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The Palestinian Obama

By: Mohammed Daraghmeh, Al-Quds, ATFP

July 1, 2009

Over the last few weeks, we witnessed three speeches by three leaders at three universities: United States President Barack Obama and his speech at Cairo University, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and his speech at Bar Ilan University, and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his speech at al-Quds University.

In their three speeches, the three leaders had three elements in common. All three are highly educated leaders who follow modern trends in fields of knowledge. They are aware that modern achievements are built on science, knowledge and technology, and have therefore chosen to deliver their speeches at institutions of knowledge.

All three leaders presented new and revolutionary approaches to ancient and intractable problems: President Obama presented the idea of changing the relation based on a legacy of conflict between Islam and the West. Netanyahu presented the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state to resolve the historic conflict between the two peoples. Fayyad presented the idea of building the institutions of the state before the state itself.

The three leaders are skilled in public relations and influencing the public through launching creative, visionary ideas and projects. They know how to engage and ignite political debate and how to channel public opinion in the direction they desire. After all, the ability to engage and define the debate in the media, and among the political elite and public opinion at large is one of the challenges that determine the success of the any leader or institution.
Realizing such ideas – many of which are meta-projects – requires an abundance of power, resources, supporting factors and mechanisms.

President Obama's idea needs a new environment that can only come through a fundamental change in US policy and diplomacy – a change that goes to some of its historic pillars. At the forefront of such changes would be to indicate the willingness to actually pressure Israel to end its occupation of Arab lands, or at least those lands considered by US diplomacy as occupied.

Netanyahu's ideas require a change in ideology not only on the part of the Prime Minister himself and the right wing, but also the Israeli political community at large, which is yet to reach consensus around the fundamentals of the political solution with the Palestinians.

Much could be said about the hidden objectives behind Netanyahu's ideas, not the least of which is the desire to abort US pressure, and to render a state meaningless through excluding Jerusalem and refugees from negotiations. Many of these analyses are correct, yet much can be built on the mere fact that he recognized the right of Palestinians to a state. This requires other elements to change, whether domestically in the area of Jewish national consensus or externally in the field of US diplomacy.

Salam Fayyad's idea needs new Palestinian political thinking – one that can rise from the debris of the old experience that led the Palestinians to a division that has made them – even in their own eyes – unworthy of an independent state. A division that, as the saying goes, has made "wolves show more mercy than brothers", and which has created two authorities whose daily human rights violations pose a substantial new challenge to all who seek a healthy civil and political life in our country.

Fayyad's idea lifts the institutions of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and subsequently the state, into the superstructure of society, above the factional fights over power. It shifts the PA from an authority that is defined by factions into one that revolves around institutions, service provision and accessibility to all. It transforms the institutions of the PA into modern state institutions that render the Palestinian in the eyes of the world, and indeed in their own eyes, worthy of an independent state.

The international dimension is important in the creation of modern political entities. It was important in the creation of Israel, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and elsewhere. It will be crucial in Palestine. No-one, not even the factions competing for power, imagines that a Palestinian state can be created absent international will.

The international factor is important in the Palestinian case, first in order to create pressure on Israel, and second to provide financial support for the creation of the institutions and infrastructure of a state.

Some might look at international financial support as a sedative. A quick glance at the current financial crisis facing the PA as a result of many donors, particularly in Arab countries, stopping their contributions shows the extent to which such aid is needed. Let us imagine for a moment what would happen if the government stops paying 240 million dollars worth of monthly salaries, not to mention other current and development expenditures.

In order for it to succeed, Fayyad's idea about the state needs mechanisms capable of mobilizing the street in its direction, away from many factions that only see our country in terms of the interests and privileges they can gain from the PA.

Fayyad's idea is a challenge to the awareness and sensibility of Palestinians to the higher national interest, above factional interests and visions.

No-one can forget the Israeli obstacle – the obstacle of occupation and settlements. But the Palestinians' worthiness of ending the occupation and mobilizing international support for the realization of this goal will be subject to their ability to unite themselves around the idea of a state. Such a state must encompass everyone from Rafah to Jenin, and should accommodate the whole political spectrum from al-Tahrir party that seeks to re-establish the Caliphate to the leftist factions that are seeking a new, viable left along the Latin American model.

In the world of business, it is said that an idea is worth a million dollars. In the world of politics, ideas such as Obama's vision of a new world, or Salam Fayyad's idea of establishing the institutions of a state that transcends all other considerations, are worth much more than money.

Salam Fayyad did not come from within the factional elite. The Palestinian streets acceptance of his ideas will be analogous to the American street's endorsement of Barack Obama, who himself did not emerge from the white elite.