Last week we wrote about the anti-empiricism of left-wing elites – their complete imperviousness to new information of any kind – once their theories are firmly in place. As it happens, an event took place last week that provides a perfect opportunity to test our theory. We speak of the first general conference of Fatah in the last two decades.
First, let us describe the theory that has guided Obama administration's Middle East policy since day one. The President has repeatedly informed us that a unique opportunity for a Palestinian-Israeli peace has now presented itself. He has been somewhat hazy, however, about the precise nature of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Is it the intractable divisions between Hamas and Fatah that has resulted in the Palestinian Authority having been divided in two? Is it some shift in the message that the Palestinians are conveying to Israel?
Well, no. The President appears to have placed his hopes on his administration's break with what he feels was the slavish support of all previous American governments for Israel. Now that the Palestinians realize that President Obama carries within his heart no special affection for Israel, or so the theory goes, they will be much more forthcoming in peace negotiations.
Actually something of the opposite appears to have occurred. Far from being more forthcoming, the Palestinians have hunkered down in their traditional position. A few months back, Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas shocked the editorial board of the Washington Post by saying, in a moment of complete candor, that he had no intention of negotiating with Israel unless Israel gave him everything he demands in advance or President Obama hands him Israel's head on a platter.
The Palestinians' position has barely changed since the classic three "noes" at Khartoum after the Six-Day War – no peace, no recognition, and no negotiations. It would be impossible to identify a single demand of the Palestinians that has been amended from the time of the famous handshake on the White House Lawn. In Bethlehem last week, the Fatah General Assembly passed resolutions demanding the return of all Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, the acceptance of the "right of return" for all refugees from 1948 and their descendants within Israel proper, and vowing to maintain the struggle until Jerusalem returns to Palestinian control void of settlers and settlements, meaning the new Jewish neighborhoods built since 1967 in which hundreds of thousands of Jews live today.
Other resolutions called for the upgrading of the official status of the Al-Aksa Brigade, the Fatah militia most actively involved in terrorist attacks on Israel, urged exploration of a strategic alliance with Iran, and accused Israel of having murdered Yasir Arafat. For good measure, the top vote-getter for the Fatah Central Committee, and thus the likely successor to Abbas as head of the Palestinian Authority, was extreme hardliner Muhammad al-Ghuneim, who opposed the Oslo Accords.
The conference was hailed for transferring authority to a younger "new guard." But as the Jerusalem Post's superb Arab affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh pointed out, the only difference between the new guard and old guard was over the division of the spoils – i.e., the foreign aid lavished on the Palestinian Authority to line the pockets of its leaders – and not over ideology or the peace process. On the latter score, the two groups competed to see who could be more intransigent with respect to peace negotiations with Israel.
In other words, Abu Toameh wrote, both the new and old guard argued for maintaining the Palestinians' tradition all or nothing stance – either grant all our demands or we return to violence. Better another hundred years of struggle than any concession on a single one of our demands.
Even if there were among the assembled Fatah members anyone who harbors a more conciliatory attitude in his heart, he would not dare express it, for he would be immediately branded a traitor to the Palestinian cause. And therein lies the greatest failing of the entire Oslo Process – its failure to nurture a constituency for peace. Since 1992, the Palestinians have repeatedly promised to tone down incitement against Israel and Jews in their media and textbooks. But they have never done so. Instead an entire generation has been raised to view killing Jews as the highest duty to one's people.
What took place in Bethlehem last week was no surprise. Anyone who has paid attention to what the Palestinians have been saying and doing in recent months could have seen it coming. A few months ago, Muhammad Dahlan, the former Gazan strongman and a newly elected Central Committee member, proclaimed that Fatah had never recognized Israel. And Abbas has made a practice of mourning as heroes and martyrs the leaders of some of the worst terrorist massacres of Israel.
But then again, as Barry Rubin of the Gloria Center points out, confidence-building measures, compromise, real negotiations and the like are completely foreign to the Palestinians. And needless to say, Israeli's confidence in any Palestinian peace partner has never been lower.
BUT THE FATAH CONFERENCE was not for naught, for it brutally exposed the fallacy upon which the Obama administration has built its plans for imposing a "rational" settlement on the parties. No settlement – imposed or otherwise – is possible where one side has no interest in peace and would treat whatever it concessions it received as merely the first course to be followed by many more.
The question that remains to be answered is: Will the Obama foreign policy team take note of the results of the Fatah conference or carry on as if nothing happened. If our hypothesis is correct, the latter is more likely. And initial reactions from the administration bear that out. No administration official seems to have noticed that anything of significance had taken place in Bethlehem, much less that it destroyed the fantasies according to which team Obama was operating.
But that is par for the course. Successive American administrations have never quite understood the significance of the Palestinian media and school system's continued incitement and celebration of violence. Instead they have preferred to focus on Jewish settlements and pressuring the more readily bullied Israel, even in the absence of any constituency for peace on the other side.
The weekend shoot-out in a Gaza mosque between Hamas forces and an al-Qaeda cell, which left 28 dead, is another important bit of data. It serves as a further reminder of how anarchic the Palestinian territories are and how far either Fatah or Hamas is from creating a state capable of maintaining a stable peace (just in case the brutal civil war between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza two years ago did not conclusively demonstrate this point.)
Far from bringing peace closer, the administration's Middle East policy has so far only encouraged the Palestinians to become even more obdurate. Abbas interpreted Obama's efforts to curry favor with the Moslem world by dissing Israel as an indication that he need never sully his ideological purity by making any concession to Israel on any topic. Even if Obama cannot deliver Israel, says Abbas, life is good on the West Bank. Meaning victimhood continues to pay considerable benefits, particularly for Palestinian leaders, who have developed considerable skill at skimming the choicest fats from international aide packages.
Meanwhile "realists" of all stripes continue to ignore the Palestinians' descriptions of their goals – no matter how many times they repeat the same mantra, even when it would be very much in their interest to dissemble more. In that sense, Neville Chamberlain was one of the first of the realists. He too was completely incapable of believing that Hitler intended to do precisely what he had written he would or even to imagine that any national leader could seriously entertain such goals.
It will be interesting to see whether last week's Fatah conference and the declarations coming out of it lead to any changes in American Middle East policy. Or whether those declarations must be ignored because taking them seriously would lead to a conclusion too painful to contemplate: peace in our times is not on the horizon.
My bet is that the administration will go on acting as if nothing happened in Bethlehem and ignore the evidence that contradicts its rosy scenarios.