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And yet, despite its horrific human-rights record, the Hamas regime in Gaza has received nothing like the disapprobation and pressure for democratic reform directed by Washington against the far more moderate governments of Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain. Nor has President Obama ever suggested to its leader, Ismael Haniya, that he either move toward reform or move out. To the contrary: even as the administration hectors Israel to loosen its economic and military sanctions, it props up radical Islamist rule in Gaza by contributing hundreds of millions of dollars toward the salaries of Hamas officials. When it comes to the region’s most totalitarian and war-obsessed regime, the President’s newfound grasp of the linkage between political freedom and a more peaceful Middle East is nowhere to be seen.
Then there are the Palestinians living on the West Bank under the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA). There, the picture is undeniably somewhat brighter. President Mahmoud Abbas’s efforts to build, with the generous help of outside donors, some of the economic and political infrastructure of a future independent state have brought an expansion of civic institutions and the emergence of a Westernized entrepreneurial and professional class. To that extent, the prospect of further and genuinely democratic reforms has been enhanced.
But only to that extent. The ruling Fatah party, for instance, has still not relaxed its near-absolute control of political speech, the very touchstone of a free society. Not only are supporters of Hamas regularly imprisoned without any judicial process but, more significantly, there are no independent media and certainly no public debate regarding peace negotiations and future relations with a Jewish state.
On the problem of the 1948 Arab refugees and their descendants, the single most important issue affecting the future of all Palestinians, the West Bank under President Abbas might as well be a one-party state. No dissent is tolerated from the official line, promulgated by Abbas time and again: the absolute “right of return” to Israel of the surviving refugees and their millions of descendants. To the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians confined to camps in the West Bank itself, the PA’s propaganda apparatus continues to pledge an imminent day of deliverance—as if Abbas did not have it within his writ to tear down the walls of those camps tomorrow and help their wretched inmates integrate themselves into the surrounding society.
On May 15 of this year, commemorating the Palestinian nakba (the “catastrophe” of Israel’s independence), PA television played songs and presented pageants about the imminent return of the refugees to Jaffa and Haifa. The following day, just prior to the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, Abbas published an op-ed in the New York Times repeating the lie at the heart of the nakba “narrative”: that in 1947-48, the Jews of Palestine launched unprovoked attacks against defenseless Arabs, forcing them to flee their own country, and that not until after these acts of aggression did five foreign Arab armies intervene to save what could be saved.
No one living under Palestinian rule dares publicly question this lie. No historian dares offer his people a balanced account of the 1948 war, of who attacked whom, and of the reasons for the flight of the refugees. As long as this remains the case, the “right of return,” far more than any question of borders, will remain the principal roadblock to successful peace negotiations.
Open debate in Israel’s vibrant political democracy has led to significant reconsiderations of its policies in the territories won in the 1967 Six-Day war, culminating in a consensus for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. We will know that Israel has a partner for peace negotiations when, with or without his help, President Obama’s six principles will have struck roots among the Palestinians themselves and drawn them into the light of freedom.
Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute.
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