Thursday, October 6, 2011

Shoot Me, I am An Arab!

In gratitude to David Aaron Miller

That so-called week of Palestine at the UN back in September, it was like playing house or bus trip to Harissa (my favorite, but this is not the time to explain) back in the days; you knew it was all make-believe, you knew it would last only through the afternoon, and yet you played your part as if it were for real because it was all such fun.

In fact, for weeks before Mahmoud Abbas’s UN speech, they went at it—Abbas, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Quartet, Ban Ki Moon, the US, Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy…--and, as usual, we the spectators were asked to suspend disbelief, many even downright giddy to be in on the thing.

True, much of politics is about pretense, but I doubt there’s a problem in this world that outperforms Palestine. And I really doubt there’s a problem that has to spin so much yarn in order to conceal what is so glaringly obvious. 

For it is glaringly obvious that Abbas presides over an entity (the Palestinian Authority) and controls the West Bank through an arrangement (the Oslo Accords) that allowed Israel to perpetuate an occupation on the cheap, increase the number of settlers from 116,000 in 1993, when Oslo was signed, to 530,000 in 2011, boost settlements to 121, outposts to 101, and incorporate around 40 percent of the land to service both the colonies and their occupants.  

It is glaringly obvious that Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman et al, contrary to all appearances, are actually ecstatic about Oslo’s achievements which have been instrumental in killing the two-state solution in the light of day and with plenty of political cover.

And it is glaringly obvious that the US has been happy to help sponsor, finance and put in place the administrative and security structures and frameworks that have helped the PA act as such an effective enforcer for the Israeli occupation. All done, needless to say, in the name of peace and prosperity and justice and moderation….

We can argue about the ugly details all you want. We can disagree about motives, point and wag fingers and try to sink the entire story in a morass of ifs, buts and maybes. But after all is said and done we would still find ourselves back in the company of these essential facts: 20 years of Oslo, 20 years of the PA, 531,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, 121 settlements, 101 outposts and no less than 40 percent of the land to make them whole and the rest of the Territories a body of severed parts. Whichever side you’re on, whatever your convictions, these are the facts on the ground that have turned the dream of a Palestine, even on the 22% left after 1948, into yet another one of this saga’s victims.  

Point being? If Oslo were a cow, it would be emaciated, sucked to death, with not a drop of milk to offer. Simply put, the game is up! And more so for Abbas than for his two partners, because, two decades into Oslo, they can boast many gains for their side, while he cannot point to a single one for Palestine. Conversely, should Oslo fold, the two could well suffer serious losses (internationalization of the conflict, termination of security arrangements, upheaval, a prohibitively expensive return to the occupation…), while Abbas might conceivably breath a sigh of relief because of what turned out to be a horrendous deal. Love him or hate him, Abbas went into this partnership (he and his master Arafat) with the impression that it would yield a semblance of a Palestine, and all they have now is the ridiculous idea of it.

All of which explains why Abbas, the US and Israel’s man—another glaringly obvious fact which you’re welcome to condemn or applaud (but certainly not ignore) depending on where you stand--has decided to plead for statehood at the UN, and why Israel and the US are upset with him for not keeping up the pretense. He’s bankrupt and dangerously exposed at a time when an Arab leader would rather not be either. He’s lost pretty much everything, so where’s the risk, as things fall part, in carving for himself a bit of leg room in that deep hole that he fell, eyes wide open, into?

This is but one of many interpretations of this unfolding drama. As if to confirm it, however, Netanyahu himself delivered what Gideon Levy aptly described as a “giant blah, blah” of a speech, throughout which he displayed all the usual qualities that make allies recoil with infinite more horror than do enemies. Not to be outdone, Obama stood before us, a small man burping out small ideas.

Of course, Abbas had to pitch his tent somewhere else. And, frankly, for that bit of rude clarity, Obama deserves a badge of honor from the Palestinians no less sizeable than the one bestowed upon him by Netanyahu and Lieberman.

I, for one, am delighted with him, and I think him marvelous for making such little effort to jazz up the rhetoric—as politicians are wont to do--to compensate for dim policy. In a region long hobbled by external deceits and homegrown fantasies, mistaken conjecture about imperial purpose can have potentially devastating consequences. At a minimum, it can lead to dangerously misplaced expectations by writhing societies looking for inspiration in all the wrong places. Obama has made it abundantly clear that, in this current struggle for change in the Arab world, the US shall lead from behind—way, way behind—and for that we should be eternally grateful.

Now we—most of all the Palestinians amongst us—need not suffer fools gladly whenever they start peddling grand American plans and ideals. Obama’s speech was that rare occasion when positive spin actually highlighted the hard facts it so dearly meant to obscure: the hands-off attitude towards peace; the need to “draw down” after years of exuberant and very costly overreach; the absolute necessity of focusing attention inward during an unusually pressing circumstance; the very flexible policy towards the Arab revolts, depending on US interest and the party in power, but the constancy towards Israel regardless of US interest and the party in power.

This is a much-diminished president speaking for a much-diminished superpower. Surely we can take a hint and run with it? Thankfully, for the Palestinians, the smart choices are few and stark clear. Their quest for liberation, as Rashid Khalidi wrote a few days ago, “will have to return from a two-decade hiatus at a rigged negotiating table to its original and most representative form: popular, grassroots, nonviolent struggle on the ground and among Palestinians in exile.”

Right after Obama’s speech, Middle East specialist and onetime US negotiator David Aaron Miller blogged it out with political scientist Daniel Levy on Bloggingheads. During the conversation, Miller, for whom the bid for Palestinian statehood is “not the main issue,” pointed out that Obama owed it to those who elected him (Miller included) not to waste any precious political capital on an ungrateful problem, when the priority is to get reelected and prevent the country from slipping into—God forbid—the hands of Governor Rick Perry.

America is in a “slow bleed,” Miller cautioned, nowhere near well enough at home, nor “feared, loved or respected” enough abroad to make much of a difference anyway. Worst still, he added, little could be done for Abbas, “who sits on a Palestinian humpty dumpty”-- neither taking Israel to the “woodshed,” nor waging another futile diplomatic offensive, when the status quo had not yet become untenable for the Palestinians and Israel.  

I guess Miller hasn’t been out much lately.

Remarkably, in making all these presumably sobering arguments against muscular American engagement in the peace process, Miller ends up ceding the case to Levy, whose closing point is if the US is so exhausted by it all, why beat up on Abbas, that poor sod of a “humpty dumpty,” for trying to climb down that miserable wall?

At one point in the give and take, in a wonderful flash of candor, the ex-diplomat said, ”Shoot me, I am an American,” in owning up to his current passion for US politics and little else.

“Shoot me, I am an Arab,” I found myself whispering to the screen, before switching off and tuning out.

Dare we hope that this sentiment will prove a turning point in Arab-American history?