Editor's note: Barack Obama's special envoy to the Middle East has arrived in the region to broker indirect talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Washington hopes that former senator George Mitchell — the man largely attributed with bringing peace to Northern Ireland — can produce a handshake between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders. A senior official in Jerusalem told Israeli media that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ready to open the "proximity talks" at a meeting scheduled for Wednesday with Mitchell.
BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The good news is that the West Bank is normal — kind of — and that people are content — sort of. The bad news, the Palestine Liberation Organization thinks it’s responsible for the good news.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who’s also the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chief, has decided to stamp down on the man who’s actually made life bearable in the West Bank, Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, and his plan to declare a unilateral Palestinian state in 2011.
At a meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, effectively the PLO’s ruling body, Abbas said this week that only the PLO was allowed to make decisions on behalf of the Palestinian people.
"It’s not the factions or the governments that take ownership of decisions," Abbas said.
Abbas wants to continue on the path that has led the Palestinians and the Israelis nowhere. So-called “proximity talks,” in which they talk via U.S. mediators, are supposed to start again soon. They’re unlikely to change anything.
Fayyad, who’s a political independent appointed to his post by Abbas mainly because the Americans insisted on it, announced his plan last year for the declaration of a state. The idea: truly to ready Palestinian institutions for independence and to dare Israel — and the U.S. — to oppose it.
Fayyad’s ability to clean up the economy and reform the security forces has made him popular among Palestinians. He’s also seen as untainted by the violence and corruption of the two main political parties, Abbas’s Fatah and the Hamas rulers of Gaza.
That makes him a potential rival to Fatah. PLO chiefs fear that if Fayyad declares a Palestinian state and the U.S. cheers, maybe its bankrollers in Washington and Oslo and Brussels will cut the PLO out of the power and money loop. That, after all, is what the PLO is all about. “organization” is the operative word in the name of the PLO, rather than “liberation."
A visit to Bethlehem this week delineates the precise choice on offer between Abbas and Fayyad.
In the Dehaisha Refugee Camp, less than a square mile that’s home to more than 16,000 poor Palestinians, there are bulletholes in the walls of the U.N. girls' school, left over from the second intifada. A reminder of the final bankruptcy of the PLO and its failure to convert itself from an outlaw band into a true government after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993.
The casualties of that long descent into destruction are painted all over the walls. On the pedestrian bridge the girls cross to reach their school, there’s a 10-foot graffito of Said Eid, masked and firing a mortar. He was killed by an Israeli Apache helicopter in 2003. As the girls come down on the other side, they pass another big stencil in black paint. This time it’s Ayat Akhras, at 16 the youngest female suicide bomber, who left her home in Dehaisha in 2002 to kill herself, a 17-year-old Israeli girl and an aging supermarket guard. She raises a pistol like a naif Bond girl.
At the corner, a falafel restaurant is decorated with murals of all the martyrs of the Palestinians, from Ghassan Kanafani, writer and Popular Front activist killed by the Israelis in Lebanon in 1972, to a collection of the intifada’s most famous victims, and above them Khalil Wazir, the Arafat lieutenant assassinated by Israel in 1988.
A continuation of that fatal litany is, frankly, what’s offered by the “proximity” talks. Because they’ll lead only to frustration, a sense that nothing can be achieved by negotiation, and a resultant impetus toward violence.
What’s the alternative?
Mike Canawati, one of Bethlehem’s leading businessmen, describes trade in his tourist shop on the road to the Church of the Nativity, the site of Jesus’s birth, as “excellent, really excellent.” That’s the result of Fayyad’s ability to convince the Israeli army that checkpoints can be lifted and his commitment to a higher level of training among Palestinian security forces, so that tourists don’t fear to enter Bethlehem as they did for much of the last decade.
It isn’t a total shift. The dangers are simply less immediately apparent. Canawati still sits at his desk flanked by a screen with 16 different closed-circuit images of the store, the alley behind it, his black Hummer parked at the side of the building.
Only the night before we met, he had welcomed 700 Italian diners in his banquet hall near the church. “We should be thankful to these people for coming to our town,” Canawati said. During the dinner, a group of Fatah people entered and unfurled banners protesting that the Italians would later hold a meeting with Israelis in Jerusalem. “I had a big argument with them,” he said, “and I threw them out.”
Back in Dehaisha, I took my son to a birthday party at a friend’s home. My friend spent nine years in an Israeli jail without charge. He was, in fact, in jail seven years ago when the birthday boy was born. Now he’s studying for a Master’s degree in law.
A clown blew long balloons and tied them into the shape of swords. I found myself strangely relieved that they weren’t bent into Kalashnikovs.
When the birthday cake came out, the clown’s assistant emerged dressed as SpongeBob SquarePants. She sang “Happy Birthday” in Arabic with the aid of ear-splitting amplification and did some unexpected SpongeBob belly dancing moves.
Whatever Abbas and his PLO cronies say, that’s the kind of reality we should be wishing on the people of Dehaisha.