Michael Young
The National (Opinion)
December 3, 2009 - 1:00am

It isn’t difficult to grasp why the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, elicits such tepidness. Judged by the dual benchmarks of charisma and political success, he fails on both counts. To many people he seems a man out of touch with his people’s revolutionary situation.

Yet that explains very little why an alarming number of Arab liberal publicists in general, and a substantial number of Palestinians among them, take such perverse pleasure in discrediting him, welcoming his setbacks, even encouraging his departure from political life, with no consideration for the fact that what he loses, Palestinians may lose too.

Those impatient for change tend to reserve their greatest scorn for the men and women in the temperate middle. The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin described this phenomenon in his introduction to Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons. Writing about 19th-century Russia, he pointed to “the failure of men of generous heart, sincerely held ideals, who remain impotent and give in without a struggle to the forces of stagnation”. Against this “liberal fiddling” stood a revolutionary impulse, a yearning for “destruction, revolution, new foundations of life [whereby] nothing else will destroy the reign of darkness”.

Similar trends can be found in the Middle East, where the appeal of new foundations for life is unremitting, so debilitating are the old ones. However, when it comes to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, the situation is different. There, the revolutionary impulse is directed both inward, against Mr Abbas and his acolytes, and outward against Israeli occupation, even if as in most other places in the Arab world, the revolutionary forces are by and large militant Islamists whose notions of revolution are, in truth, counter-revolutionary in their aspiration for a return to an idealised past under the rule of God.

If we can see why militant Islamists from Hamas and the Palestinian Jihad dislike the “temperate middle” represented by Mr Abbas, why do so many Palestinian liberals exhibit even more contempt for their leader? There are several answers, none justifying so self-defeating a reaction.

An often-heard argument is that Mr Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, and with it the Fatah movement, represent a leadership riddled with corruption. There is truth there, but this collides with two problems of consistency. The Palestinian president’s critics rarely spare his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, even though he is demonstrably not corrupt, and has made headway in reforming Palestinian institutions. And it fails to explain why so many Palestinian liberals supported Yasser Arafat in his heyday during the 1970s and 1980s, even though he was as corrupt then as his successors are now, if not more so.

Then there is the somewhat circular argument that Mr Abbas is weak, indecisive, and prone to surrender too much to Israel and the United States. The president is indeed weak and frequently indecisive, but perhaps that’s because his political situation allows him little latitude to be otherwise. With that censure of Mr Abbas has come advice that the weakling must be tougher with Israel. Israel today is visibly uninterested in a settlement that Palestinians would find fair. But Mr Arafat tried to be tough in 2000 when the second intifada was launched, just as Hamas tried to be tough last December, before the Israeli onslaught against Gaza. These episodes brought only Palestinian suffering.

Why is that argument circular? Because the relentless dismissal of Mr Abbas’s weakness, justified or not, along with inane recommendations as to how he should behave, only weaken him further. That’s not to say that Mr Abbas should not be held accountable; but the criticism levelled at him is rarely that of a loyal opposition. It is usually criticism endorsing the position of his political enemies, demanding that the international community deal with Hamas at Mr Abbas’s expense.

It is a paradox in the Middle East that quite a few people who came through the ranks of the political left, as well as an alarming number of Arab liberals, have taken up the flag of militant Islamists whenever addressing the matter of Israel and the United States. To an extent the process is explicable. For those from the left, including Arab nationalists, the last five decades since decolonisation have offered a fairly consistent picture of political bankruptcy, with most Arab societies cut low by authoritarianism, economic backwardness, and a persistent inability to defeat Israel militarily or negotiate favourably on the Palestinians’ behalf.

But this does not tell us why children of secular, once-revolutionary ideologies should embrace counter-revolutionary religious organisations, even if those who devote their lives to one totalistic doctrine often find it easier to fall into another. Far more peculiar has been the behaviour of many liberals, particularly westernised liberals little attracted by doctrinaire politics. That such individuals, who generally lean toward humanism, secularism, and non-violence, should find themselves backing militant Islamists with precisely the opposite worldview, indicates the extent to which Arab liberalism has lost its intellectual centre of gravity.

The Palestinian destiny doubtless encourages this. Defence of the Palestinians is a righteous cause, so that those like Mr Abbas, whose decisions and compromises are never seen as doing that cause justice, find themselves damned. The “reign of darkness”, to use Isaiah Berlin’s phrase, requires no less powerful a counterforce, which the dull old men of the Palestinian Authority cannot generate. So the leftists and liberals turn to the Islamists for salvation, those same Islamists who despise the leftists and liberals even more than they do Mr Abbas.

Mr Abbas may be mediocre, but his Palestine would be far more attractive a place than what the Islamists promise. Those who fail to see this, the leaders in Israel and the West who pay the Palestinian president only lip service, but above all his Arab detractors who aspire to a secular, democratic, modern order in Palestine, display a dangerous blindness.


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