Monday, August 10, 2009

FATAH MEETS & IRAN RACES (two postings)

Abbas's bully pulpit

In keeping with a long tradition of "helping Abu Mazen," Israel made it possible for Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah General Assembly to gather 2,000 delegates in Bethlehem beginning August 4. The assembly is an effort to demonstrate that Fatah remains the vanguard of the Palestinian polity. Delegates have come from around the Arab world, save for Hamas-controlled Gaza.

The atmosphere for the conference was auspicious. The Obama administration has been ostentatiously leaning on Israel to halt all housing construction over the Green Line. Life under the "occupation" - now that the Palestinians are not systematically shooting at us - isn't at all bad. Over the weekend, for instance, the main north-south West Bank highway, Route 60, was jammed with Palestinian and Israeli traffic; intrusive security restrictions affecting average Palestinians were nowhere to be seen. The West Bank economy is doing relatively well. And Israel's leadership has committed itself to the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state.

Under these circumstances one might have expected Abbas to finally begin the process of socializing Palestinians to the idea of coexistence with Israel and the need to compromise on borders and refugees. Instead, Fatah remained steadfastly uncompromising.

Armed resistance, Abbas's assembly declared, remains legitimate though for tactical reasons will be held in abeyance - for now; violent "civil disobedience" is laudable; recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is out of the question; and Fatah will continue to insist that the descendants of some 700,000 Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war - today numbering in the millions - have a "right of return" to Israel proper to, in effect, demographically asphyxiate its Jewish population.

Abbas summed matters up this way: "The Fatah movement was established so as to liberate all the Palestinian lands and we will not concede even a single inch. We will continue our struggle and with the path of resistance until we establish our state whose capital is a united Jerusalem that is purged of settlements and settlers."

He then invoked Jerusalem's place in Islamic and Christian traditions, willfully disregarding what Zion has meant to Jewish civilization from time immemorial.

SOME SAY the bellicose rhetoric is traceable to schisms within Fatah pitting old timers led by Abbas and Ahmed Qurei, who returned from Tunis with Yasser Arafat after the 1993 Oslo Accords, and the transitional generation of Mohammed Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub and the popular Marwan Barghouti (imprisoned in Israel on multiple counts of murder). They, in turn, are challenged by a politically toothless younger generation - some associated with the Aksa Martyrs' Brigades (Fatah's armed wing).

Others suggest that Fatah did not want to appear "soft" toward Israel in relation to Hamas. But the Islamists have been losing their appeal among Fatah's disenchanted bourgeois base partly because of the way they have been coercing religious behavior on Gazans. Fatah is now slightly more popular than Hamas among all Palestinians.

Still, many of them view the assembly with a cynical eye. That Abbas was re-elected "general commander" running unopposed did not help Fatah's credibility.

FOR Israelis, what matters is that rather than demonstrating leadership, Abbas and Fatah made demagogic appeals to a Palestinian street that sees moderation as weakness. This self-defeating intransigence is a deep-seated facet of Palestinian political culture. Abbas had a bully pulpit to coax the population in a more moderate direction, yet he and other Fatah leaders took the easy road - scapegoating Israel.

Still, the assembly generated enough prevarication and dissimulation to perpetuate the pose that Fatah is a genuinely "moderate" alternative to Hamas.

Abbas apologists will claim that the Palestinian Liberation Organization - not Fatah - acts for the Palestinians. In fact, Fatah controls the PLO. They will point out that Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, a technocratic outsider, is actually running the Palestinian Authority in a constructive manner with Abbas's blessing. This claim has more justification, though Fayad, who was imposed on Abbas by the US, has limited influence.

When the incendiary rhetoric from Bethlehem is over, chances are unfortunately remote that Washington - much less Europe - will ease off on the red-herring issue of settlements to take Abbas to task for not using the assembly to preach peace, compromise and coexistence.

At times like this, it seems "helping Abu Mazen" has become an end in itself.


Boycott Ahmadinejad

Say what you want about Iran - at least it's not North Korea. There is a world of difference between a totalitarian state ruled by a demigod, where the merest blush of opposition is unimaginable, and an authoritarian regime, rooted in religious fanaticism, in which the members of the ruling clique publicly duke it out. But what if those distinctions become less meaningful as Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his protégé President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continue to consolidate power while their regime takes its final steps toward constructing a nuclear weapon?

This week saw Bill Clinton parleying with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. In return for the visit - Pyongyang insisted on the former US president, husband of the current secretary of state, as emissary - the North Koreans released two American journalists they were holding hostage.

With this US concession in the bank, Kim may now be willing to return to "six-party" talks - if Washington relaxes existing sanctions and drops its demand that North Korea first give up its nuclear weapons program.

MEANWHILE, it's becoming increasingly apparent that Ahmadinejad is the true face of the Iranian regime directed by Khamenei. Having stolen the anyway rigged June 12 election, the two leaders don't seem bothered that their political adversaries boycotted Ahmadinejad's second-term swearing-in ceremony.

These dissidents - former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, for instance - are mostly embittered reactionaries, not liberal reformers. Now, a new intramural dispute is raging over whom Ahmadinejad will appoint as his senior vice-president (and possible successor). On the sidelines, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the defeated presidential candidate - no flaming liberal himself - is left to post his criticisms on the Internet.

According to The New York Times, Ahmadinejad is in firm control. He's backed by Khamenei, parliament and the Revolutionary Guards, and enjoys the acquiescence of influential religious figures.

Indeed, anyone who watched Khamenei as he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Ahmadinejad throughout the inauguration ceremony and saw the men warmly embracing afterward would not delude themselves into thinking that the two are not in lock-step.

AS IF to bookend events in Iran and North Korea, this week marks the 64th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Even if Iranian elites remain divided over Ahmadinejad, this in no way diminishes the dangers represented by the country's nuclear program. If anything, Khamenei may have an incentive to accelerate the project to rally the nation and underscore the prowess of his leadership.

But what if the cost of pursuing the bomb undermined his position? As it is, many educated Iranians have lost faith in the legitimacy of their political system because of the election fiasco. Inflation hovers at 26 percent; real unemployment is probably 40%. The world's second-largest oil-producer has to import 40% of its gasoline.

Now more than ever, the country desperately needs international investment. The bad news is that it's getting it. China announced this week an investment of $3 billion-$6b. in Iran's oil sector. Pakistan announced freight train service between the two countries. And an unnamed European company will reportedly invest $4 billion in Iran's Lavan gas field.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insists that engagement with Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is still on the table. The administration set a September deadline for the Iranians to start talking. Teheran's apologists say the time limit resulted from Zionist pressure and isn't based on any objective threat. Others imply that it's too late to talk - or to level draconian sanctions.

London's Times reported this week that "Iran has perfected the technology to create and detonate a nuclear warhead and is merely awaiting the word from... Khamenei, to produce its first bomb."

Either way, the current Iranian leadership is not interested in substantive negotiations.

YET THE stakes are far too high to give up. Iran is not North Korea. The Obama administration should lead the civilized world in refusing to recognize the Ahmadinejad regime. It should offer to cooperate with any Iranian leadership that abandons nuclear weapons, ends support for terrorism, and frees political prisoners.

Iran is the lynch-pin to President Barack Obama's hopes for a world that is free of nuclear weapons. Conversely, an Iranian nuclear bomb would unleash a new atomic arms race in the already volatile Middle East.

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