What Passes for Palestinian Politics

Quite unsurprisingly, the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” that John Kerry wanted to resuscitate appears to be collapsing (again). In Tablet Magazine, Lee Smith has a smart take on the situation: he argues that the jockeying for power among the Palestinian factions is an under-recognized factor: “The Palestinians can’t negotiate with Israel when they’re so busy fighting amongst themselves.” Smith goes on to make a broader point: “Washington policy wonks ignore the intra-Arab context of Arab politics.” I’d amplify that point: the more one pays attention to the context of Arab politics, the more one realizes how different it is from ours.

The American model holds that government should be accountable to its citizens, that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” But the prevalent view in the region is that unbridled power to dominate others is the point of government; politics is the messy business of attempting to seize the reins of power. Witness the region’s variations on the theme of tyranny: Assad’s tenacious hold on power in Syria, the police state that Mubarak presided over in Egypt, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s religious rule.

Of a piece with all that, the Palestinian Authority is a tyranny run by gangs of thugs, albeit dressed in tailored suits, who crush dissent and make opponents disappear in the dark of night. They mouth the genteel words of diplomacy while endorsing horrific violence and suicide bombers. And that’s the supposedly more “moderate” Fatah-led faction. (Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip after a 2007 civil war, aspires to enforce Islamist rule.) Even sympathizers of the PA will allow themselves to complain that it is graft-ridden. It is, monumentally so (Jonathan Schanzer’s new book State of Failure delivers a comprehensive accounting on that score). There’s a temptation to view such corruption as somehow an accidental feature or just bad luck (supposedly solvable by a change in personnel). But I’d argue it is a natural consequence of the view that governing means exploiting and dominating others.

That’s what passes for Palestinian politics. What’s surprising here is not that the peace process imploded again, but that the Palestinian side can be considered even a notional partner in peace.