The Future of Fatah / Preventing military conflict with Iran
Aug 3, 2012
August 3, 2012
Number 08/12 #01
This Update features two pieces of analysis which discuss worrying signs for the secular nationalist Fatah movement that dominates the Palestinian Authority – emanating from both current Middle East trends, as well as developments in the West Bank itself.
First up is academic expert and recent visitor to Australia Dr. Jonathan Spyer, who sees the entire Palestinian nationalist movement as looking very vulnerable to the Islamist trends which are eclipsing Arab nationalist regimes across the Middle East. He argues that the central dilemma of the movement, an inability to achieve its maximalist goal of Israel’s destruction, combined with a worldview that makes the compromises needed for a two-state peace impossible, has weakened the Palestinian nationalist idea to the point where the PA must now rely on Israeli forces as its protector against its Islamist rivals. He further argues that sadly, the fading of this movement merely means that maximalist demands over Palestine are simply being inherited and fit into the agendas of the new Islamist forces in the Middle East, together with those of their Western supporters. For Spyer’s argument in full, CLICK HERE.
Next up, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi a British graduate student and associate of the Middle East forum, looks in more detail at the signs in the West Bank that things may not be stable for the Palestinian Authority in the near future. He discusses Israeli intelligence analysis predicting the collapse of PA security forces without external support, demonstrators who demand an “intifada” against PA corruption, and fundamental contradictions between the PA”s public rhetoric and private behaviour which is bound to create tensions and public dissatisfaction. He then goes on to summarise evidence that the financial and economic situation for the PA is only likely to worsen – creating even more reason for public anger and dissatisfaction. For the rest of al-Tamimi’s analysis, CLICK HERE. More on the financial problems and negative economic outlook for the PA is here and here – though Israel is trying to assist and has negotiated a new agreement on trade and taxes with the PA. Meanwhile, veteran Israeli- Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh says the financial squeeze is a big part of the explanation for PA President Abbas’s decision to go back to the UN to seek unilateral recognition later this year.
Finally, renowned American strategic analysts Anthony Cordesman offers his views on the need to more credibly signal to the Iranians that a military strike will eventually result if a deal cannot be reached to halt Iran’s rush toward nuclear weapons – arguing doing this is the key to reducing the risks of inadvertent war in the shorter term. He offers a three point strategy – 1. setting out less ambiguous “red lines” concerning what would trigger a military strike; 2. Signalling to the Iranian regime, by discussing a variety of plans for military action, that it has “no successful options” for attempting to defend itself against an American military strike; and 3. Preparing with others a package of “incentives”, involving an end to sanctions, as well as trade and economic concession and nuclear fuel from Russia, that would allow “for Iran to accept a negotiated solution in ways that allow it to…save face.” For all the details, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- An excellent summary of current data on how Iran is quickly advancing advancing to nuclear threshold status. However, a report says that sanctions are slowing or stopping Iran’s missile development efforts.
- A good summary of what is known about how sanctions are affecting the Iranian economy.
Following US presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel last week (see Ahron Shapiro’s analysis, also linked below), noted US media analysts Howard Kurtz analyses the genesis of a claim that Romney committed a gaffe in saying “culture matters” when discussing the differing economic outcomes in Israel and the Palestinian territories – as well as the context for Romney’s statement. Here is Mitt Romney’s own explanation of why he believes culture does matter in all economic outcomes.
- Some comment supporting the point Romney was making with respect to economic differences between Israel and the Palestinians from Daniel Mandel, David Frum, John Podhoretz, Max Boot and Bret Stephens.
- A stunning, horrifying map over time of the Syrian death toll.
- Veteran Australian Jewish leader Isi Leibler writes in the Jerusalem Post about the history of Australia-Israel relations.
- Federal Labor MP Michael Danby takes on some myths being spread by those BDS protesters targeting Max Brenner chocolate shops.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Ahron Shapiro offers a detailed evaluation of US presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel last weekend.
- Israeli innovation in the toilet… and everywhere else.
- A new incitement watch highlights Hamas holocaust denial and an Israeli Arab MP who supports terror attacks against her countrymen.
- A post on Hamas’ growing links with and high hopes for Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood government – plus another on the strange kerfuffle over a letter Egyptian President Morsi sent – or perhaps didn’t send – to Israeli President Peres.
- A post highlights a new book review about Ben-Gurion which includes some important home truths about Israel’s foundation.
- Posts on Israel’s multicultural Olympic team, and on the significance for the Olympic movement of the refusal to honour the victims of the Munich massacre with a minute’s silence, despite a huge international outcry.
jonathanspyer.com, July 27, 2012
There is a strong case for saying that the Fatah-led Palestinian national movement, as we have known it from the late 60s onward, is fading from the scene.
But while in practical terms the Palestinian national movement is an increasing irrelevance, the symbolic cause of Palestine nevertheless retains great emotional appeal both for the Muslim world as a whole and for a wide spectrum of western leftists. The result is that a new, loose, global, Islamist-led movement is emerging in its stead to carry the Palestinian banner.
The failed peace process of the 1990s indicated the central dilemma for the Palestinian national movement. It was not strong enough to achieve its maximum goal – of destroying what it regarded as the illegitimate state of Israel. At the same time, with the defeat of Zionism at the very center of its view of the world, it proved incapable of making the compromises necessary for a peaceful partition of the disputed area.
Following Yasir Arafat’s death in 2004, the Palestinian unity which he had created and bequeathed to his people did not long survive.
The 2007 split between Arafat’s Fatah and the Palestinian Islamists of Hamas now has the look of permanence about it.
Hamas is entrenched in its Gaza fiefdom. As a branch of the Muslim brotherhood, its natural partner in the neighbourhood is the Muslim Brotherhood ascendancy in adjacent Egypt, rather than its Ramallah based secular rivals.
As for Fatah, it is the local representative of the rotting secular Arab nationalist movements and regimes which are currently being eclipsed.
It should be noted that the ‘Arab spring’, in terms of successfully toppled regimes, has brought down only secular Arab nationalist regimes of this type. Fatah and the PLO belong to the same era, and the same essential outlook, as the officers’ regime in Egypt, and the Ba’athi regime in Syria, and the other examples of this type which are now exiting the stage of history.
Irony of ironies, the element keeping the Fatah-PLO rulers in Ramallah safe from their Islamist opponents in their West Bank fiefdom is the army of their most hated enemies. Today, the only thing standing between the Palestinian Authority leadership and the fate of Bin-Ali, Mubarak, Ghadaffi and the rest is the Israel Defense Forces.
So the Palestinian national movement has divided into two. The more vital, Islamist element – Hamas – is busy building an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It controls a sovereign space, outside of Israeli occupation, in which it is building a repressive prototype of Muslim Brotherhood rule. It remains theoretically committed to the destruction of Israel, but in real terms spends its main energies today ruling Gaza.
The remaining Ramallah-based Fatah authority, meanwhile, administers over the lives of 95% of the 2.4 million Palestinian Arab inhabitants of the West Bank, but in a situation of only partial sovereignty. It is safe from Hamas for as long as the implicit threat of Israeli intervention remains. It remains unable to pursue a successful negotiation with Israel because of its adherence to the old shibboleths of the 1960s and 70s vis a vis the ‘right of return.’ Of course, it also has no credible military option against the Jewish state, which is its protector.
Nor is old-style Palestinian nationalism faring any better among the populations living under Israeli rule.
The so-called ‘Palestinian-Israelis’ may vote for nationalist Knesset candidates, but they reject with horror any suggestion that their areas might come under Palestinian Authority rule. In real life, they much prefer the company of the Zionists to their fellow Palestinian nationalists. Understandably so.
The Arabs of Jerusalem, too, are seeking Israeli citizenship in increasing numbers.
Divided, with no strategy for reunification, or for victory, or for compromise. This is the current state of Palestinian politics.
And yet. A bright spot on the horizon remains for all those who still hope for Palestinian victory over Israel. At the very time that the actually existing Palestinian national movement faces a historic nadir, ‘Palestine’ as an idea has made great inroads into the public mind in the west. Particularly, but not only, in western Europe.
The Jewish state’s moorings as part of the western democratic world are more fragile than they were thirty years ago. Fervent anti-Zionism, sometimes shading into open anti-Semitism is closer to the western European mainstream discussion than at any time in the last half century. Israel’s fight against ‘delegitimization’ is not an imaginary struggle.
And of course the rising Islamist elements coming to the fore in the Arab world also despise Jews and reject Israel’s right to exist, no less fervently than did their Arab nationalist predecessors.
These trends are coalescing into a new challenge to Israel. A bizarre alliance of Islamists speaking the rhetoric of human rights, and western leftists dazzled and charmed by Islamist potency and fervor.
This new trend looks set to inherit. But, while waving the banner of Palestine, it is not an independent, coherent Palestinian Arab movement. Rather, it brings together a complex welter of different states (Iran, Turkey, Qatar, perhaps soon MB-led Egypt), their clients and proxies (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizballah, the IHH, the international Muslim Brotherhood, the al-Jazeera satellite channel) and their supporters in the broader Islamic world and the international left.
The old Fatah-led Palestinian national movement, meanwhile, is clinically dead, but maintained artificially – by US and European taxpayers’ money, and by the armed forces of the Jewish state that it came into being in order to destroy.
So is the Palestinian national movement dying? The answer is yes. But it is being replaced by a new phenomenon perhaps best described as a global, Islamist-led campaign for the nullifying of Jewish sovereignty.
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by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
The American Spectator, August 2, 2012
Could we soon begin to see the end of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a coherent Palestinian national movement? There is much evidence that appears to point in that direction.
To begin with, it is apparent that there is a deep contradiction in the stance of Fatah and the PA. As Avi Issacharoff notes, they feel a need to glorify terrorists such as Dalal Mughrabi, who was one of the perpetrators of a massacre in 1978 that killed 37 Israelis.
At the same time, the security forces maintained by the Fatah-led PA continue their successful and close working relationship with the IDF, begun in the summer of 2007, to prevent the same sort of militant operations that have been idealized in Palestinian media and culture in the West Bank as much as in Gaza.
In a similar vein, the Fatah and PA leadership promises the population an inalienable “right of return” to Israel proper, but disclosures like the “Palestine Papers” show that in private discussions with Israeli government officials, Palestinian negotiators have declared willingness to compromise on these issues.
For how long can these essentially absurd positions be maintained? Issacharoff further points out: “Quite a lot of Israeli security officials are warning that without a political horizon, the Palestinian security forces would eventually collapse.”
This scenario — together with the demise of Fatah and the PA — is hardly implausible when one considers other pressures weighing down on the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.
As Salam Fayyad indicated to Donald Macintyre in a recent interview for the Independent, one of the consequences of the wider regional unrest has been the increasing marginalization of the Palestinian cause, such that the Palestinian leadership is traveling on a “path of growing untenability.”
Indeed, the PA Prime Minister made his anxieties clear, declaring that “when you cease to become a source of credible and convincing answers to your people… that is really a danger zone. I don’t have to speculate whether we will have an intifada today or tomorrow or the day after tomorrow…because sooner or later you [will] become completely politically untenable.”
The talk of an “intifada” here is not one of an armed struggle against Israel, but against the PA itself. In fact, National Public Radio (NPR) recently reported on a minor protest at the Kalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank, but the target of the demonstrators’ anger was PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
As an anonymous protester who attended the rally put it, “I think there will be an intifada, or uprising, not against the Israelis, but against Abbas and the corrupt people around him.”
Commentators like Michael Weiss have hailed the state-building program spearheaded by Fayyad, and have drawn attention to the economic benefits experienced in Ramallah, which currently hosts a growing communications technology industry that now accounts for more than 5% of the Palestinian economy.
A more sobering picture is offered by the Palestinian academic Bashir Rayes, who told NPR that unemployment in the West Bank currently stands at 24 or 25 percent. Meanwhile, the PA is currently facing a financial crisis since it is unable to pay in full government employee salaries that amount to $200 million on a monthly basis.
Coming back to the interview conducted by Macintyre, it should be noted that the financial crisis is referred to as a “function of a distracted international community.”
This highlights a central problem with the PA’s economy: namely, a massive dependence on foreign aid. It is therefore no surprise that Rayes also pointed out to NPR that the PA lacks a real economic plan to stimulate growth and is simply creating government jobs it cannot afford.
Yes, as a World Bank report notes, Israeli restrictions do hinder Palestinian private sector growth significantly, but it is clear that there has been a good degree of mismanagement on the part of the Palestinian leadership, and a growing number of Palestinians in the West Bank are becoming aware of this fact.
A Palestinian uprising directed at Fatah and the PA in the West Bank — rather than Israel — is a significant possibility in the near future. Since such a development could lead to the collapse of the Palestinian security forces, a “third intifada” poses a security risk to Israel, even if Israelis are not the primary targets of protestors’ grievances.
At the minimum, one could expect the fragmentation of Fatah and the PA, with the emergence of factions that are more overtly rejectionist and hostile to Israel.
Since, as Jonathan Spyer notes, the “Arab Spring” is effectively leading to the demise of Arab nationalist regimes, and Fatah represents an Arab nationalist outlook, the new factions could well take on a more pan-Islamist flavor, hoping to secure the support of the likes of Qatar, which has been undeniably pursuing a pro-Sunni Islamist agenda, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which has been cementing ties with Hamas in Gaza, with the result that restrictions on the border crossing at Rafah have been eased.
Indeed, according to one Hamas official, Gaza could soon become connected to Egypt’s electricity grid and natural gas pipeline. This illustrates an ever-growing divide between the West Bank and Gaza in contrast to the agreement on paper for a unity government between Hamas and Fatah. While Hamas has consolidated its power in Gaza, Fatah and the PA find themselves on increasingly shaky foundations. In short, the traditional Palestinian national movement looks set to become moribund.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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There are times when the best way to prevent war is to clearly communicate that it is possible. No one can now calculate the odds of a serious conflict in the Gulf, or preventive strikes on Iran, or how the two might interact. The fact is, however, that negotiations are not yet making clear progress, there is a steady rise in tensions and military readiness in the Gulf, the United States is enforcing still more sanctions on Iran, and the last week has seen Israel’s leaders become involved in new debates over the timing and prospects of preventive strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
No one may want war, and there may be good rational reasons for all sides to avoid it. The fact remains, however, that tensions are rising, and the risk of miscalculation is growing. Moreover, it is not clear that Iran truly understands the growing risk it faces that years of Israeli and U.S. warnings can turn into action.
Some talk about a “Sarajevo” or “Guns of August” scenario and a clash or incident followed by unintended escalation to a large-scale conflict. Some talk about Israel reaching its own redlines for military action, long before the United States and its allies, and acting unilaterally, knowing that it may trigger a far larger conflict and one where Iran may suffer far more from the escalation that follows than from Israeli action alone. It is equally possible, however, that war can come from the same conditions that helped trigger World War II—years of negotiations and threats, where the threats failed to be taken seriously until war become all too real.
The U.S. election has added to the ambiguity. There does not seem to be any real difference between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney on this issue, and both parties in Congress seem to support a military option as a last resort. Political maneuvering and opportunism does, however, raise tensions, while the administration’s efforts to damp tensions down may make Iran feel that the threats growing out of U.S. politics are beginning to seem hollow.
The Israeli debate may have the same impact. On the one hand, some argue that the campaign is the right time for Israel to strike because no candidate can afford not to support Israel. On the other hand, the Israeli press keeps reporting that senior Israeli officers and intelligence experts oppose any Israeli strike and feel it might be ineffective. Once again, the net effect is to raise tensions in the region, while possibly undercutting Iranian perceptions of the risk of war.
Other wild cards add to the mix. Iran’s buildup of asymmetric warfare capabilities and missile forces has steadily raised the concerns of its neighbors, who increasingly fear Iran’s nuclear developments as much as Israel. The Syrian crisis has led to growing tensions between Iran and the Southern Gulf states and Turkey. Sunni and Shi’ite tensions are rising in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and the competition for influence in a divided Iraq adds to these tensions, along with Arab suspicions that Iran helped to destabilize Yemen. Lebanon and Hezbollah add to these tensions on the Arab side, while Sunni jihadist extremists increase them on the part of Iran.
One needs to be extremely careful. These forces do not make war attractive or imminent. Even a minor clash could create some kind of short-term panic in oil prices. A failed or limited preventive strike could simply provoke Iran into going nuclear at all costs, lashing out in the Gulf, and could create far more serious problems in terms of world oil markets and the world economy. The United States is already fighting one war. No one can predict how a clash or war would affect Iran’s actions, Sunni-Shi’ite tensions, or events in Iraq and Syria.
It is all too easy to postulate a successful outcome to military action. But, several thousand years of history reinforce the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq about the limits to military power, and make it clear that real-world grand strategy consists largely of living with the unpleasant impact of the law of unintended consequences. It is also far from clear that this mix of tensions has as yet raised the probability of war to anything other than a low-level risk.
For all these reasons, however, this may well be the moment to begin to take action to limit the risk of war as much as possible. To be specific, there are three actions the United States could take.
The first is to reshape the focus of negotiations around clear U.S. redlines. If we really mean we have a military option and will act on it, we need to be far less ambiguous. Iran needs to know there are real limits to how long it can talk and stall. Our allies and all the members of the 5+1 need to know this as well. And Israel and our Southern Gulf allies need to know that they can truly count on the United States to act if Iran does not agree to a negotiated settlement or crosses a clear redline.
We have talked so long in vague terms that the U.S. threat may have begun to seem like political posturing to both Iran and Israel. It may well be a prelude to a U.S. acceptance of a nuclear Iran and a strategy based on containment and deterrence. If we are serious, we need to do far more to convince Iran that it does not have a choice between negotiations and preventive strikes. We also need to convince Israel that it does not have to act on its far more limited window of opportunity as Iran disperses and buries its nuclear facilities.
The second action is to make it clear to Iran that it has no successful options. The United States does not have to reveal its war plan to have its military clearly outline the ways it can defeat Iran’s defenses. There are many ways in which U.S. analysts with official connections can suggest out how easy it would be to escalate to the point of destroying Iran’s refineries and power grid, suppressing its air defenses, and reacting to any low level of asymmetric attack by destroying key Iranian military objectives. The iron law of asymmetric warfare is to never be trapped into fighting on the enemy’s terms and to use force decisively to escalate where this is possible. The time to communicate just how many ways the United States can do this—with the support of key Gulf states—is before a conflict begins.
Similarly, the United States does not have to threaten preventive strikes. It simply has to make its capabilities clear in terms of a wide range of possible scenarios. It can make clear that it might not simply target known and suspect nuclear facilities, but missile and military industrial facilities as well.
The United States can point out that it does not have to destroy hardened Iranian targets. All it has to do is keep closing the access entrances with repetitive strikes. It can make clear to Iran that the United States is not simply planning for a single strike, but considering ongoing intelligence and reconnaissance efforts and follow-on strikes.
The United States has many options for such attacks if they are necessary, and it can talk about them as exercises or war college studies without giving away any details. In fact, the United States can confront Iran with many more options than Iran can react to, while making it clear to our allies just how credible U.S. options can be as a last resort. The United States can—and should—speak softly while providing the clearest possible picture of the fact that it carries a big stick.
The third option is to put the best possible incentives on the table for Iran to accept a negotiated solution in ways that allow it to claim a kind of victory and save face. Preventing some form conflict or war does not have to be a zero-sum game where Iran has to lose. The United States can offer its own form of a grand bargain that gives Iran a clear end to sanctions, along with trade and economic incentives. Russia has already offered nuclear fuel and power incentives. The United States could work with its Gulf allies to offer some form of regional security talks, and these could over time mean building up the Gulf Cooperation Council forces and putting more U.S. forces over the horizon.
The United States can work with Europe, Russia, and China to expand this package of incentives. It can offer Iran help in expanding its petroleum production and exports and financing key pipelines. The United States can seek to work with Turkey, Afghanistan, and Central Asia to offer trade incentives as well. In the process, it can show the Iranian people that there is a very real option that does not isolate and degrade Iran, but rather offers them real progress toward a better life.
It is a reality that the United States cannot do this instantly or without dialogue with its regional allies and members of the 5+1. It is also a reality that the U.S. election makes it difficult to act without partisan divisions, and charges of weakness and warmongering. There are, however, many areas where the United States could at least make a beginning, and it is becoming clear that the status quo may not prevent some form of war—and may even be making it more likely.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.