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Today in pondering the mess that is the Middle East, and epecially Arab politics within it, and especially Palestinian politics within that, I was startled to realize that today is roughly the anniversary of a conversation.
Almost precisely 35 years ago I was standing on a balcony in Beirut, Lebanon, with Hisham Sharabi, one of my professors in college, a Palestinian and a strong supporter of Naif Hawatmeh’s Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). It was a small terrorist group that was part of the PLO and which prided itself on being really Marxist as compared to the nationalist Fatah and radical Arab nationalist Popular Front.
We were out of earshot of anyone else and I asked Sharabi about the possibility of peace in the future and whether Palestinians would ever search their consciences about the deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians. Sharabi sighed and said, as closely as I can reproduce his words:
“Many things that have done have been disgraceful. And one day I believe that Palestinian intellectuals will publicly denounce these actions and the movement will become moderate and democratic.”
He never made such a speech or wrote such an article.
After all, here was a great man, a student of French philosophy and advocate of major social reform who wrote a monograph arguing that Israel was lying by underestimating its real casualties at the hands of the PLO. The methodology was to go through Israeli newspapers and count up all the obituaries of men between the ages of around 18 to 40. The assumption was that Israel was merely pretending that they had died in traffic accidents or disease when actually they had been shot down by heroic Palestinian warriors.
On this issue, rationality was–and is–suspended. Insanity reigns. And even the best are both participants and victims.
Sharabi did have a brief romance with the peace process in the early 1990s–he always had a strong distaste for Yasir Arafat–and even visited Israel to see his pre-1948 neighborhood here. But this mood didn’t outlast a few months. Soon he was back making propaganda for the movement. In our last talk before his death, he was still trying to convince me that Israel would be better off negotiating with small Marxist and radical groups than with Arafat.
He was right about Arafat but wrong about the groups.
Here we are a third of a century after that conversation predicting–and wishing?–that the movement would take a sharp turn and truly break with its past. It still hasn’t happened. I can pick up a Palestinian Authority newspaper, listen to a radio broadcast, or hear a mosque sermon and though there has been some change, it falls far short of a decisive break.
Over the years I have sometimes written and frequently contemplated writing my own versions of speeches for Palestinian leaders to make. “My fellow Palestinians, the time has come to lay down our old grievances–however just–and end the conflict in exchange for a state. Of course, all refugees should be settled in the new state of Palestine, using the compensation money that has been offered us. Instead of the dream of total victory we should have the reality of a country developing its culture and economy, working for the security and happiness of its people….”
But I can’t write those speeches and neither can Barack Obama or anyone else.
The problem is not just that such a day of real transformation hasn’t come yet but that it isn’t in sight at all. This is the real tragedy of the Palestinians. This is the real reason why there is no–and is not about to be a–Palestinian state.
And until that transformation comes from within, all the world’s statesmen and all the world’s diplomats and all the world’s foundations and conflict management phonies and experts cannot put it together.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org. His blog, Rubin Reports is at http://rubinreports.blogspot.com/.