The Road from Mecca


The 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.

Arafat never bothered with a detailed program. He trusted his instincts and inclinations that—disputed and contested as they were—implicitly and through a tortuous process became those of the national movement as a whole. As both leader of the national movement and father of the political compromise, he could straddle two seemingly incompatible worlds, that of the revolutionary and that of the statesman, and embody both steadfast commitment to the original struggle of 1948 and pragmatic acceptance of a two-state solution. On core issues, what he did mattered far more than what he said. Accused of indecisiveness and passivity, Arafat acted resolutely when he believed it necessary and when he saw fit.

Arafat bequeathed a system aching to fall apart; it had only a brief, transitional afterlife. After his death, Fatah continued to rule, albeit without the confidence and sense of unquestioned entitlement to which it had grown accustomed. After Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006, Fatah still clung to its former habits of domination, controlling the civil service as well as the security forces and, with only rare exceptions, monopolizing international relations and legitimacy.

Much of this was an illusion, and a transient one at that. Deeper down, irreversible structural changes were afoot. Today, a little more than two years…

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