Salam Fayyad, Prime Minister of the Palestine Authority, appears to be a decent and wise man. Along with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Authority, Saeb Erekat, prominent negotiator, and Sari Nuseiba, one-time minister in the Palestine Authority and more often President of al-Quds University, they are Palestinians who assert national interests, but have spoken against violence and in favor of accommodation with Israel.
A long piece in Ha'aretz presents an interview with Fayyad. It begins with his good wishes for Israel's holiday and extends to his comments on building Palestinian infrastructure to the point in 2011 when it will be appropriate to declare an independent state. Palestine, in his view, must be a viable entity, capable of providing dignity and security to its residents, in whose declaration Israel will participate.
Sounds good, but it gets dicey. He wants a state with credible boundaries, and not a "Mickey Mouse" state of leftovers. The pre-1967 lines are appropriate for Palestine, including East Jerusalem. When asked about refugees, he responded that they should have a right to live in Palestine. That is encouraging, without going so far as to renounce their right to live in Israel.
Also problematic is his reliance on the American White House. He says 2011 is crucial insofar as it is within Barack Obama's first term. Perhaps he is shrewd enough to doubt that his Messiah will win a second term. Yet the reliance is troubling insofar as it repeats the Palestinian mantra that their demands are just, waiting for an outsider to provide them, rather than relying on themselves to give as well as take in negotiations.
Leaving aside these blips in the interview, that optimists might view as ploys that might be altered for a good deal, Fayyad faces serious problems that have contributed to the failure of previous moments when Israeli centrists spotted signs of hope, and Israeli leftists sounded their trumpets.
First, these Palestinian moderates do not own their turf. They were expelled from Gaza, and continue to wrestle with West Bankers who would rather say no to accommodation with Israel, view stone throwing as peaceful demonstration, and applaud those who go beyond stones to firearms and suicide belts. There are also the mad mullahs who incite their followers with claims that the Jews are intent on destroying al-Aqsa mosque and expelling all the Arabs from Jerusalem.
Some years ago Sari Nuseiba provided me with an excellent cup of coffee and good conversation in the president's office of al-Quds University, but never responded to my suggestion that he develop a joint program along with the Hebrew University MA Program in Public Policy that I was directing. It was a time when the Olso Accords were unraveling to the sound of Israeli buses blowing up, and Nuseiba may have been hearing the early signs of an intifada to come.
Yet another problem for Palestinian moderates appears among Israelis who are not moderate. Just this week we have seen TV films of religious enthusiasts gathering at the Cave of the Patriarchs, praising the prime minister for including it on the list of national heritage sites, and asserting more general rights over the Land of Israel. We also saw the grave of Baruch Goldstein, seen by some of those enthusiasts as a martyr after killing Palestinians who were praying in their section of the structure.
These are the Israeli equivalents of Americans who attend tea parties and support Sarah Palin. They are clearly outside the center, but represent a faction with political weight. Their American equivalents helped produce eight years of Geroge W. Bush and the two frustrating wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are currently out of power, but well represented in Congress and cannot be counted out for the elections of 2010 or 2012.
Israel's religious and nationalist right appears to be a smaller percentage of the electorate, yet large enough to be serious contenders for most government coalitions. They may never gain the position of prime minister or the key ministries of defense, finance, or foreign affairs. However, the people who get those ministries in right-of-center governments like that of Benyamin Netanyahu are not all that hostile to what others call extremism. Signs of that are not in the government's resistance of a settlement freeze in Jerusalem, which is widely supported, but in the government's support of Jews moving with provocative bombast into Arab neighborhoods where the residents do not share the moderation of Fayyad, Abbas, Erekat, or Nuseiba.
One can wonder if it is appropriate to include Barack Obama along with the mad mullahs and Jewish fanatics as sources of doom rather than peace. Even leaving aside those who claim the President is a Muslim or anti-Semite, saner critics note that all those sermons of Jeremiah Wright left a mark on a man who has pressed Israel more forcefully and more publicly than he has pressed Palestine.
Salam Fayyad's interview in Ha'aretz might be an effort to defuse Obama's madness in insisting on a construction freeze throughout Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. That set things back by forcing Palestinians to stake out a more extreme position than in previous years.
The rabbis who contributed to the Passover Haggadah distinguished between the wise, the simple, the wicked, and the person who does not know how to ask. Among the arguments heard around the table is who among present figures most represents each type.
One should never say never. But doubt is reasonable in light of what is translated from the Arabic, as well as heard directly in Israeli Hebrew and American English.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem