Saturday, April 08, 2006

Failure of imagination

In politics––as in most other areas of life for that matter––credibility is everything. Why is President Bush in such trouble? Loss of credibility. Why are the Democrats unable to do much about it? Lack of credibility.

In their first week in office, the newly elected Hamas government blundered mightily. Faced with international demands that they accept Israel and recognize prior agreements––demands that are anathema to all that Hamas stands for––newly installed Foreign Minister Mahmound Zahar a wrote a letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan with a sentence suggesting the possibility of recognizing Israel.

A furor arose when it became apparent that the letter sent to Annan differed substantially from the copy of the letter made public in Gaza. Specifically, the letter made available for local consumption omitted the offending sentence.

Caught in an act of duplicity, a Hamas spokesman insisted that they had sent an early draft of the letter to Annan by accident, and that the Gaza draft was the final draft.

Funny how that happens.

Zahar, Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and some others get together. Someone writes a draft letter to Kofi Annan with a sentence that essentially reverses the central position of Hamas. Then they argue back and forth. Ismail says no. Mahmoud says we have to. Ismail finally says no way. OK, they agree, let’s remove that sentence. So, who is going past the post office?

Oops, they sent the wrong letter.

In the meantime, Annan’s office insists that they have not received a revised letter, or any communication from Zahar suggesting an error was made.

But none of that really matters. The notion that Palestinian leadership would say one thing for world consumption and another to the Palestinian street is not news. Dog bites man, so to speak.

The election of Hamas upset the status quo in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Faced with the prospect of an unraveling of the peace process, the quartet of nations overseeing the “roadmap” moved quickly to demand that Hamas come into the tent. Demands were made that Hamas must recognize Israel. Threats were made that aid would be cut off. In the early, panicked moments, no thought seemed to be given to the fact that recognition under duress was meaningless.

In one sense the election of Hamas was a breath of fresh air. At least they were honest and said what they believed at home and to the world at large. At first blush, they appeared to bring a sense of integrity and credibility to the process.

But with the duplicity surrounding the U.N. letter, it appears that not much has changed. The fact is that there has not been a peace process and cannot be one in a situation where one letter is sent to the international community, while another version is circulated at home––an apt metaphor for the long-time practice of the Palestinian leadership of saying the right things in diplomatic circles while stoking the fires of hatred at home.

Even as there has been a sea change with the Palestinian election of Hamas, the politics of peace in Israel have been transformed. According to Yoram Peri, Director of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society at Tel Aviv University, Arik Sharon’s great insight in forming Kadima was his early recognition that the Israeli landscape has fundamentally evolved with respect to the peace process.

As Peri describes it, Sharon recognized that even as 70% of Israelis indicate that they are prepared to make significant sacrifices for peace, they have also come to accept the likelihood that peace will not be achieved in their lifetime. An Israeli electorate that was long defined by the division between the “Land for Peace” camp on the left and the “Peace for Peace” camp on the right was ready to move on to other issues. The success of Kadima reflects a fundamental redefinition of the nation’s politics around issues of wealth, poverty and national prosperity. The withdrawal from Gaza and construction of the separation barrier on the West Bank are the physical manifestations of a politics and psychology of separation, of a people who are reconciled to move on.

Hamas has stepped to the fore just as Israeli is walking away. It is ironic that even as Hamas is steadfast in their commitment to the destruction of the State of Israel and rejection of the Oslo accords, they continue to assert their demands for what Israel and others must do for them. From the Israelis whom they are sworn to destroy, they demand continued services as provided under accords they now reject. From the international community, they demand continued aid that was agreed in the wake of these same accords. From the Arab League they demand aid to insulate the Palestinians from the consequences of their own decisions.

One week in office and the Hamas that promised new leadership has become just more of the same. Unfortunately, the failure of Hamas goes beyond a loss of credibility, but reflects a failure of imagination, an inability to imagine a future different from the past.

The peace process is over, for no Palestinian leadership will now be able to accept what the Israelis might be prepared to offer. But in fact, the Palestinians and Israelis do not need a peace agreement, a long-term truce in the model of Korea will do just fine.

But what the Palestinians desperately need, and what Hamas has been unable to offer, is a vision of the future. And for this the Asian model of note is Singapore. Founded as an independent nation forty years ago––one year after the creation of the PLO––Singapore was a tiny, crowded, impoverished nation with no resources. In the ensuing decades, based on a national strategy centered on foreign investment and education, they have built one of the most successful economies in the world.

Singapore has become the model for national development, as other nations are learning. Earlier this year, Intel announced plans to build a major chip plant in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam as part of a network of seven plants including ones in Malasyia, Costa Rica and China. Ismail Haniya and Mahmoud Zahar should have greater things on their mind than wordsmithing letters to Kofi Annan. Instead, they should be asking “Why not Gaza City?” The Palestinians, whose population is educated and a stone’s throw from Intel’s operations in Israel, should be ready to embrace a vision of the future that is different from the past. But that would require two new things from the Palestinian leadership: imagination and an end of the politics of dependency.

Now that would be news. Man bites dog, as they say.

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