The Road from Mecca

Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books:

Screenhunter_02_apr_22_1714The idea that negotiations conducted bilaterally between Israelis and Palestinians somehow can produce a final agreement is dead. The world, slowly, is coming to this realization. Its fate was sealed in part because neither side has the ability, on its own, to close the gaps between the positions they have taken. The two parties also lack any sense of trust, but that, too, is not an overriding explanation. If bilateral negotiations have become a fast track to a dead end it is because today neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli political system possesses the requisite degree of coherence and cohesion.

On the Palestinian side, the national movement is undergoing its most fundamental, far-reaching, and destabilizing transformation since Yasser Arafat took it over and molded it in his image over four decades ago. The transformation is more complex than a mere question of succession. It is the metamorphosis that comes with the passing of a man who gradually had become the movement and on whom all serious political deliberation depended. Arafat achieved what, before him, was the stuff of unachievable dreams and, after him, has become the object of wistful nostalgia: the identification of man and nation; the transcendence of party politics; and the expression of a tacit, unspoken consensus.

Competing organizations, leftist and Islamist in particular, challenged him. He faced opposition and dissent within his own Fatah. One after another, Arab countries sought to bend the nationalist movement to their will. But by dint of hard work, personal charisma, and political acumen, and assisted in no small measure by the steady accumulation and astute use of arms and funds, Arafat managed to control Fatah, co-opt the leftists, keep the Islamists at bay and Arab states at arm’s length.

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