Where Have All the Palestinian Moderates Gone?

Into the arms of extremists.

In October 1999, while researching a book on Palestinian politics, I had coffee with then Palestinian Minister of Labor Rafik Natsheh on the patio of the InterContinental Hotel in Amman, Jordan. A member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)'s Fatah Central Committee, Natsheh was a consummate political insider, but he was also a courageous and outspoken critic of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat's authoritarian tendencies at a time when deference to Arafat and support for violent resistance constituted the rough center of Palestinian politics. During our meeting, Natsheh struck me as soft-spoken, thoughtful, and politically "moderate." I subsequently wrote in my book that "it was clear that he [Natsheh] had become, surprisingly, a supporter of Oslo" -- the 1993 accord that laid the foundation for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to end the conflict.

I hadn't thought about that Amman meeting in years, until last week, when I read an interview with Natsheh in the pan-Arab daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, where he said that Fatah, the faction of the PLO that led the campaign to forge peace with Israel through direct negotiations, "does not recognize Israel's right to exist." He added that Fatah had likewise never abandoned the armed struggle. What's more troubling, Natsheh's authoritative interview is the latest in a series of previously deniable comments by current and former senior Fatah officials -- including one-time Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan -- that undercut the fundamental premise of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking: the renunciation of violence and the acceptance of Israel's right to exist.

What seems clear to me now, as Fatah gathers in Bethlehem this week for its first general assembly in more than a decade, is that the recent statements of Natsheh and his fellow "moderates" signal a broader sea change in Palestinian politics that has occurred over the past decade. Democratic politics are indeed taking shape among Palestinians, but they're mirroring the increasingly extreme views of the population at large. In short, the desire for popular support has not moderated Hamas, but has radicalized Fatah.

No doubt, years of stagnation in the negotiations -- attributable at least in part to Fatah-orchestrated violence -- have proved frustrating and radicalizing for many Palestinians. Yet the recent statements from senior Fatah leaders also smack of political expedience. Fatah, it seems, is looking to shore up its political base, and that base has become more radical in the past several years. Recent surveys suggest that 52 percent of Palestinians support armed attacks against Israeli civilians inside Israel. So Fatah, which in recent years has lost ground to the Islamist terrorist organization Hamas, could be trying to better position itself by competing for militant votes.

Regardless of why Fatah is openly tacking to the right now, the statements have profound implications for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. The leading faction of the PLO that signed the Oslo Accords with Israel -- in which both sides agreed to "recognize their mutual legitimate and political rights ... and achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement and historic reconciliation through the agreed political process" -- now says it never consented to the terms of the deal. Fatah's formal rejection of the Oslo terms of reference essentially constitutes the PLO's renunciation of the entire agreement.

Ever since Hamas militarily took over Gaza in 2007, advocates of the peace process have been promoting reconciliation between the Fatah-led government and the Islamist terrorist organization in the hopes of jump-starting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The Obama administration via its peace envoy George Mitchell is even pressing for Syrian assistance in forging a Palestinian national unity government. Given Fatah's latest pronouncements, however, one wonders how this development would help move the talks along. Today, Fatah and Hamas are fighting for power in the Palestinian Authority (PA), but philosophically speaking, their positions on Israel appear closer than ever.

I had always believed that there were moderates within Fatah -- like Natsheh -- who supported peace negotiations and sought reconciliation with Israel. Even with the ascendance of Hamas, one could always point to a "peace constituency" among the Palestinians. But when people like Rafik Natsheh start denying Israel's right to exist, it's a sign that the Palestinian political center has shifted. Moderates still exist and the PA continues to take some positive steps -- such as removing militant preachers from West Bank mosques and cooperating with Israel on security matters -- but its actions seem more focused on preventing Hamas inroads than promoting peace with Israel. Indeed, recent reports indicate that the PA is currently naming streets in the West Bank after terrorists.

Sixteen years after the Oslo Accords -- and following repeated claims of Oslo's death -- Natsheh's comments confirm the end of that peace process. For years, Washington has placed its hopes in Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president who also serves as Fatah's leader. But in the absence of any denial coming from Abbas, the comments of Natsheh -- a close associate of Abbas -- stand as Fatah's official position. Today, Fatah may be better than Hamas, but the organization is clearly no panacea. Based on Fatah's disposition toward Israel, it is all but assured that a Palestinian national unity government will not advance negotiations. The sooner the Obama administration recognizes Fatah's shortcomings, the sooner it can start developing a new paradigm for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.



Stop the Blanket Militarization of Humanitarian Aid

The U.S. military has performed successful aid missions in war zones. But that doesn't mean it will work everywhere.

U.S. foreign aid has never been perfect, but the seeping of military and antiterrorism initiatives into development work threatens to take humanitarian efforts to a new low.

In an attempt to win the hearts and minds of local populations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military reasoned that it must demonstrate the concrete benefits of collaborating with Americans in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban. They used soldiers and other military personnel to build schools and bridges in these countries -- with mixed success. This engendered a tendency to apply the approach anywhere in the world where there was a whiff of al Qaeda activity. To this end, the percentage of U.S. foreign aid channeled through the military increased from 6 to 20 percent worldwide between 2002 and 2007.

But though using the military as a development agency can make sense in a war zone, mixing their two very different missions is enormously problematic in most other contexts.

In the West African country of Mali, where I have been researching agricultural development issues for more than 20 years, there has been low-grade al Qaeda activity occurring in the northern frontier over the past few years. The marginal desert region between Mali and its neighbors is appealing real estate for would-be terrorists because it is difficult to control and monitor. It provides space for camps and opportunities for terrorist cells to tax cross-border trade and occasionally kidnap foreign nationals for ransom. The U.S. government provides assistance to Mali's military to manage and contain the few, mostly foreign, al Qaeda bands in this small area of the country.

But now the U.S. military is getting involved in development work across Mali and in several other countries in the Sahel region of West Africa -- as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan -- despite the de minimis al Qaeda threat. Now, military personnel repair schools, wells, health centers, roads, and bridges. Army doctors provide basic treatment and vaccinations. In fiscal year 2008, the Defense Department gave the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Mali $9.5 million to run a counterterrorism program, with close coordination between the two. The program provides curriculum advice to Koranic schools and job training for young men (who are seen as highly susceptible to Islamist rhetoric). USAID has also built 14 community radio stations that broadcast programming on peace and tolerance.

But this reframing of aid to Mali within the fight against terrorism could prove counterproductive. The Pentagon has taken its conceptualization of the fight against al Qaeda in war zones and applied it broadly in a peaceful country. In the past, U.S. involvement in West African countries like Mali has focused intently on humanitarian assistance, not a geopolitical agenda.

And there is little reason to think military-supplied aid assistance will work better. Malians may resent it reflexively: The United States has a checkered history and a terrible reputation for its involvement in other African states, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire) during the Cold War. It can also mean making development take a back seat to other goals -- recipients sense that their welfare is not the real priority and fear political interference. Development aid for its own sake is the best way to maintain strong allies in the region and foster healthy, pluralistic societies.

The U.S. government has long provided such valuable help. Organizations such as the Peace Corps and USAID have worked in Mali for more than 40 years, since it gained independence from France. Volunteers live in villages, speak local languages, and have facilitated community development work for decades, cultivating friendships and lasting positive change. The gains are significant in healthcare, agriculture, forestry, sanitation, small-enterprise development, and education.

Malians have a mostly positive attitude toward the United States as a result -- and President Barack Obama is very popular as well. In contrast, most Malians with whom I have spoken in recent months are deeply suspicious of al Qaeda, which they consider an outside organization dominated by foreigners with little interest in the Malian people.

There have of course been many problems with U.S. foreign assistance (including the provision of aid to dictators), but many of these failures occurred because lasting development was not the first priority. But skilled aid workers have the soft skills, historical and cultural knowledge, and technical expertise needed for effective development. The U.S. military, on the other hand, is good at fighting and building temporary infrastructure -- not human development.

As such, recent attempts by the U.S. military to become involved in development in Mali and its neighbors make little sense. The United States is already viewed positively by the local population. Other agencies are better positioned to facilitate and have a track record of positive change. When the military becomes involved in development work, the local population comes to see these efforts as part of a larger military campaign. And that's a dangerous precedent to set.

Flickr user Peter Casier and the World Food Programme