Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Right) poses for a photograph with some of the new Fatah Central Committee members. (Photo: Fadi Arouri / Reuters)
What do the Palestinians really want, anyway? Are they ready to compromise and make peace with Israel? Or are they really intent on abolishing the Jewish state? Sooner or later, nearly every conversation about the Middle East conflict - whether it's here in the US, in Israel, or most anywhere else - gets around to that seemingly central question.
That's why the just-completed conference of the Fatah Party, the dominant force in West Bank politics, stirred so much interest around the world. Everyone was hoping to come a bit closer to a definitive answer to this crucial question.
What the Fatah conference actually showed, though, is that there can be no definitive answer, because "What do the Palestinians want?" is the wrong question. Putting it that way treats 10 million or more Palestinians as a monolithic entity with a single opinion. Such a simplification is understandably tempting. How much easier the life of nations would be if each one had a single clear-cut view on every issue that generates conflict.
Unfortunately, the world doesn't work like that, as the Fatah conference made clear. A small nation like Palestine is just as complicated as a large nation like the United States. The Fatah Party is just as complicated as our Democratic Party.
The Democrats, rather than the Republicans, are the appropriate analogy because in some quarters, at least, the GOP is seen as relatively unified. But no one can say that about a party running the gamut from the most conservative Blue Dogs to Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich. Reports coming out of the Fatah conference suggest that this Palestinian party may very well be equally diverse and entangled in equally fierce internal quarrels.
Perhaps the only thing that can be said with certainty is that Mahmoud Abbas, whose rule once seemed so precarious, was unanimously elected to lead Fatah. But how strong is his rule? How long can he maintain it? Can he ensure that his chosen successor, Muhammad Ghneim, will actually take over some day? The answers to these questions, like most others about Fatah, remain unclear. Within Fatah, as in all political parties, there is fierce in-fighting for power even among those who may share similar policy views.
News reports of the Fatah meeting are as diverse as the party itself, which isn't surprising. Most English-language readers want nothing more than a quick summary that either reinforces or revises their simple view of what the Palestinians are up to. So the English-language reports on the conference distill a huge tangle of complexities down to a couple of thousand words at most, and often much less.
Imagine if you were a journalist covering a Democratic national convention and had to tell your readers what the Dems believe and what they intend, all in a couple of thousand words or less. Beyond the inevitable oversimplifications, your own biases would inevitably shape your summary. You would be telling your readers both what you saw and what you hoped to see; they (and probably you) would have no way to separate the two. Most reports of the Fatah conference, too, reflected the writer's personal bent.
An impulse to wishful thinking surely explains why one simple narrative dominated US coverage of the Fatah conference: The ideological "old guard" was voted out and new generation of younger "pragmatists" took over, new leaders ready to heed the Obama administration's call for compromise and a two-state solution.
"They have seen that the older generation's refusal to compromise with Israel has doomed Palestinians to an ever-shrinking future state," said Time, that bellwether of foreign policy establishment thinking. "One new Central Committee member tells Time, 'We can't keep living on radicalism. We have to be practical and negotiate with Israel.'"
But the Time article was titled "Fatah Conference Boosts Abbas, but Peace May Remain Elusive," and it ended on that same cautious note: "Meantime, Israel's hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Fatah's 'radical and uncompromising positions' created 'an unbridgeable gap between us and them.' So, while Abbas may be rejuvenated by Fatah's first elections in 20 years, his job hasn't gotten any easier."
While such skepticism was not widespread in the US media, it was the hallmark of much Israeli coverage. Some commentators pointed out that many of Fatah's supposedly pragmatic "new guard" have a history of resisting compromise. Heir-apparent Ghneim, for example, was on record as long ago as 1993 opposing the Oslo accords. Mohammed Dahlan, one of several figures in the "new guard" who have been top Fatah security chiefs, warned that "Palestinians will no longer accept open-ended peace talks with no end in sight."
In sum, according to the often-quoted analyst Hani al-Masri, "whereas the former central committee saw the peace talks with Israel as the only option available, the new committee sees negotiations as only one option of several." In other words, Palestinian policies in the future will depend, more than in recent years, on decisions toward or away from peace made by the Israelis.
Peace skeptics did note that the conference had not removed offending clauses from the decades-old Fatah charter, which call for "complete liberation of Palestine" and "establishing an independent democratic state with complete sovereignty on all Palestinian lands." This fed the right-wing Israeli narrative of "no partner for peace."
Even the centrist Jewish Telegraphic Agency warned that "the [Fatah] platform reportedly reiterates 'the Palestinian people's right to resistance to occupation in all its forms in line with international law'; Fatah leaders asserted in statements that they reserved the right to 'armed struggle.'"
The JTA, like most US sources, did note Abbas's stress on nonviolent forms of resistance, and it followed up with a sensible word of caution from political scientist Nathan Brown: The Fatah platform "should be viewed as akin to a US political party platform that might contain some 'red meat language' to satisfy the political factions in a 'large and diverse movement' like Fatah but isn't necessarily followed by the party leaders." That's the view most of the US media, and apparently the Obama administration, are taking, ignoring the radical official language of Fatah.
Yet, they cite the same kind of language to label Hamas as a pariah "terrorist" organization. Why apply the common-sense distinction between platform platitudes and real policies to Fatah, but not to Hamas? The administration clearly sides with Fatah, hoping that party will soon grow strong enough to be a successful "partner for peace" without Hamas's participation. In fact, according to one report, "the first question Obama asked Abbas when they met last May was 'What about the Fatah congress?'. Their discussions about it lasted for 20 minutes."
The US pro-Fatah tilt is an old story; the US played a significant role in fomenting the final split between Fatah and Hamas. Although Obama, in his Cairo speech, allowed the possibility of Hamas participating in the peace process, he repeated the demand that Hamas must "recognize past agreements," a formula the Israelis have consistently used to effectively exclude Hamas.
Can the newly constituted Fatah leadership eclipse Hamas and gain the popular support needed to conclude a peace deal with Israel? That's a question best answered by Arab journalists and commentators who know the Palestinian scene from the inside. Yet, even the most respected offered widely varying views.
Hani al-Masri argued that a strengthened Fatah is more likely to promote Palestinian unity; Fatah "isn't afraid of signing agreement with Hamas anymore, because in the past, the weak Fatah was afraid that Hamas might swallow it."
Daoud Kuttab concluded that Fatah, which began as an underground resistance movement, had moved one step closer to becoming an authentically effective political party, though it still retains the option of going back to its old resistance mode." Kuttab also saw Dahlan, who once headed Palestinian security in Gaza, growing in power. "Speaking to clapping from the congress, Dahlan detailed how the former Fatah leadership repeatedly ignored his warnings" of an impending clash with Hamas.
Yet, many other journalists noted the common accusation that Dahlan himself was largely responsible for Fatah's loss in Gaza, because of his strong-arm tactics and the widespread view that he was serving Israeli and US interests in the battle against Hamas. Dahlan's success in the Fatah voting is bound to alienate the Hamas government in Gaza and its supporters even further from the West Bank's ruling party.
Dahlan's growing strength is also one factor, among many, fostering a widening split within Fatah itself, between Gazan members of and other members of the party, another potential source of weakness for Fatah. (That story was covered most fully by Saud Abu Ramadan reporting for the Chinese Xinhua news agency, interestingly enough.)
Commentator Ramsy Baroud saw little chance that Fatah could garner the kind of popular support it would need to win over Hamas supporters: "Following Yasser Arafat's signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel, in 1993, the millionaires and their dubious politician allies won, turning Fatah into a giant company, feeding on the empty rhetoric of 'peace', financed by international donors, and operated by the movement's 'pragmatic' elements, who allied themselves with Israel to preserve their gains, however insignificant. If Fatah fails to reclaim itself as a true national liberation movement, an umbrella that unites every facet of Palestinian society, then it will soon splinter and eventually dissolve."
But the very way this conference happened made Baroud more pessimistic about Fatah offering any real resistance to Israel: "The delegates of the 'resistance' movement must've passed through Israeli checkpoints and metal detectors to reach their meeting place and talk of hypothetical revolutions and imaginary resistance. Excluded were Fatah members who didn't pass Israeli screening."
Columnist Rami Khouri agreed: "For the Fatah congress now to declare again that Palestinians have chosen peace with Israel, while also reserving the right to engage in armed resistance to occupation, seems unconvincing. The movement that once resonated widely around the Arab world has shown in the past 40 years that it is unable to achieve either option. Israel has reversed position, by giving special permission for Fatah delegates from throughout the region to enter occupied Bethlehem in order to attend the Fatah congress, as it tries to support Fatah in order to weaken Hamas. Neither strategy will work, because external manipulation to craft a Palestinian leadership to Israel's or the United States' liking will always fail the test of legitimacy among the Palestinian people."
Out all of this confusion, one clear message emerges. It is worse than useless to ask, "What do the Palestinians want?", as if there could be a single answer. It is a positive impediment to the chances for real peace. Any meaningful negotiations will have to recognize and accept the diversity of views and personalities among Palestinians, which is just as rich as the diversity among Americans or any other people.
Yet in the US and in Israel, the simplistic question is likely to dominate the debate as long as both nations pursue the "external manipulation" that Khouri warns against. Manipulators always ask simple questions and seek equally simple answers. To impose their designs upon reality, which is always inherently complex, they have to reduce it to terms simple enough to grasp and control.
As long as the demand for simplicity persists, the manipulative motives behind it will be obvious, at least to Palestinians, and any peace proposal offered by the US and Israel is bound to fail the test of legitimacy among Palestinians. If the Obama administration really hopes to move the Middle East toward a lasting peace, it must first prepare the American people to recognize the realities of Palestine - and the biases of reporting about Palestine - in all their inevitable complexity.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing about Israel, Palestine, and American Jews at http://chernus.wordpress.com.