was its relatively secular Marxist discourse. 

 Arafat and his Fatah colleagues wove their way through the thickets of Arab and international politics, gradually paving the way and preparing the Palestinian people for their ‘historic compromise’ of a two-state solution, and the acceptance of only 22 percent of historic Palestine.   Finally, reluctantly buying into the ‘Oslo process,’ Arafat and Fatah began to lose their luster as their Israeli and international partners indefinitely delayed consideration of the key ‘final status’ issues (Jerusalem, refugees, borders, etc.) in favor of short-term compromises.  And at the end of the day Arafat, old and sick, was besieged in his Ramallah compound, deprived of political victory and tarnished by corruption and administrative mismanagement. 

But compared to the current leadership, Arafat is probably looking better these days.  For with all of his many flaws he resisted US-Israeli pressures at Camp David in 2000 to abandon the right of return for an ill-defined territorial settlement.   He never completely capitulated to external pressures and he would not cede the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem.   Compare that with the words of the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, as revealed in the Palestine Papers: “It is no secret that on our map we proposed we are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim in history.”

How will history evaluate these Palestinian leaders?  On a spectrum of ‘knaves’ to ‘fools’ they will probably be closer to the latter.  These are all honorable men, no doubt; and they must be sincerely frustrated both about their failure to advance their cause under enormously unfavorable conditions and also to be vilified as virtual traitors in light of the recent revelations.  Small comfort to them or to Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims in general that their Israeli adversaries were unyielding and their American ‘honest brokers’ were anything but honest.   Because they have become disconnected from the broad swath of Palestinian public opinion and are perceived as perhaps unwilling collaborators with their occupier, they are undermining their legitimacy.  Moreover, as has regularly happened in the past, alternative leaderships are emerging.  Hamas and other Islamist groups enjoy substantial though far from universal popular support, while younger elements in Fatah and the leftist-nationalist groups are disillusioned with the PA leaders whose main support now seems to lie in Washington, somewhere between the White House and the World Bank. 

The Palestinians are living through one of the worst moments in their history.  But if an effective leadership is to be constructed, history suggests that it must be rooted in popular support; that means that authentic Islamist currents must be represented along with other political tendencies.  And it must have the backbone and dignity to insist on principles while showing readiness to negotiate a just solution without violence. 

Professor Michael C. Hudson is the Director of the Middle East Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

All Roads Lead to Istanbul

Turkey is more popular now than it has been since the Ottoman Empire. But can it please all of its new friends at the same time?




ANKARA, Turkey – It’s great to be Turkey just now. The economy, barely scathed by the global recession, grew 11.7 percent in the first quarter of this year, and 10.3 percent in the second.  Like the Ottoman Empire reborn, Turkey has sponsored a visa-free zone with Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, and is moving toward creating a free trade zone as well. And Turkey is a force not just in its neighborhood but, increasingly, in the world. It’s the next president of the Council of Europe, an observer of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and a new friend of ASEAN and Mercosur. 


And the world is beating a path to its doorstep: When I was in Ankara this week, the Sudanese foreign minister was in town; the French, the Austrians, and the Poles had just visited. Senior Iraqi politicians were making regular pilgrimages. Turkey has become a net exporter of diplomatic services.


“For the first time,” says Selim Yenel, the highly Americanized deputy undersecretary of foreign affairs responsible for relations with Washington, “they’re asking us for advice.”


Like its fellow emerging powers Brazil and South Africa, Turkey was once a right-wing state that the West could safely pocket during the Cold War. And like these countries, the Turks now have the self-confidence to feel that they no longer need belong to anyone. Such states are now a force unto themselves, as Turkey and Brazil demonstrated — to Washington’s chagrin — when they reached a deal with Iran this past May to ensure that Tehran would not produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel. Intriguingly, Turkey, Brazil, and Nigeria currently serve on the U.N. Security Council, and South Africa and India will next year — a murderers’ row of emerging powers, and a glimpse of a post-hegemonic, polycentric world.


But diplomatically, Turkey matters more than the others do. Among them, only Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim and located in the Middle East, within hailing distance of practically every crisis zone on the planet. And thus the question of what kind of force Turkey will be matters more as well. Turkish diplomats, well aware that the eyes of the world are on them, are quick to give assurances that they are a liberal, secular, and, above all, responsible influence in their neighborhood and beyond.


The question arises, of course, because of the events of this past spring, when, in dismayingly rapid succession, Turkey delivered the unwanted gift of the Iranian deal and voted against a U.S.-sponsored U.N. resolution to impose sanctions on Iran — and then erupted in outrage when Israeli commandos, determined to stop a flotilla sailing from Turkey to Gaza, killed eight Turkish citizens in the course of a terribly botched operation. The accident of timing left the toxic impression that Turkey viewed Iran as a friend and Israel as an enemy. Turkey’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors” seemed to mean that it was prepared to alienate its old friends in the West in order to mollify countries in its own backyard, including the worst among them. The New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman wrote that Turkey seems intent on “joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel.”


I think that’s a bum rap. On Israel, virtually everyone I’ve spoken to here, including harsh critics of the ruling AKP, has said that popular opinion was so outraged by the event — the first time since the Ottomans, as one is constantly told, that Turkish civilians had ever been killed by a foreign army — that no government could have preserved its popular legitimacy without demanding an apology (though whether leading figures had to describe the incident as state terrorism is another matter). Turkey is still waiting for that apology. As for Iran, it’s clear that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his team really did believe that the West would welcome the deal they struck, by which Iran would agree to transfer 1,200 kilograms of uranium out of the country to be enriched for civilian purposes. The fact that they were wrong probably says as much about U.S. President Barack Obama’s ambivalence about engaging Iran as it does about Turkish tone-deafness or disingenuousness.   


Still, Turkish officials recognize that they’ve jeopardized their emerging brand identity and have some serious repair work to do. “We’ve got to find something flashy,” Yenel told me. Maybe Turkey could persuade Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier? (Good luck with that.) Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has backed off on his apparent obsession with Gaza and Israel’s perfidy, and a U.N. investigative panel may deliver a definitive judgment on the flotilla incident in early 2011 (compelling an Israeli apology, Turkey hopes).


It’s a caricature to say that Turkey has chosen the Middle East, or Islam, over the West. Turkey’s aspiration for full membership in the club of the West, including the European Union, is still a driving force. But Turkey aspires to many things, and some may contradict each other. The country wants to be a regional power in a region deeply suspicious of the West, of Israel, and of the United States; a Sunni power acting as a broker for Sunnis in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere; a charter member of the new nexus of emerging powers around the world; and a dependable ally of the West. When Turkey is forced to choose among these roles, the neighborhood tends to win out, and that’s when you get votes against sanctions on Iran. At this week’s NATO summit in Brussels, for instance, Davutoglu has expressed skepticism about missile defense, because any such system would be aimed at countries like Iran and Syria, which Turkey declines to characterize as threats.


Turkish officials insist that they embrace the “universal values” that drive public discourse, if not necessarily policy, in the West. But they seem to give their Muslim brothers a pass on human rights. Erdogan notoriously exonerated Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir by saying “A Muslim can never commit genocide.” Erdogan also publicly congratulated Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his victory in the 2009 election, widely condemned elsewhere as grossly rigged. Turkish diplomats say that they use tough language in private — but autocratic regimes shrug off private recriminations.


Unlike China or even India, Turkey does not resort to the language of “sovereignty” when defending abusive regimes — it takes the “Western” view of international law. Rather, its dilemma has to do with its neighborhood: You can’t be a regional leader in the Middle East if you take human rights too seriously. But the problem might also have to do with the unresolved state of Turkey’s own democracy. Eight years after Erdogan gained power, secular Turks continue to doubt his commitment, and that of the ruling AKP, to human rights, tolerance, and the rule of law. Although many of the people I spoke to saw the country’s recent constitutional referendum — which among other things reduced the power of the army over the judiciary — as a further consolidation of Turkish democracy, plenty of others viewed it as a dangerous ploy by the AKP to increase its control over the state. Secular Turks fear that the country is becoming steadily more conservative — certainly in the Anatolian heartland, if not yet in the big cities.


From the time of Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has been committed to its “European vocation.” But Ataturk was a modernizer, not a liberal; one of his slogans was “For the people, despite the people.” And if Kemalist secularism was not a formula for European-style liberal individualism, it’s scarcely clear that the AKP’s market-oriented moderate Islamic restoration is, either. Turkey’s democracy is not yet “consolidated,” as political scientists put it.


Turkey is a success story that the West has every reason to welcome. The image of moderation and tolerant cosmopolitanism that it offers to Middle Eastern audiences contributes not only to Turkish soft power but to global peace and security, at least in the long run. That’s already a pretty solid record. But Turkey is not content with being the brightest star in its benighted neighborhood; it wants to play on the world stage. And that ambition may force Turkey to find a new balance among its competing identities.


James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of, most recently, The Freedom Agenda. “Terms of Engagement,” his column for ForeignPolicy.com, runs weekly.

Foreign Policy, Washington   –   15 Oct 10

Table Talk with Michael Hudson: Peace remains elusive in Mid-East

Editor’s Choice

September 21, 2010
Peace remains elusive in Mid-East

By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Writer
Prof Hudson says there is a disjunction between the Arab world’s self-perpetuating political systems and the people who are underneath them, who don’t really like it but can’t do much about it. However, there are currents in civil society challenging this and the rise of new media has opened up the public space a lot. So things are not entirely static.
STUDYING political modernisation at Yale University in the 1960s, the young Michael Hudson was required to spend time in a country that was deeply divided ethnically. His options were Lebanon, Malaysia or Nigeria. He plumped for Lebanon, and struck academic gold because it proved to be ‘a place where all the political forces of the Middle East competed with one another, and so I got sucked into the Arab-Israeli conflict and inter-Arab politics’.
Today, Professor Hudson, 72, is a world authority on Lebanese politics as well as on other hot-button issues in the region. In 1975, he co-founded Georgetown University’s Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies in Washington, and steered it for 35 years. He left all that to become director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.
A widower with two daughters, he met me earlier this month to tell me why the latest round of peace talks between Israel and Palestine will go nowhere, and more:
 How do you plan to contribute to Singaporeans’ understanding of the Middle East?
My Singaporean colleagues made it very clear to me that they felt the Middle East has not figured very prominently in the educational systems here, and even specialised knowledge of that region was rather limited. So one of the points I made in discussions with them was that if you’re looking to develop a research institute that offers advice, that advice is best informed by academic scholarship.
Can academics in ivory towers offer better advice than observers on the ground?
To put it bluntly, many in the academic community who have studied the Middle East have long taken a very dismissive view of policy research in the region. They find such research often superficial, poorly informed and unreliable because it depends on the anecdotal ‘I was there’ experience, which can be valuable but might be misleading. Whereas policy researchers say: ‘These academics spend all their time engaging in complicated studies of unimportant things which mean nothing to us.’ I’m exaggerating the gap, but you really need the academics if you want to convey the complexities.
What can they see that others can’t?
Well, take Islam and terrorism: many American policy researchers tend not to understand the nature and depth of religious commitment and identity, and see Middle Eastern societies as monolithically religious and so vulnerable to manipulation by extremists… If you don’t understand how Islam plays out in their lives, it’s hard for you to gauge how extremists use Islamist discourse for particular ends.
Is that lack of understanding the result of ignorance or complacency?
If you are in the United States, where Middle East initiatives are highly politicised… there will be those driven by dark and simplistic partisan views to demonise Islam and paint all Muslims with the same brush. But you don’t want to leave that understanding to the terrorism experts or even theologians. You need sociologists, anthropologists, cultural historians and political scientists to look at how Islam actually functions in society.
I don’t think it’s the role of the researcher to be an apologist for Islam, but it’s pretty evident what the policy implications are of an imperfect understanding of Islam. For example, there’s a resurgence of Islamophobia in the US that’s opened a Pandora’s Box of prejudice… When this happens, you’re attacking someone’s very identity and culture, and that’s a big problem.
Some argue that Arab/Muslim communities in general tend to be insular, lack initiative and are slow to grow.
I don’t agree with that. The Muslim world in general is a very complicated place and there’s a lot of variety in it… There has been a very big debate among Middle East scholars over the last 25 years about how to study and characterise The Other, as opposed to non-Muslim Westerners. The late Edward Said’s book, Orientalism, changed the way the informed public think about Islam, saying that Westerners were really exporting their own prejudices and identifying The Other in a very superficial, incomplete and pejorative way. So most academic scholarship on Islam is now free of such prejudice. But public perceptions of early stereotypes still exist.
But do they exist for good reasons?
You’re raising a very important point. It’s true that Muslim communities are not doing so well in many ways, but in many other ways, they’re doing quite well indeed – such as in Lebanon and the Gulf states. There’s also a great deal of self-criticism going on now in the Muslim world. But it’s true that it could grow more, as shown in the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Reports, which were put together by Arab researchers.
Public opinion data also shows that Muslims in Arab countries value democracy, but their political systems have not been particularly good at delivering that. But to say that’s just because they are Muslims misses the larger point that in mainstream Islam one is enjoined to work hard, cooperate and treasure family, which is consistent with humanistic norms.
What’s the cost of its weak leadership?
There’s a disjunction between the region’s self-perpetuating political systems and the people who are underneath them, who don’t really like it but can’t do much about it because these governments have got the police and all that. So that’s a real concern. Still, there are currents in Middle Eastern civil society challenging this and the rise of new media has opened up the public space a lot. So things are not entirely static.
But it’s all static on its No. 1 problem, Israel and Palestine.
It’s certainly the most durable of the many conflicts in the region. It’s also the most important one because it fuels all sorts of extremism elsewhere in the region. So why don’t things move? Because Israel, with the almost unlimited backing of the US, does not feel inclined to make concessions. I’d be surprised if the latest effort to broker peace really brings about a breakthrough.
Has US President Barack Obama lost the plot on that?
Yes. At the beginning of his term, he was on the right track. He said this issue was important and tried to reach out to the Muslim world in his speech in Cairo over a year ago. He said the Israeli-Palestinian problem was part of the problem, and Israel had to stop building and reinforcing its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu simply stood up to him and said: ‘No, we won’t.’ And Mr Obama blinked and backed off on what had been a proper, balanced approach.
Should the Middle East enlist emerging powers to broker a breakthrough on this?
This is a good question that can be addressed by the realist theory of international politics, which holds that power is the name of the game. And the US can apply more military power than any other country in this situation. Can China or India project such power? The answer is no and they’ve no compelling interest to do so anyway.
So can the Israeli-Palestinian problem ever be solved?
At the moment, I don’t see diplomacy bringing a clear end to this… There’s been a debate that the proper solution is a two-state one, but a good many Palestinians now want a one-state solution because how can you have a proper state when it’s divided into little enclaves and surrounded by Israeli settlers and troops?
(The Straits Times, 21 September 2010)

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