On the benefits and pitfalls of national unity

In my last posting I praised the Sixth Fatah General Congress for its unity on the two most important national issues facing the Palestinian people: the identity of the leadership and the national strategy for liberation and ending the occupation. Some Ibishblog readers complained that the retention by acclamation of President Mahmoud Abbas was not a good thing, and that unity in support of a ?corrupt and failed? leadership was not a plus for the organization or for the Palestinian people. A few more words on the benefits and pitfalls of national and organizational unity are therefore in order.

All other things being equal, national unity is an important collective and strategic goal under virtually any circumstance. However, unity is only of paramount importance when it is in the service of a functional policy or system. The question of unity is therefore subject to the condition of political functionality: if unity helps to achieve an indispensable national goal, then it is of paramount importance; if it is an insurmountable obstacle to an overriding national imperative, then it cannot be considered of the first importance. Sometimes, history teaches, functional national unity can only be achieved following a period of deep, sometimes even severe, disunity in order to achieve the primacy of a reasonable political approach over an unreasonable one. Lincoln?s famous dictum that ?a house divided against itself cannot stand,? was made in plain view of one of the most violent internecine civil conflicts in recent human history, and eventually came to constitute a rallying cry for the majority of Americans against a minority hell-bent on unworkable and unacceptable policies and practices. When political dysfunctionality becomes overwhelming, sometimes unity cannot, and even should not, be achieved or maintained.

In the present Palestinian context, national disunity is mainly expressed through the split between the PA and Hamas politically and between the ruling entities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip respectively. This disunity is the product of a failed experiment in political cohabitation and divided government following two contradictory election results, the 2005 presidential election won overwhelmingly by President Abbas and the 2006 parliamentary elections that returned a solid majority for Hamas MPs. As I?ve noted many times in the past, these results divided Palestinian government between two parties which are pursuing not only incompatible but flatly contradictory agendas on both the national strategy for liberation and the character of Palestinian society. It was completely impossible that they should be able to find a modus vivendi for sharing power, especially since the inclusion of Hamas in the government led directly and inevitably to international isolation for the entire Palestinian leadership and all the Palestinian territories.

Since the violent split in the Palestinian house in the summer of 2007, it has become commonplace among many Palestinians, especially in the Diaspora, and their allies around the world, to refuse to choose sides between these two irreconcilable and contradictory agendas and to simply call for national unity at all costs. It is extremely appealing to do so as it is, among other things, a copout on the essential choice Palestinians and their supporters face between the nationalist agenda that seeks a negotiated agreement with Israel to end the occupation and the Islamist agenda that seeks confrontation until ?victory? (whatever that means). Here in the United States in particular, the national unity imperative allows people to avoid all the most difficult questions in favor of a position that is hard to argue with and is ostensibly above reproach. This is also the position, more or less, of several key Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who have been pressuring the Palestinians on all sides to reestablish national unity at all costs. This policy is driven by their own political discomfort, based largely on their internal domestic politics, with the Palestinian split and the profound political pressure resulting from the war in Gaza (which was a predictable consequence of the split).

The problem, of course, is that national unity between the PLO and Hamas is as impossible now as it was in 2006-2007. It is still the case that the internal and national liberation agendas of the two organizations are contradictory, and still the case that Hamas? behavior is largely driven by its ambition to marginalize and replace the PLO and all nationalist parties as the dominant Palestinian political formation and the international address for all things Palestine. The talks in Cairo have gone nowhere because agreement between these two positions is a practical impossibility. In addition, any arrangement that allowed Hamas to resume a role in government throughout the occupied territories would almost certainly result in the resumption of broad-based international isolation for all the Palestinian organizations and for the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip. Until Hamas seriously amends its policies such that it can be seen as a legitimate interlocutor by the international community (and, for that matter, for the Arab states as a practical reality), and accepts the goal of achieving a two-state end of conflict agreement with Israel and the legitimacy of existing Palestinian agreements, the costs of national reunification and reconciliation outweigh the benefits.

In many if not most Palestinian and pro-Palestinian circles, this is a heretical opinion, but if thought about seriously, it is also readily understood. The practical consequences of such a reconciliation, in the absence of significant policy adjustments from Hamas, would certainly be disastrous, especially a return to the crippling period of international isolation the Palestinians endured in 2006-2007. National disunity is exceptionally unfortunate, but surely the international isolation of all the leading Palestinian national parties is worse than the isolation of some, and obviously it would be of no benefit to the Palestinian people if the West Bank were to be subjected to the same treatment Gaza has been suffering under since the summer of 2007.

Moreover, from a practical point of view, everything serious the Palestinians can accomplish to improve their lot both in terms of living conditions and with regard to diplomatic progress towards independence requires negotiations with Israel. The painful reality is that Israel is in a position to block almost anything the Palestinians try to do to develop their society or move significantly in the direction of statehood. A situation in which the Israelis refuse to discuss anything meaningful with the entire Palestinian government will mean, in effect, paralysis not only at the diplomatic level, but also in terms of institution building, economic development and most, if not all, registers of national and civic life. As I noted in my recent posting about economic development, significant steps can be taken under the current circumstances, but without an end to the occupation, most necessary economic, institutional and political development of Palestinian society will remain impossible. What needs to be done now, and urgently, is to lay the groundwork for independence diplomatically in terms of the political register, and on the ground in terms of institutional, infrastructural and economic development in so far as possible.

Nobody wants to hear or read such words, and I don?t blame them, yet every serious person knows that this is, in fact, the reality that the Palestinians must face and deal with if they are serious about advancing their national interests. Only those who indulge in extravagant fantasies about an Islamic state from the river to the sea or a single democratic state to replace Israel can fail to understand these ineluctable facts. The bottom line is this: as long as Hamas continues to cling to policies that are completely dysfunctional and can only damage rather than advance the Palestinian national interest in practice, and as long as their inclusion in government sentences all the Palestinian national leadership and the whole of the occupied territories to international isolation, then disunity is, in fact, preferable to reunification. Better that only some elements of a people or national patrimony go charging suicidally off a cliff than for the entirety to do so in the name of unity.

Which brings us back to the question of the Fatah General Congress, and the retention of President Abbas as party leader by acclamation and without any significant challenge. I counted it among ?the good? elements coming out of the Congress, and it would seem that I need to explain this in a little more detail. I don?t have any illusions about the failings of Abu Mazen as a political leader, which are numerous and which I spelled out in some detail elsewhere. However, political parties, and for good reason, rarely dispense with sitting presidents, and naturally this proved to be another example. In addition, the practical alternative would have been a long, drawn out, possibly catastrophic, and perhaps even indecisive leadership battle that might have either split the movement irrevocably or resulted in an even less appealing and capable figure emerging as the new leader. One need only look at some of the individuals who showed party clout at the Congress to understand that for all his failings, Abbas is far from the least attractive person in a position of considerable influence in Fatah. Moreover, while he was retained by acclimation, Fatah cadres immediately began to agitate for the removal of the non-Fatah Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad. In other words, the general thrust of the Congress was not to replace the Fatah leadership (although some long-standing figures did lose their positions), but rather to try to extend the grip of leadership on Palestinian government.

By backing, at a considerable political cost to himself, Fayyad?s position as Prime Minister, Abbas is allowing the PA to begin to move beyond the corruption and inefficiency of the Arafat era. By all serious accounts, Fayyad has begun the painful and complicated processes of both anticorruption and good governance on the one hand and serious institution building in preparation for independence on the other hand. Fatah?s leadership on its own did not prove capable of doing this, but it has proved capable of facilitating it, and providing the political basis for sound, or at least much sounder, administration. Failing to recognize this aspect of Abbas? presidency is to miss the biggest of big picture items. Under his leadership, Fatah is no longer synonymous with the PA, which is good for both the party and the government, and this has taken considerable political will to accomplish and to maintain. The practical and economic benefits of this policy are now on display in the West Bank, and although I don?t think the results are as dramatic as some people have maintained, they?re obviously very significant and should be built upon and not squandered. The new professional Palestinian security services, according to all serious disinterested observers, have provided a new quality of life in towns like Nablus and Jenin, and are an indispensable element for economic and institutional development and for the pullback and eventual permanent withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian areas.

The unity, even unanimity, displayed at the Fatah Congress regarding Abbas? position and, even more importantly, the national strategy of independence through negotiations was therefore unity of the best possible kind, in service of policies and practices that not only advance the national interests of the Palestinians, but are indispensable for that advancement. This was unity in the service of functional, practical policies that have both immediate and long-term beneficial consequences. It?s not a pretty picture, I grant, as I laid out in my last posting, and contains plenty of bad and ugly elements as well as good ones, but under the circumstances, on the biggest issues at stake, and compared to the practical alternatives, it was unity and unanimity that was both useful and well advised. In an ideal world, everything would be completely different, including the personalities at the helm of Fatah, not to mention Hamas, Israel and the Arab states. In the real world, the choices are between actually existing alternatives. In this case, the unity demonstrated by Fatah on Abbas? leadership and on the national strategy was far preferable to any realistic alternatives. With regard to the broader Palestinian split between the PLO and Hamas, reconciliation without significant policy adjustments by Hamas would not only be disadvantageous to the Palestinian national interest, it could, and probably would, be catastrophic.

The value of unity depends on the purposes it serves. All other things being equal, it is an exceptionally important value to be pursued, but in some cases, a measure of disunity that allows partial functionality is better than a form of ?unity? that dictates a complete paralysis and failure by definition, as Lincoln acknowledged at Springfield, Illinois on June 16, 1858. His friends and allies were convinced that it was his ?house divided? speech that cost Lincoln the Senate seat for which he was standing when he delivered it. In 1866, Leonard Swett observed, “Nothing could have been more unfortunate or inappropriate; it was saying first the wrong thing, yet he saw it was an abstract truth, but standing by the speech would ultimately find him in the right place.” Lincoln?s speech concluded, ?Wise counsels may accelerate, or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later, the victory is sure to come,? and so it proved. There are times when the imperative of national unity must give way to insistence on reasonable policies without which the most essential elements of the national interest cannot be advanced or maintained. Palestinian national unity must indeed be restored, and as soon as possible, but not at all costs; it must be accomplished in a manner that allows the national agenda of ending the occupation and establishing an independent state to proceed and not atrophy or collapse.