Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
February 1, 2012 - 1:00am

Why am I not impressed by the statement by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal after meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman Sunday. Meshaal declared, “We are happy with this good new start ... With this new chapter in relations with Jordan. We hope Jordanian and Palestinian interests will be served.”

This should be good news: reconciliation and new era of strategic cooperation between a bulwark of the conservative Arab monarchies and a leading Arab Islamist resistance movement, coming together in a re-set of relations at a moment of momentous danger to the Palestinian cause in the region. I have much and sincere respect for both men. I have personally experienced their charm, resoluteness, clarity of mind, realism and charisma, and I can see why they might in some circumstances represent the finest of a new generation of young Arab leaders who have the opportunity to chart the way towards a new Arab world. Yet I am not impressed and somewhat uneasy about the manner of their meeting in Amman, for many reasons.

The main reason is that they seem to perpetuate the old ways of the previous generation of Arab leaders, who embraced and then opposed and fought each other with perverse regularity. The individuals and countries changed over time – Jordan and Syria, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas and Fatah, Syria and Egypt, Libya and everybody north of the Equator, Sudan and Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. I think you get the point. This failed mode of political operating persisted for half a century.

Leaders of countries or movements that had been bitter enemies for years would embrace when meeting for a “historic” reconciliation, announce that a new page had been turned, that the past was behind them, and that happy days, even integration and unity, lay ahead. And then soon thereafter, a few years or maybe just a few months, the happy union would dissolve, the parties would revert to enmity, and the whole sad cycle would start once again.

This happened because otherwise honorable and committed leaders made decisions based on an almost total lack of consultation with their own people. We continue to see this pattern of behavior across the Arab world. Heads of state or major political movements conduct a style of personalized leadership that has proven erratic over the decades because it is just that – personalized leadership that usually lacks the solid support that comes from citizen participation and popular validation. Thoughtful, sincere and dedicated as these leaders may be – and I know Meshaal and King Abdullah are – no single human being can forge solid, lasting state-to-state relations as well as can a process of popular and national consultation on both sides.

The weakness in personalized leadership decisions is that they lack both political anchorage and its shadow: political legitimacy. This is why over the past half a century or so Arab leaders have put on a spectacularly unsuccessful show of alternating embrace and then enmity with their fellow leaders. So it is no surprise that Khaled Meshaal is happy with his new start in Jordan, because he is fleeing a burning and collapsing house in Syria that has been the epitome of one-man rule in the Arab world. Not surprisingly, half the Arab leaders have faced some sort of rebellion – or at least major demands for real structural reforms – by their citizens.

The contrast between the decision-making by the Hamas and Jordanian leaders and the constitutional reform process in Tunisia, for example, is too stark to be ignored. This is not shallow criticism, but rather a sincere plea to both men to recognize before it is too late that they have the legitimacy and the opportunity to adjust their decision-making styles on this important reconciliation in order to conform with the wave of reform that millions of ordinary citizens have forced upon their leaders across the region.

Meshaal and King Abdullah should consider submitting their happy-day reconciliation to referendums in Jordan and Palestine, or at least in Palestinian Gaza where Meshaal’s Hamas movement rules. If a full national referendum is not feasible for some reason, other mechanisms of credible national consultation should be attempted.

Popular support for a real reconciliation would make it more meaningful and lasting, and would send a powerful message to the Israeli people and government as well. It would strengthen both leaders at home, and bolster their respect and impact around the world. It would trigger a new form of popular legitimacy for major political decisions that could strengthen national cohesion and mutual cooperation. Most importantly, it would send the message that these dashing young leaders actually mean to make a break with the failed old ways of the past, and to be part of the solution, rather than the problem, in the Arab world.

As both a Palestinian and a Jordanian, I hope they consider this suggestion seriously, or something else like it that touches on the same core issue of how to replace fleeting personalized decision-making with lasting national decision-making. The events in nearby Syria, not to mention the events of 2011 across our rejuvenated Arab lands, should focus their minds on this arena.


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