Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
December 31, 2011 - 1:00am

What event this month is likely to reverberate across the Middle East most clearly next year? My prediction is that it will be the continued attempts by the leading Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, to reconstitute a unified national leadership and government. If this initiative succeeds in holding elections for a new parliament and government, it will soon generate a more coherent Palestinian strategy for dealing with Israel. This in turn will allow democratic and legitimate Arab leaderships to harness public support for the Palestinian cause in a more credible and effective manner.

The Palestinian-Israeli and wider Arab-Israeli conflict have been submerged this year beneath the tumultuous political revolts for democratic freedoms across much of the Arab world. This has been a natural process affirming the logical order of reform, relegitimization and rejuvenation throughout the deeply troubled and mediocrity-riddled Arab world. The priority task is to replace corrupt and incompetent authoritarian regimes with more representative governments. This in turn might allow Arab countries to address the challenges of Israel and Zionism more effectively – regardless of whether they wish to do that through war or peace.

For over a century, Palestinians and fellow Arabs have been unable to convincingly do either. That is why we enter 2012 still plagued by expansionist Zionist settler-colonialism that dates back to the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897. Then, as today, Zionism never clarified its willingness to acknowledge and coexist with Palestinian nationalism and rights on an equal footing.

Incredibly – but not surprisingly, given the combination of political serfdom and drought that has defined the lives of most Arabs for most of the past century – we really do not have a clear idea of where most Arab men and women stand on the issue of making war or peace with Israel. Arab governments have repeatedly affirmed the 2002 Arab Peace Plan that offers peace and coexistence with Israel if Palestinian and Arab rights are simultaneously achieved.

This historic gesture has fallen flat for two main reasons: Israel and the United States have thrown cold water on it, and it has generated no significant expressions of support among Arab public opinion. The incompetence and mediocrity of Arab governments have only recently generated a massive reaction from their publics, but in the realm of facing the Zionist challenge they have a century-long track record.

The Palestine issue’s lack of attention during the past year of domestic Arab political revolts and revolutions (other than the unilateral Palestinian initiative to seek United Nations recognition for a state within the 1967 borders) is not a reflection of disinterest among the Arab publics. The recent venting in Cairo by Egyptians of their anger against Israel – in parallel with massive evidence from public opinion polling across the region – indicates that most Arabs care deeply about standing up to the Zionist threat and achieving justice for the Palestinians. Many Arab states and people have paid a heavy price for their involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. They seem to understand better that Arab incompetence vis-à-vis Israel is in large part a reflection of political incoherence at home. Perhaps the novelty of more democratic, representative, legitimate and sovereign Arab governments in 2012 will start to change this equation.

One thing representing a key element for that equation to change is the success of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, which has been playing itself out in slow motion for a year. Linking the power of Arab popular political legitimacy to the diplomatic quest for Arab-Israeli justice and peace requires a unified and credible Palestinian strategy, which has been missing for many years.

The prospect of elections and a new Palestinian government in spring 2012 can only succeed in generating a practical strategy for Palestinian resistance and diplomacy if Fatah and Hamas act more maturely. They must work together to rebuild the institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization and harness the views of all Palestinians around the world, not just those of narrow, often self-appointed, political elites in Ramallah or Gaza.

Hamas and Fatah represent different historical experiences that include important lessons about mass mobilization, political and diplomatic action, solidarity and steadfastness under occupation, armed resistance, and, when needed, political pragmatism. Neither of them, however, will win any awards for democratic brilliance or for achieving progress when it comes to Palestinian rights and statehood. They have little to show for their work and incumbency, and even for their many sacrifices and those of many Arab populations.

The coming months will be crucial for the Palestinian people to put pressure on their fractured leadership to come up with steps to reconstitute and relegitimize a single Palestinian national leadership and political program that aligns with the wave of democratic renewal across the Arab world.

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