Mideast Din Drowns Out Palestinianshttp://www.nytimes.com/2012/
RAMALLAH, West Bank — In the 14 months since revolution has spread across the Middle East and tension has soared over Iran’s nuclear program, the Palestinian leadership has found itself orphaned. Politically divided, its peace talks with Israel collapsed and its foreign support waning, the Palestinian Authority is sidelined, confused and worried that its people may return to violence.
“The biggest challenge we face — apart from occupation — is marginalization,” Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, said in an interview. “This is a direct consequence of the Arab Spring where people are preoccupied with their own domestic affairs. The United States is in an election year and has economic problems, Europe has its worries. We’re in a corner.”
For decades, as autocrats ruled their neighbors, the Palestinians were at the center of Middle Eastern politics, their struggle with Israeli occupation embodying the Arab longing for post-colonial freedom and dignity. The Obama administration came into office asserting that a state in the West Bank and Gaza was the key to regional progress.
But when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel visited Washington this week, the conversation was dominated by Iran, not peace talks or occupation.
In the region, the Arab Spring may have increased popular attention to the Palestinian cause, freeing Egyptians and others to express anti-Israel sentiments. But that has actually made things harder on the Palestine Liberation Organization, which negotiated with Israel. Popular affection has shifted to the Islamists of Hamas. They too have difficulties, however, abandoning their political headquarters in Syria, facing reduced help from Iran and contending with their increased divisions.
The result is a serial splintering of the Palestinian movement, a loss of state sponsors and paralysis for those trying to build a state next to Israel. Just six months ago, there was a moment of optimism when the Palestinian Authority presented its case for recognition to the United Nations, and later when Hamas closed a deal to free hundreds of its prisoners in exchange for the release of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.
But now, as momentum for a peaceful two-state solution fades, and the effort at the United Nations remains stymied, no viable alternatives have emerged and attention has focused on other conflicts.
Zakaria al-Qaq, a Palestinian expert in national security at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, said he recently joined dozens of other foreign scholars for a series of lectures on his specialty in the United States. Not a single one mentioned the Palestinian issue.
“I don’t see Palestine on the agenda of the United States or Israel,” he said. “It is on the shelf. The Palestinians don’t have the ability to impose themselves on the world and they can’t mobilize their people. The Arab world is busy. The Palestinians are becoming secondary.”
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, known for indecisiveness, seems especially torn on how to proceed. He and his lieutenants have been working for weeks on a multipage letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, laying out all the reasons they believe that Israel has stood in the way of peaceful progress.
He plans to deliver a copy to American and European leaders as well, explaining why he thinks he must abandon the Israeli peace track and reconsider the Palestinian Authority’s relationship with Israel. And while diplomats are sympathetic with his frustration over Israel’s refusal to stop settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, they suspect that Mr. Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, feels politically unable to compromise with Israel at this time of upheaval.
“The political price Abu Mazen pays for being in negotiations with Netanyahu is too high right now,” a top Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “People in this region believe that you are either protesting or being protested against. He has decided it is better to protest.”
The problem is not only a Palestinian one, however. Mr. Netanyahu’s government and its supporters also say that the regional tumult makes it harder for them to yield territory.
“Israelis have always been concerned that if they make difficult and strategic concession in the peace process, what will happen if the regimes with which they signed an agreement are overthrown?” noted Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a longtime adviser to Mr. Netanyahu.
“Israel has to be extremely cautious and ratchet up its security concerns. Will the Palestinian Authority be the Palestinian Authority one year from now? When European diplomats come to Israel and ask it for new territorial concessions, it is like asking us to put up a tent in the middle of a hurricane.”
Others argue that as Palestinian frustration grows the chance of an explosion in the West Bank increases. Rock throwing and confrontations with Israeli troops have picked up in recent months.
“We don’t want to be employees of the occupation,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in an interview. “Israel has left the Palestinian Authority with responsibility but no power. At the same time, Israel has gotten the international community to pay the bill. It has a cushy occupation.”
The end of the Israeli track has pushed Mr. Abbas to pursue reconciliation with Hamas. But that too has faltered. Announced in a flourish last May, the plan for a unity government that would ready the Palestinians for elections has stalled largely over internal Hamas divisions on the plan.
Khaled Meshal, the political chief of Hamas who was based in Syria, agreed that Mr. Abbas would become the prime minister in the interim government. But his colleagues in Gaza objected to the way he negotiated without consultation. There are divisions among them and within the military wing of Hamas. Few Palestinians believe that elections are imminent; many suspect that they are a long way off.
Meanwhile, the distractions in the Arab world along with Israeli maneuvers have contributed to a worsening fiscal crisis for the Palestinian Authority even as the private sector here builds a modern infrastructure, creating a small but impressive business class.
Economic growth for the West Bank, which from 2008 to 2010 averaged 10 percent, slowed to 5.7 percent in 2011 with unemployment remaining at 17 percent, said Oussama Kanaan, of the International Monetary Fund. Last year, Arab countries together gave only $340 million to the Palestinian Authority, leaving it with $200 million less than expected.
The authority has been unable to pay its debts to private companies and the public pension fund, leaving it about $500 million in arrears, in addition to its debt of $1.1 billion to private banks.
Agreements between the Palestinian and Israeli finance ministries to improve Palestinian revenue collection have not been carried out because the Israeli government has not signed off. Prime Minister Fayyad said that unless those measures went into effect, he might not attend a donors conference planned for Brussels this month.
At the same time, Israeli troops have stepped up their nighttime raids on West Bank cities, recently shutting down two television stations and contributing to the sense of impotence.
“We need attention to our finances, our security and to the violence from the Israeli Army,” Mr. Fayyad said. “What the army has been doing is both wrong and dangerous. It makes us look like a weak authority. They don’t know when there will be one incident too many, when things will simply spin out of control.”