Ziad Asali
September 12, 2006 - 12:00am

The agreement on forming a new unity government among the Palestinians, coming at the heals of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s diplomatic tour of the Middle East, could constitute a significant opportunity to heed the growing chorus of respected American voices calling for an urgent effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However progress will require more than words. Serious actions and tangible results will be indispensable.

The Palestinian issue cannot be left unresolved without dire consequences because of its political and emotional significance for hundreds of millions of people.

Like it or not, Palestine dominates the Arab political imagination, and increasingly is a defining issue for the broader Islamic world as well. As Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf put it, "The tragedy of Palestine is an open wound of the psyche of every Muslim.”

The question of Palestine has been infused with a vibrant reservoir of political energy, which does not dissipate because the issue is being ignored by the international community. Lately and ominously, this energy has been harnessed by a variety of radical groups through both rhetoric and tangible actions.

Some extremists have been shrewdly presenting themselves as more dedicated to this cause – both by taking up arms in its name and by providing ordinary people with material support and services for their daily lives – and are reaping huge political benefits, while casting moderates committed to peace as weaklings or even quislings.

Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a panacea for all ills in the Middle East. Neither the war in Iraq nor the menace of al-Qaeda will vanish overnight if freedom and peace finally come to Palestine, and dysfunctional political systems will not be suddenly transformed.

But ending this conflict would make those problems and many more, including the overall pattern of increasing alienation between Arab and Western societies, much more manageable. Nothing else could have a comparable healing effect.

If we are serious about making progress on Palestine, a change of attitude is required. We must stop looking for clients and start looking for partners. We must also accept that after so many false starts and dashed hopes, our words have worn thin and now only tangible actions can have an effect on popular consciousness.

There are serious, influential figures in Palestine and other Arab societies who are essentially pro-western in their orientation, and inclined towards democracy and reform. They deserve a degree of respect and a level of support they have never received.

It is a scandal that moderate leaders are left to languish virtually without resources and damned with faint support while their radical rivals are comparatively flush with funding.

In the developing world, political actors that cannot provide services and jobs for their constituents find themselves at a huge disadvantage. The political benefits that extremist organizations get from providing services to ordinary people can be countered only in the form of competing services.

Both the Palestinians and the Lebanese are trapped between moderate and secular but dysfunctional political forces that are paralyzed by corruption and divisiveness on the one hand, and well-organized, well-funded and disciplined radical groups on the other.

It is imperative that the international community invests in social and political institutions that develop and harness the energies of progressive, secular forces. But they must represent the attitudes and aspirations of their constituents, and we must accept that they will have legitimate differences with American policies.

The Europeans, Arab governments, and multilateral organizations all need to work with us to develop such functional and effective institutions in Palestine, Lebanon and elsewhere. Corruption being one of the sources of chaos, accountability and transparency will have to be built into these institutions.

Above all, moderate leaders must be empowered to deliver real, tangible, results to their constituents if they are not to be regarded as dupes. In Palestine, for example, any leadership that hopes to be taken seriously must deliver gains on prisoners, checkpoints, the economy, Israeli settlements, and being part of serious negotiations with Israel.

It will not be sufficient for the United States or the international community to issue any further peace plans or road maps. Concrete, serious actions are required that make a significant difference in people’s lives if hope in diplomacy and a peaceful path to an independent Palestinian state is to be restored.

Palestinians have seen enough of the stick, but the carrots have been few and far between. They need to be given a persuasive reason to link the voices of tolerance, reform and peace with improvements in their personal and political circumstances and progress towards their independent state.

Otherwise radical groups across the Middle East will continue to have uncontested access to the massive political and emotional energy that has accumulated over many decades around the occupation of Palestine.

As long as it is left unresolved, the Palestinian issue will be, for extremist groups, the gift that keeps on giving.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017