Thursday, June 16, 2005

Is the PNI a reliable sign of Palestinian moderation? 

I consider the question in order to properly respond to a comment on my previous post, in which I reacted to a Hizbullah leader's open call for the complete destruction of Israel. I had wondered if an Arab version of the "Not in Our Name" movement might rise in opposition to these sentiments, a sign that mainstream Arab opinion would not allow these dreams of Israel's annihilation to be presented as theirs. Or alternatively, is Palestinian mainstream opinion more or less comfortable with this, as inclined to destroy Israel as negotiate with it.

Andrew responded by holding up the Palestinian National Intitiative (PNI), led by Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, as an example. He quoted Dr. Barghouti's stated organizational goal of non-violent resistance, and pointed me to the PNI web site for more information about this organization which garnered "the third largest share of electoral votes in the recent Council election".

I first want to thank Andrew for taking the time to respond, and appreciate his civil dialog with me.

Given his assumption that I was simply asking for an example of "an Arab group with a dissenting opinion", I can see why he chose the PNI as an example. I am certainly happy to hear of Palestinians recommending that resistance be non-violent. Of course in this case, the definition of "non-violent" is based on the first Intifada, which may not look so bad from our present, post-Intifada II point-of-view, but it is definitely not a pacifist's definition. The PNI is, nevertheless, a commendable improvement over other groups that publicly laud suicide bombers, so I salute Dr. Barghouti's courage for maintaining this position, especially given the pressure he undoubtedly faces for taking it.

At the same time, there are some problems in using this example to reassure an Israeli who has just been told he, his family, friends and fellow citizens are to be wiped away.

It would be more reassuring if the pledge of non-violence came from a group that had an iota of influence in Palestinian society. Pointing to a bronze medal finish in recent elections to prove a group's importance is at best ironic. A third place electoral finish by the American Green Party, or the Hemp party, or whatever, doesn't make it representative of mainstream American thought. I think the technical term would be "fringe". Dr. Barghouti failed to muster even 20% in presidential elections in which Hamas, the big winner in recent council elections, didn't even run. If the quoted recent Palestinian council elections made only one main point, it is that Hamas is by no means "fringe", while the PNI is. Hamas and Fatah combined to win 92.8% of the votes, leaving 7.2% to be split amongst all remaining parties. Hamas and Fatah won a combined 78 councils, the PNI won 2. In the first round of elections in December, it wasn't even third, Islamic Jihad was. One could say that 2 councils is better than 1, or 0, but it isn't the basis for arguing the PNI and its preference for non-violence is popular with Palestinian voters. I would love to see non-violence win elections and show Palestinians embracing moderation, but wishing doesn't make it so.

There is also the question of the extent to which the PNI unambiguously represents a clear counter-point to calls for Israel's destruction. A good litmus test is the ambiguity with which most Palestinian leaders call for an end to the occupation, leaving open the precise definition of what they mean by "occupation": territories disputed since 1967, or all of Israel. The word "occupation" is conveniently invoked to play into pre-existing sentiments of most 3rd party listeners, who assume that it of course refers to the aftermath of the Six Day War, but in other contexts, Palestinians speak freely of the entirety of Israel as occupied territory, as Arab land. How clearly does Dr. Barghouti reassure any Israelis (me for instance) that he wants to reverse only the outcome of the Arab defeat in 1967, and not the one in 1948? Looking in parts of the text Andrew linked to but didn't quote:

At a minimum, this would be within the 1967 frontiers - only 23 per cent of historic Palestine - and would have East Jerusalem as its capital.
Sounds reasonable doesn't it? It's supposed to; this is probably copied directly from the PA Negotiator's Style Guide. The only problem is that it contains a variant on the ubiquitous, ambiguating qualifier: "at a minimum". His reference to the "1967 frontiers" in fact isn't a moderate call for limiting Palestinian dreams, but a way of setting the absolute minimum, while leaving the maximum open to anything, presumably up to and including Israel's disappearance.

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are presented simply as trying to arrive at a number between 0 and 100% to represent how much of the territory captured in 1967 is to go to the Palestinians. Reports from Camp David are that Israel has upped its offer to as high as somewhere in the 90s. To the best of my knowledge, the Palestinian counter offer, if there is one, still stands at "nothing less than 100%". The post-Oslo period of "negotiations" has been anything but. It is more a period of "Waiting for Israel to Capitulate". If the idea was to wait for Israel to surrender to Palestinian opening demands of 100% and then argue some more over how much extra bonus territory should be handed over, "at a minimum", we wouldn't use the word "negotiations", "surrender" would work better. And Dr. Barghouti's position does little to indicate he feels any differently about this than Arafat did. Granted, he prefers that the extra arm-twisting be limited to rocks and perhaps small sidearms rather than rockets and suicide bombs, but it isn't a position likely to lead his people to a peaceful settlement with Israel.

This "at a minimum" question is critical, for it calls into question the starting point of accepting Israel's fundamental legitimacy. If Israel is legitimate, then it's position within 1967 borders should be unassailable and non-negotiable. The words should be "at a maximum". Maybe Andrew can point to a fourth or fifth place finisher who will without qualification or ambiguity make clear Israel's legitimacy by limiting his appetite to 100% "at a maximum", but I'm afraid I'm too depressed to look that hard.

I say all of this with a heavy heart, for despite all the violence, despite the suicide bombers still getting caught at checkpoints to this day, I still am ready to eventually negotiate a Palestinian state, but only when I can see a partner on the other side ready to govern that state as anything but an extra army in the war on Israel. Israel should not negotiate the terms of its suicide.

I know there are probably many individuals within Palestinian society who, in their hearts, are prepared to live in peace, their anger and feelings of mistreatment at the hands of Israelis not-withstanding. I pray for the day when they will be the ones winning elections, and standing to negotiate with Israel.
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