Meeting Fatah (Wednesday 8 February)
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On the trip, we were the fraternal guests of the Fatah political party, with whom we held several meetings in Ramallah. Fatah are secular nationalists, with Christians and Jews represented in its governing councils, and are therefore on the defensive in the politics of the Arab world, where Islamists seem to have all the momentum. In domestic ideology Fatah are social democrats. Fatah is a member party of the Socialist International and therefore has fraternal links with the British Labour Party, just as in Israel the Meretz Party do as a full member and the Labour Party do as an observer party. I had the feeling that Fatah, particularly its leaders such as Nabil Sha’ath, an impressive and charismatic man who would slot in naturally as a Foreign Minister or Prime Minister, are tired of the abnormal situation in Palestine. They want to reach a position where politics is about the same sort of things it is about in most countries – taxation, public services and social justice. The party is not perfect by any means, but it is deserving of support, encouragement and engagement (the international community needs to show the moderates that they have friends) and it is the best hope of a better future in Palestine.
Fatah is a complex entity, a bit like the Sinn Fein of 1916-22 or even the democratic parties in the Weimar Republic which took politics to the streets. It is factionalised and it is operating in a violent political environment. Fatah is yet to have the Peter Mandelson red rose treatment. Its central organisations have rather old-fashioned names and it features crossed semi-automatic weapons on its emblem – although this is a bit reminiscent of the hard-line communist iconography one sees in symbols for pretty tame parties in Italy and France, who would probably not scare our own Liberal Democrats. Phases of its history are not particularly palatable, but one readily accepts ex-Communist parties in Eastern Europe as part of respectable politics, and Israel’s own leaders have in the past been part of unpleasant military actions (Rabin, Sharon) or outright terrorism (Shamir, Begin). Modern Fatah (‘New Fatah’ to continue the Mandelson metaphor) is an embattled social democratic party caught between the violent Islamists of Hamas and the intransigent right wing who currently run Israel. Its leaders seem to me to be regular, problem-solving politicians – in Thatcher’s terms ‘the sort of people I could do business with’ and here is the reason why I support their efforts and why they are having such difficulties. There needs to be a middle ground in which to operate, or a historic compromise between opposites, and it is hard to find either in Israel-Palestine.
I dislike Hamas. That much should be clear to all but the most deliberately obtuse reader already. Their ideology is extreme, violent and against personal freedom and proper social justice, and their tactics are not only counterproductive but morally wrong. Fatah supporters in Palestine think this too, and are all the more aware of it because they face the possibility of living under Hamas government. But making peace, it should be absolutely clear, often involves coming to agreement with people you dislike, and Hamas represents too big a part of Palestinian opinion to ignore. The problem with doing a peace deal with the reasonable people is that as soon as something goes wrong with the deal (and every process will have its difficult moments), the whole situation will unravel. This was the problem with the Sunningdale agreement in Northern Ireland in 1973. It did not include the extremes, i.e. the IRA or, more crucially, the DUP or the Loyalist paramilitaries. Therefore it collapsed. The fact that the DUP and Sinn Fein are running the new Northern Ireland settlement is helpful to its long term prospects. So, although it was frustrating and unpleasant at the time, was the way in which Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness moved slowly, and sometimes said things I did not like, but took nearly all the Republican movement with them, in contrast to previous leaders who had ordered the guns to fall silent and saw violent movements sprout from small seeds, again and again.
Palestinian elections are overdue. I hope Fatah win outright, but if they do not, I would urge people in the west and Israel not to throw up their hands in horror and reject the entire peace process. If there has to be a Grand Coalition between Fatah and Hamas, that has the advantage of binding more people into any agreement. There are parties in the Israeli coalition that are hostile to any idea of a Palestinian state and support loyalty tests and military aggression, but somehow their presence at talks is uncontroversial. It is reasonable to expect Hamas – as it was in the cases of Irish Republicans and indeed the ANC – to suspend violence during talks. But permanent renunciation may need to be left until after there is an agreement.
Hamas, according to the Palestinians I spoke to, is in theory committed to destroying Israel but in practice prepared to accept previous agreements (including Oslo, which recognises Israel). So if a section of Hamas can in practice stop violence and participate in talks it seems foolish or worse to put up barriers about symbols. Pragmatic Israeli Gadi Taub comments: ‘Let’s stop making peace a condition for ending the occupation. When peace is at stake, everyone has demands for ultimate and cosmic justice, so let’s settle on the pragmatic establishment of two states first and hopefully everyone will become more pragmatic about peace.’
It was said in Northern Ireland that the Good Friday Agreement was ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’; how about Oslo and Camp David, or a revised version of the 1947 partition plan, for slow learners?
A symbol of what Palestine strives for was the square in the government area where the flags of all the countries that have given Palestine international recognition fly proudly. Many of the flags are of Arab and African states which recognised Palestine somewhat abstractly following Yasser Arafat’s declaration of independence in 1988, before the creation of the Palestinian Authority. There has recently been something of a second wave of recognitions, led by Latin American countries, with the result that Brazil gets a street named after it in Ramallah. Latin American recognition is on the basis of the pre-1967 boundaries, and alongside diplomatic recognition of Israel.
The only reason I can think of not to recognise the Palestinian Authority as a state is that it does not have sufficient control over its own territory and it is a structure created by what was intended to be an interim agreement in advance of a proper overall treaty. I am also a little wary that it would cement the idea in place that there is a dispute between equal parties, where the reality is that Israel is dominant. But apparently in international legal terms this is not a valid reason for withholding recognition.
I am tidy-minded, and there should be someone at the UN and internationally to speak for Gaza and the West Bank just as there is for everywhere else. A decent settlement will result in Palestine getting full recognition anyway. And to single the Palestinians out is invidious; the argument is often made in frankly racist terms that deny that Palestinians are entitled to be considered a nation. So recognising Palestine seems pretty sensible; particularly as the diplomatic process is log-jammed, let’s give it a shove.
We visited the Yasser Arafat Mausoleum, near the Presidency building in Ramallah. It is quite an austere and modest modern structure, although the Ramallah tomb is temporary because Arafat as a Jerusalemite wanted to be buried in his home city which Palestinians aspire to have as their national capital.
I felt a measure of diffidence at the Arafat tomb. I was wrong to do so, given how strongly I felt on the Friday paying my respects to his partner in the reluctant handshake of 1993, Yitzhak Rabin (LINK to Herzl). Arafat’s past, his hesitancy, his lenience with extremists, his failures of statesmanship, are all very plain, but life is a learning process and he learned from it, while setting the Palestinian Authority on a course towards international recognition as a state for the Palestinian people. We are close in time to Arafat’s faults, but he is still the founding father (I hope) of a nation’s political institutions, and nations are entitled to airbrush the memories of their founding fathers: Ataturk, Pilsudski, Venizelos, Ben-Gurion, De Valera and even Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were not always resolutely right in judgement and moral in conduct. Arafat is a symbol for the Palestinian people – not just of national self-determination but of national unity – and that is worthy of respect.