By Barry Rubin
“DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year….I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher….With the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.” Thus, Edgar Alan Poe began his remarkable 1839 short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Similar feelings beset me in contemplating the fall of the house of Yasir, the collapse of the PLO, of Fatah, and of Palestinian nationalism as a movement. I won’t go into that history of disaster in detail but suffice it to say that what is happening now fits completely into that pattern.
Put your finger into the wine and flick one drop onto the plate for each item: 1948 war; 1967 war; failed West Bank guerrilla war; September 1970 in Jordan; terrorism; Lebanese civil war; intransigence; internal anarchy; the murder of the first moderates; corruption; incitement to terrorism and intransigence; throwing away the opportunity at Camp David; throwing away the opportunity of 1988 dialogue with the United States; the 1990s’ peace process; and the second intifada. Forgive me for leaving out even more such examples.
Is there a pattern? Yes:
--By seeking everything, get nothing. Having as one’s goal the destruction of Israel and total victory, rather than a compromise solution, the movement sank ever deeper into the mire.
--Glorifying violence and terrorism brought death and destruction on the movement and its followers.
--Embracing extremism, incitement, and demonization of Israel brought Hamas as its logical outcome.
And now ask yourselves one simple question: Do you really believe that the Hamas coup is going to scare Fatah straight? Are these leaders and ideologues really going to learn their lesson?
Well, this seems to be the main assumption of political leaders and the media in democratic countries. After all, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, facing the hangman supposedly greatly concentrates the mind.
But wait a minute! The PLO, Fatah, and their hierarchies have made a whole career about facing the hangman and tweaking his nose while giggling madly. If they had learned from, say, September 1970 in Jordan or other disasters it would have been sufficient for them to get on the right path.
Remember the Oslo process and why was it going to work? Because, we were told, the PLO and Fatah were so weak and so buffeted by catastrophe as finally to understand they must change their ways or be destroyed. Here we go again!
Don’t get me wrong. I do believe Fatah is preferable to Hamas—though the gap is far narrower than all too many people seem to think.
But even if you want to believe that Abbas is some peace-loving good guy, he is weak, incompetent, has no following and no intention of really confronting the culture of terrorism and extremism his own group created and maintains. He will also never give up the demand that all Palestinians should be able to live in Israel which is a deeply personal belief of his.
One of the best stories explaining the Western approach to the Middle East is the following anecdote I made up: A tourist goes into a bazaar shop, points at a carpet and declares, “This is the most beautiful carpet I have ever seen! I must have it no matter how much it costs? What’s the price?”
This is how Abbas is being treated. His mere survival, no matter what he does, is being portrayed as such a marvelous asset that he is doing everyone a favor taking their money and help. Is this going to give him any incentive to change, an outcome already rather doubtful?
For goodness sake, if he and his colleagues want to survive—and not end up as bloodied corpses on some Hamas video—they better clean up corruption, give their people a moderate alternative, and stop cross-border terrorism. It is their job to persuade us that we have a real reason for not watching Hamas butcher them and loot their houses.
Otherwise, we will be forced to stand by, like Poe’s character, and watch those unwilling to save themselves. “That once barely discernible fissure…rapidly widened….I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder” and the ground closed over the fragments of the House of Usher.
Isn’t Middle East politics like a horror story, after all? It holds our attention for many reasons but this is one of them. “Look out behind you!” We warn, always in vain as the murderer or monster sneaks up. And isn’t there always that dumb sheriff or reporter, later inevitably getting eaten or stabbed, who keeps saying, “There isn’t anything there. It’s all in your imagination!”
Of course, fictional victims can be forgiven since they are only stalked and killed once. They had no chance to learn their lesson. We do and so does Fatah. But in the Middle East, the same things happen over and over. It would be wonderful if someone some day stopped the raving and instead insisted: Nevermore.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC). His new book is The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).
Professor Barry Rubin,
Director, Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center
Editor, Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal
Editor, Turkish Studies