Opinion | Clifford D. May
The View from the West Bank
Our columnist travels to Ramallah and meets with recently resigned Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and other top officials.
In the West Bank, on hilltops six miles northwest of the de facto Palestinian capital of Ramallah, a new and ultramodern city is rising. Rawabi is to have handsome white stone apartment blocks, a commercial hub, a cultural center, medical facilities, stores, cafés and a giant amphitheater. A recent visit there left me impressed and, more importantly, encouraged: Surely, those constructing this metropolis and those moving in—as many as 10,000 Palestinian families over the next seven years—understand that Rawabi can flourish only in the absence of serious conflicts with Israel. The day terrorists in Rawabi launch rockets at Tel Aviv—visible from the heights in clear weather—is the day Rawabi is reduced to rubble.
In that sense, Rawabi is a courageous statement. One might even call it a revolutionary act. Indeed, the project has been roundly condemned by the global anti-Israeli “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement, and the American-based, anti-Israeli website Electronic Intifada has denounced it as “blatant economic normalization.”
Thankfully, neither BDS nor Electronic Intifada has much influence in the West Bank. But all is not well under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He was elected to that position in January 2005, which means he is now in the ninth year of a four-year term. New elections are not on the calendar.
In America and Europe, and even among many Israelis, Abbas is regarded as a moderate. But for years he has been refusing to negotiate with Israelis, demanding that concessions be made not through talks but prior to them. He also pursued a reckless unilateral initiative at the United Nations last year, in defiance of the United States as well as Israel, to bring about recognition for Palestine outside the diplomatic process.
Despite these many challenges (or perhaps because of them), during his March visit to Israel and the West Bank, President Obama pushed both sides to restart negotiations without preconditions. That would be useful and might even happen. But one should not expect dramatic results: There is no conceivable way that Abbas could cut a deal recognizing the Jewish state’s right to exist and have Hamas go along.
Places like Rawabi need stability. Abbas is 78 years old, a heavy smoker and a cancer survivor. What happens if he dies in office? According to Palestinian Basic Law, Article 37, “the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council shall temporarily assume the powers and duties of the Presidency of the National Authority for a period not to exceed sixty (60) days, during which free and direct elections to elect a new President shall take place.”
But the Palestinian Legislative Council sits in Gaza, where Hamas rules with an iron hand, brooking no interference from Abbas and openly committed to the annihilation of Israel—every city, every town, every village. The legislative council was elected to a four-year term in January 2006, the year before Hamas staged its bloody coup against the PA there. The current speaker is Aziz Dweik, a Hamas leader whom Israelis arrested as recently as last year for alleged “involvement in terrorist activities.”
It is impossible to imagine him negotiating peace with Israelis—and almost as difficult to imagine Israelis agreeing to sit down with him. Nor can one easily picture “free and direct” elections taking place in the West Bank, let alone in Gaza, in a post-Abbas era.
In the name of stability, Abbas’s Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the real power in the West Bank, could ignore Palestinian law and designate a successor to Abbas. But who? The best choice by far would have been Abbas’s Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund and World Bank official who holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Texas at Austin. Just before visiting Rawabi, I spent some time talking with him (I was leading a small delegation of American national-security professionals) in the large and well-appointed government complex where he maintained his offices.
I did not agree with everything he said (he asked that his remarks not be directly quoted), nor would most Israelis. But I left with the conviction that if he had the power to negotiate, he’d drive a hard bargain, get the best deal he possibly could for Palestinians, and then move beyond the conflict and animosity. A deal, in my view, would have to look something like this: Palestinians would unambiguously recognize Israel’s right to exist—as the unique expression of Jewish self-determination—within secure borders. In exchange, Israel would do everything possible to facilitate the development of a free, viable and increasingly prosperous Palestinian state.
Abbas appointed Fayyad prime minister in 2007 mainly because American and European diplomats wanted him in that job: They believed a lot more aid money would be going astray were it not for his skills and integrity. This spring, rumors flew that Abbas might fire Fayyad. In response, Fayyad resigned as prime minister. So much for stability.
There is no obvious path forward. But then, if you ask me, it has never been realistic to expect Palestinians to make peace with Israelis so long as Islamists are on the rise in the region, warning Muslim leaders that acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East is apostasy, and that the price for apostasy is death.
Nevertheless, as the “peace process” stalls, Rawabi rises. While that may not inspire confidence, it does leave space—and incentive—for hope.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.