How Israel preserves the PA
Reuel Marc Gerecht
Not long ago, I was talking to a Fatah official about Palestinian aspirations, especially his party’s sharp emotions about Hamas, the Palestinian fundamentalist movement that rules Gaza and would gladly overthrow the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. Fear, loathing, secular outrage (which may have been amplified to please Western ears), and a certain sadness about unrequited Palestinian fraternity in the face of Israeli oppression punctuated our conversation. When I finally tired of his urgent demand that America rectify Israeli transgressions or see violence rip the West Bank, I asked him how long he thought the Palestinian Authority could survive if Israel yanked its support to Fatah’s security apparatus. I suggested one month. He remonstrated: “We could probably last two.”
What has been lost, again, in Barack Obama’s final venting against Israel through his abstention in the United Nations Security Council resolution against all Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Jewish homes in east Jerusalem is how disconnected American foreign policy on this imbroglio has been from the larger issues riling the Middle East. The truth about Fatah’s security weaknesses is symptomatic of the truth about the Palestinians: They can exist as a non-Islamist polity only if Israel protects their attenuated nation-state. If the Jews pull back, then the militant Muslim faithful will probably recast the Palestinian identity, wiping away the secular Palestinian elite who have defined the Palestinian cause among Westerners since the Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organisation first started sparring with each other in 1964.
The Israelis have granted the West Bank Palestinians the opportunity to take a pass on the ongoing implosion of the Muslim Arab world. That pass also extends, with fewer guarantees, to the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, which could have a much harder time surviving with a triumphant Hamas on its border. We assume that East Bank Palestinians prefer Abdullah II, with his Palestinian wife, to fundamentalists from either bank. That might be wrong.
The Israeli pass may be conditional. It depends on whether Jerusalem wants to continue investing the manpower and wealth and absorbing the intensifying animadversions, ostracism and harassing lawsuits over their “occupation” of Palestinian lands: the very occupation that has allowed the Palestinian Authority and the PLO vision of a nation-state to survive. Mahmoud Abbas, the 81-year-old PLO chairman and head of the Palestinian Authority, loves to castigate Israel for denying his people nationhood. But it’s Israel’s stubborn refusal to make the territorial concessions that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry dream of that has prevented the inevitable diminution of Israel’s security prerogatives on the West Bank – the ones that keep Abbas and the Fatah clique in power.
Fatah’s men actually exist in the best of possible worlds: They enjoy undisputed mastery of Palestinian politics on the West Bank; they have established a perpetuating oligarchy; foreigners pay for their dominion; the Israelis rarely take credit for maintaining Fatah’s supremacy (which would further vitiate the group’s legitimacy), while the Palestinian Authority can lambast the Israelis for a wide variety of sins, most surreally blaming the Jewish state for the inability of the Palestinian people to come together. Abbas’ men can unofficially condone, if not encourage, low-level violence against Israelis; through credit by association, Palestinians knifing Israelis helps Fatah stay competitive with the Islamists. Even if violence worsened, the Israelis probably wouldn’t stop protecting Hamas’ principal foe, the only instrument Jerusalem has for keeping Islamic militancy at bay without deploying far more of the Israeli Defence Forces.
Israelis who deal with Palestinians intimately have no illusions about Fatah’s staying power if the Jewish state’s protective umbrella were removed. They have no illusions how much damage one man could do with a medium-weight, long-range mortar – and a Palestinian wouldn’t even have to target the Ben Gurion International Airport to wreak havoc – if Israel didn’t have total control over the West Bank’s highlands.
Israel and the United States have invested heavily in creating the biggest institution in the Palestinian Authority: Fatah’s police, internal-security, and paramilitary services. Americans, especially Americans who are fearful of Muslims voting, usually like to focus on “institution-building” as an alternative to supporting the “premature” development of democracy in Islamic lands.
The United States, with the Central Intelligence Agency in the lead, has probably invested tens of millions of dollars, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, in Fatah’s security services. In 2007, when Hamas dethroned Fatah in Gaza following the failure of the two organisations to resolve their differences after Hamas triumphed in 2005’s free parliamentary elections, the Islamists’ smaller paramilitary force quickly overran Fatah security units operated by the whiskey-loving Muhammad Dahlan, a native of Gaza, who had an extensive intelligence and brutal security network running through the Strip.
Dahlan had been a CIA favourite (he likely is still close to Langley). It’s a good guess that the clandestine service’s upper echelons in the Near East Division, like many in the Israeli security and intelligence services, would have bet that Dahlan had the upper hand on the Islamists – until it became obvious that Fatah’s forces lacked leadership and spirit. Fatah’s security personnel often look the part – the sunglasses, expensive Swiss watches, and dark German cars – and they certainly know how to torture their enemies. But they, like so much of the Palestinian elite who now live off international aid, have turned into fearful bourgeois who know the other side is hungrier, meaner, and uncompromised. However corrupt Hamas’ senior officials may have become in Gaza, and they might be very corrupt, the organisation does a vastly better job of hiding its acquisitiveness; its deeply religious, anti-Zionist mission remains real and crystal clear.
Fatah’s men have become noticeably distressed by the increasingly overt anti-Iranian alliance between Israel and the Sunni Gulf states. That alliance is undoubtedly limited: Saudi Arabia, a deeply conservative Islamic state that sees itself as the guardian of the faith, isn’t going to cooperate too openly with Israel against Iran, let alone officially recognise the Jewish state, which remains in the kingdom’s Wahhabi creed an insult to Muslim supremacy – to God’s dominion – in the Middle East. Riyadh’s royalty can be energetically hypocritical and pragmatic, but there are always religious reins on their behaviour. For the secular Fatah elite, however, the second Gulf war and the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Great Arab Revolt and the tidal wave of violence that has come in its wake, and the rise of Iran and its Arab Shi’ite militias have been an unmitigated disaster, since these events have demolished the centripetal eminence of the Palestinian cause among Arab Sunnis, especially in the Persian Gulf.
My senior Fatah official, annoyed by questions on the Syrian conflict, perhaps a more momentous cataclysm than the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, came close to yelling, “Look at us!” Caught in a dreamscape, President Obama and his Secretary of State are still gazing. Devoted both to left-wing politics, where a pro-Palestinian disposition has become almost de rigueur, and Washington’s peace-process obsession, they have retreated from the Middle Eastern chaos to the safe zone of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They may well believe they are doing the Jewish state an enormous favour by saving its liberal democracy from, as Obama’s former coordinator on the Middle East, Philip Gordon, recently put it in the New York Times, everything from “European boycotts to prosecutions by the International Criminal Court to the loss of support from American Jews uncomfortable with the prospect of perpetual Israeli rule over millions of disenfranchised Arabs.” Obama, Kerry, and Gordon, who blessed the American withdrawal from Iraq and watched hell descend on Syria, talk about Israel and the Arab world as if the Arab state system, dominated by secular dictators, wasn’t cracking up, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, great urban centres in ruin or decay, and Sunni and Shi’ite Islamists as the primary force reimagining the Middle East.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press, 2011), Know Thine Enemy: A Spy’s Journey into Revolutionary Iran (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997) and The Islamic Paradox: Shiite Clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists, and the Coming of Arab Democracy (AEI Press, 2004). © Weekly Standard (www.weeklystandard.com), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.