Aug. 4 was not only the birthday of President Barack Obama, it was also the opening date of the Fatah general conference in Bethlehem. Despite concern, the Israeli government surrendered to United States pressure and allowed an influx of Palestinian hardliners and notorious terrorists to attend this meeting.
According to reports, National Security Adviser James Jones offered a list of Palestinians the Obama administration wanted present at the Fatah event in order “to save the conference and Abu Mazen.” One of those present was Khaled Abu Esba, who blew up an Israeli bus on a Tel Aviv highway in 1978, killing 35 Israelis.
What was saved at this conference is a matter of some conjecture. Although the Obama administration hoped that this Fatah conference would result in the emergence of moderate positions toward Israel, the obverse was the case. Not only was Israel routinely and ritualistically condemned, but there wasn’t the slightest gesture in the direction of conciliation.
Fatah leaders argued they would continue their armed struggle against Israel, engaging in whatever force is necessary to undermine the Jewish state. They made it clear that there wouldn’t be any modification in their charter, thereby avoiding any possibility of recognizing Israel as a legitimate nation. To gild the lily, a number of spokesmen contended that Israel was responsible for the death of Yassir Arafat, a claim made without reference to any evidence.
While Obama has adhered to what he would describe as an “even-handed policy,” it is clear that his effort to employ Fatah as the moderate counter-weight to radical Hamas will not work. The difference between Hamas and Fatah is that the former want to kill Jews now and the latter want to kill Jews after concessions have been vouchsafed.
The conference comments should disabuse Obama administration officials of the dubious notion that settlements in the West Bank stand in the way of some accord between Israelis and Palestinians. There is little doubt the settlements argument is a ruse designed to make the Israeli government pliable. Moreover, the issue creates a separation between the Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu governments that can be exploited by the Palestinian leadership. An illusion has been created over settlements that the Israelis are intractable and unwilling to come to the negotiating table in good faith.
Yet the conference in Bethlehem reveals an undisguised truth: Fatah is unwilling to modify its hateful stance towards Israel. In an effort to compete with the sanguinic aims of Hamas, Fatah engages in rhetoric that is remarkable similar. Notwithstanding the words that are used, the Obama administration continues to search for a silver lining. This commitment to Abu Mazen, a man without any real influence or standing in the West Bank, would be comical were it not so tragic.
In the incandescent precincts in Washington, Israel is the problem and all evidence to the contrary, including the language and intent of Fatah, is either ignored or rationalized. According to Obama spokesmen, there is a policy in place for a two state solution, and Israel’s withdrawal from territory in much of the West Bank is its critical feature. That condition remains unaltered whatever the circumstances on the ground.
Peace, the much abused work in these discussions, can be achieved overnight if Fatah would stop armed resistance against Israel and recognize it as a legitimate nation. If Obama wants Israeli flexibility, this is the way to achieve it. All other negotiating points merely bypass the central issue. Whether Fatah can bring itself to adopt this argument seems unlikely since the coherence in the organization depends on armed aggression.
Netanyahu has tried to persuade Obama of this Middle East reality, but obsessions and policy obduracy stand in the way. As a consequence, all of the talk in this multilateral negotiation, excluding Russia, the EU, and the United Nations, can come to nothing productive. Should Obama squeeze Israel, which he seems inclined to do, he only increases the likelihood of future bloodshed, which withdrawals from Gaza and southern Lebanon presaged.
If there is pressure to be applied, there is one side where the application makes sense. I doubt there will be a policy shift in the administration, but it would make sense for the president and his aides to read a transcript of the conference in Bethlehem. After doing so, I wonder if erstwhile General Jones can describe who he is saving and for what end.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of “Decade of Denial” (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and “America's Secular Challenge” (Encounter Books).
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