Thursday, May 6, 2010

Third Force In Palestine

A few days ago, I joined the J Street delegation on a visit to Ramallah, to meet the Palestine Authority prime minister, Salam Fayyad. The meeting was cordial and unexceptional. Fayyad is among the most popular people on the planet these days, and his handling of us proved why. People say he is a technocrat; but he actually has that Obamaesque ability to take a a tense moment, or a hostile question, and exude sympathy and intelligence.

Fayyad focused on the improved security situation in the West Bank, but made clear that the American trained police force, which is largely identified with him (or at least his strategic vision), cannot hold things together for long if we don't get a clear political horizon with a Palestinian state on it. Law and order, yes. But no defense of the status quo, which translates as a defense of Israeli interests. That would be fatal for any Palestinian leader: he is promising the development of a state within the womb of the occupation, sort of the way Ben-Gurion and the Histadrut incubated a state within the British Mandate.

At the same time, there is something in Fayyad's notion of law and order that is also bound to put him into conflict--not only with Hamas sympathizers, for whom non-violence is anathema--but the old guard of Fatah as well. Fayyad likes to quote Martin Luther King, but feels more an acolyte of John Locke. The purpose of law and order is not just the suppression of anarchy and fanaticism, but the working through of market liberties. For Fatah, this is an incipient threat. Everybody who decodes Palestinian politics knows what is implied here.

There are two pent up energies in the Palestinian territories, in other words, insurgent and entrepreneurial. The most ambitious young people need to feel that they can improve their lives. They know Israel suppresses the first energy, while the corruptions and monopolies of old Fatah cadres thwart the second. So law and order means the foiling of armed militias, but it also means that you can start a business without having to wet the beak of ministers and PA hacks.

For Ben-Gurion, all knew, getting rid of the Mandate and declaring a state meant gaining control of immigration, so that a million refugees, trapped in Europe, might come. For Fayyad, there are also refugees to consider. But getting rid of the occupation and declaring a state means gaining control of the conditions that will allow for economic growth. The state will need to work. The point is to free up billions in financial capital, trapped in bank accounts, with no credit worthy business plans to invest in.

Will Fayyad actually form a third movement or party? In effect, he already has, though it isn't clear it will be independent for some time from Fatah and the PLO, which provides a residual umbrella of legitimacy. But you can get a sense of this third force gaining in strength by reading this, a no-nonsense article in The Hill, by Palestine Investment Fund CEO, Mohammed Mustafa, and listening to this, a penetrating interview with Mustafa Barghouti, on Chris Lydon's indispensable "Radio Open Source."

Needless to say, this force is the best thing that ever happened to Israelis who are serious about a just peace, and a very good thing for Obama's peace initiative as well. Needless to add, it is an elite force--or should I say a force backed by an elite--so its power does not command deep sympathies in the streets and refugees camps. Like a water skier, Fayyad needs forward motion to stay up. Think about this every time you hear the Netanyahu government, or its pathos-trafficking apologists, insist on deferring critical decisions to a time after "confidence building measures" succeed, as if the status quo builds anything but hate.