Weak leaders responding poorly

The revolutionary events sweeping the region, Egypt especially, have thus far produced a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the PLO and Palestinian Authority leadership that seemingly reflects a shallow decision-making process in Ramallah. The same, undoubtedly, can be said for the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem.

The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah declared elections–long-delayed elections–on the assumption that affording the citizenry a free choice at the polls would preempt any notion of inducing change through mass demonstrations. But it seemingly forgot to check first with Hamas in Gaza. The latter promptly rejected the idea, thereby eliminating any possibility of free choice in the Palestinian context and causing PA President Mahmoud Abbas to pull back from the elections idea.

Meanwhile, another long-delayed project–reconstituting the PA government–was also quickly restarted. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s cabinet was dissolved several weeks ago. A new one has not yet been formed. Here, too, hasty appeals to Hamas to somehow get involved in the new move and thereby facilitate elections also appear to have failed.

Hamas, incidentally, is waiting in Gaza for some sort of breakthrough in its relations with Egypt, presumably due to Muslim Brotherhood influence in Cairo. This has yet to materialize; even the dramatic Egyptian announcement of a permanently-open Rafah crossing linking Gaza to Sinai has yet to reach fruition and be translated into a new policy departure. Still, hopes appear to be high among Hamas leaders that, with new-found Egyptian support, they can negotiate reconciliation with the PLO from a position of strength.

No one in the Palestinian leadership has as yet paid a price for the recent hasty and seemingly ill-considered moves, for three likely reasons. First, the regimes in both Ramallah and Gaza are maintaining a tight security grip. Second, at the end of the day, both Abbas and the Hamas leadership in Gaza were chosen in fair elections, while the Fayyad government has delivered substantial benefits for Palestinians. And third, precisely because the revolution, in Egypt as elsewhere, is still a work in progress whose consequences for Palestinians are impossible to predict, many are simply sitting tight.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has let it be known, mainly by means of leaks from the erstwhile spin-masters surrounding him, that he too intends to respond dramatically to events–in his case, by launching a new peace initiative that will probably involve a partial agreement or Palestinian state with temporary borders. He may even ask his Republican supporters in the United States Congress to invite him to address a joint session and present his program there in the hope of achieving maximum bombastic effect. None of this is expected to happen before the spring, meaning that at this point it’s all spin designed to fend off pressures.

Unlike Abbas, Netanyahu is not acting out of fear that mass demonstrations will sweep away his regime. In the Israeli case, the pressures and politics involved are both parliamentary and international. The recent US veto of a Security Council resolution condemning settlements, together with Quartet preparations to take a major new initiative regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, demonstrate just how isolated Israel has become under Netanyahu. More pressure to "do something" is coming from the Kadima-led centrist opposition, which is gaining in the polls, while within the right-wing coalition calls are mounting to stop muzzling settlement growth. And precisely because Netanyahu has knowingly surrounded himself with an anti-peace coalition, the best he will probably be able to do in his much-hyped Bar Ilan II speech is present a collection of half-baked, stale ideas for a partial solution that the Palestinians have already rejected.

In Netanyahu’s case–and again, bearing in mind that we really don’t know what is going to happen next in the region–the object of the exercise is to gain a day, or a week, or a month, before having to come up with some sort of new spin. In the case of Abbas and Fayyad, the objective is to get to September, when their state-building enterprise is expected to find expression in international recognition of a Palestinian state that coincides with near-total isolation of Israel.

The Palestinians have the better long-term plan. Yet as matters stand, none of this will bring about a productive peace process. That is not going to happen between Abbas and Netanyahu.