Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s plan to bypass the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, and engage in direct dialogue with prominent Palestinians, is raising eyebrows in the muqata’a in Ramallah. Palestinian officials wondered Thursday whether Lieberman and his team had done their homework before coming up with the plan and announcing it on Wednesday.
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Abbas’ aides did not respond officially to the initiative. Most of the criticism cane from lower ranking PLO activists, some of whom called it another desperate Israeli bid to find an alternative Palestinian leadership.
Abbas’ advisor and PLO executive member Dr. Ahmed Majdalani, who is also a member of the committee for liaising with Israeli society, suggested Lieberman read up on Israel’s “village leagues” plan from 30-plus years ago.
In 1976, Professor Menahem Milson, an advisor on Arab affairs in the West Bank, and Hebron’s military governor Yigal Carmon, decided to establish a Palestinian leadership that would cooperate with Israel. They banned elections in Palestinian towns and instead set up “village leagues,” with the intention of weakening the PLO, which was recognized by Arab states and the international community as the Palestinian people’s official representative.
Their project was short-lived. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 led to system’s collapse, but by then the leagues had been fatally undermined by their corruption and image as collaborators with Israel.
Lieberman and Netanyahu are trying to renew the plan in a desperate effort to find an alternative to the current Palestinian leadership, said Majdalani.
“This is a racist, colonialist approach that sees the Palestinian people as stupid and lacking self-respect,” he said. “As though they have no aspirations for self-definition and independence and can be bought with economic perks.”
Regardless of the official Palestinian position, Lieberman’s initiative to speak directly to Palestinian society by engaging social activists and academics comes at a convenient time for Israel. There is no real international pressure to resume the peace process at the moment and the French initiative is not expected to bring about such to a move.
On the Palestinian front, the split and power struggles between the PLO and Hamas, coupled with a bleeding, weak Arab world, can only strengthen the Israeli position. Nobody on the Palestinian side would be surprised if Lieberman’s plan is welcomed by certain, small Palestinian groups. The initiative could serve Israel’s interests for a while and Israel would even be able to portray it as a success.
But Israel must realize that it is a futile plan which, at best, might blur the bleak reality of the occupation for a while, but cannot lead to a real, viable arrangement. The model of economic peace and mitigating humanitarian concerns has proved incapable of providing lasting answers, and making a living is no alternative to independence and self-definition.
The Palestinians, who refused to accept a leadership that Israel tried to sell it in the ‘70s, when they were still reeling from the ‘67 defeat, are not about to accept it now, especially one that has the stamp of approval of the Israeli Defense Ministry.
Lieberman can try to bypass Abbas and the current Palestinian leadership, as many in Israel tried to do before him. But he cannot bypass the Palestinian aspirations for statehood. Israel is trying to drag them back to a “carrot and stick” policy, better described as “the Palestinian monkey in a cage and the Israeli trainer with a whip and a banana.
This generation has had enough of the occupation and interim agreements. Instead of investing in plans to bypass Abbas and resort to methods that have failed time and again, Israel would do better to find another policy. One which sees the Palestinians as a people entitled to rights and freedom, rather than a bunch of rioters who must be trained.