An old journalistic chestnut asserts that good news is no news. In some cases, however, good news has been so rare or non-existent, that when it comes it must be treated as news.
For the past week or so this has been the case in the Palestine-Israel conflict.
The first good news came on 25 November when Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, inaugurated the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. This was the first time ever that Palestinians were traveling out of their homeland under the supervision of a Palestinian authority. The border guards did not represent Babylonians, Persians, Seleucids, or Romans- ancient empires that controlled this part of the world for thousands of years. Nor were they Ottomans, British, Egyptian or Israelis as had been the case for five centuries.
To people who move in and out of their homelands from air and seaports and land crossings every hour of the day without a second thought, the four hour ceremony at Rafah would have little meaning. For the Palestinians, however, it was a long overdue recompense for centuries of suffering under different foreign rules. Mahmoud Abbas could hardly contain his tears. The occasion enhanced his credibility as a leader who can achieve through negotiations what others failed to achieve through violence, war and terror.
President Abbas was not the only one fighting back tears. Also present, and barely containing his tears, was Mahmoud Azahar, the Hamas leader, who seemed to have forgotten his grumpiness for the occasion..
But good news, like bad news, seldom comes solo.
On the same day that the Rafah crossing was inaugurated, the Fatah Movement, the largest of the Palestinian political parties, held its first ever primaries to pick candidates in six West Bank districts for the 25 January 2006 general election. In all districts the old guards associated with the late Yasser Arafat were swept aside to make way for a new generation of politicians. Topping the polls, with 94 per cent of he votes cast, was Marwan Barghouti, the man who best symbolises the complex realities of a new generation of Palestinian leaders. (One district had already chosen Saeb Ereikat as its candidate while the remaining districts will hold primaries today.)
A sure sign that Palestinian politics may be moving away from a cult of armed struggle to one of political combat is the interest shown in the coming election by almost all parties and groups. Several prominent politicians holding senior ministerial posts have resigned to stand as candidates, an indication that, the centre of power may be shifting from the executive to the legislature.
Throughout the primaries, including those held in Gaza but not yet formally ratified, the debate was dominated by issues of practical politics. Would-be candidates spoke of good governance, accountability, pluralism, the rule of law, economic development, and social justice. Those who entered the race with the old discourse of violence, war and revenge were booed down. The Palestinians showed that they share the view of the Saudi King Abdullah that the politics of bravura (antariat) must come to a close. The Palestinians , like other Arabs, need to a politics of patience, persistence and progress. More good news on the electoral front has come from most recent polls. These show that more than 75 per cent of those eligible to vote intend to do so. The figure proves that the Palestinians, like their Iraqi brethren, are taking to elections like duck to water, refuting the claim of neo-Imperialist multiculturalists that the Arabs are genetically incapable of building a pluralist system.
The same polls indicate that the future parliament will have a majority of new guard and independent members. Fatah is expected to collect some 39 per cent of the votes while Hamas may win 20 per cent, mostly in Gaza. Hamas’s decision to take part in the election has come in the face of strong pressure from many quarters, including the Islamic Republic in Tehran, to boycott the polls.
In the run-up to the election we are likely to hear more good news.
Hundreds of people, including a team led by former World Bank president James Wolfensohn are working to put Gaza on a path to success.
The opening of outside markets, including the Israeli one, to goods and manpower from Gaza will help moderate candidates in the January elections.
To make sure that things move on the business front, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will be hosting a second economic conference on Palestine in London on 12 December. Projects worth $2.4 billion in foreign investment are to be unveiled for desalination, housing, roads and port facilities. Foreign investors will be invited to take part in developing natural gas and oil resources and tourism. The idea that Gaza might one day become another Dubai or Singapore may still sound like an impossible dream. What matters, however, is that more and more people are now prepared to evoke that dream.
Dare we present Ariel Sharon’s decision to quit the Likud and form a new party as another item of good news related to the Palestine-Israel issue?
It is too early to tell. Buy one thing is certain: Sharon is determined to pursue his policy of “divorce” between Israel and the Palestinians. And that can be achieved through the two-states formula presented by the US President George W Bush. Polls show that Sharon’s “divorce” policy is supported by a large majority of Israelis. In real life many couples who divorce end up building good relations as friends. There is no reason why this should not be the case with Israel and a future Palestinian state.
But the most important item of good news is, perhaps, symbolised by another fact. For the first time in decades Palestine seems to be liberating itself from the stranglehold of those who turned it into a cause in the name of pan-Arab nationalism or radical Islamism. Palestine is now re-becoming an issue of real life, concerning real people in real refugee camps, villages and towns, and suffering real poverty, humiliation and injustice. It is no longer an abstract “cause” that pan-Arabs, pan-Islamists and other power-hungry politicians brandish, at little cost to themselves, from Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad or, more recently, Tehran.
Those who transformed Palestine into a cause- from the corrupt Arab League of the 1940s to the Nasserists in the 1950s and 1960s and the Sovietists and Ba’athists from the 1960s to the 1990s , not to mention late arrivals such as the Khomeinists, brought nothing but defeat, dislocation, and death for the Palestinians.
Just as one swallow does not a summer make, one week of good news cannot wipe out centuries of bad news, especially in the Middle East where history throws its dice in a more fickle way. Nevertheless, the moment merits to be savoured. And hopes deserves to be kept alive.
Iran’s new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to host a conference on the “Palestinian cause” in Tehran next February. Fortunately, the Palestinian election will take place before. And its message will be simple: don’t meddle in our affairs! The era of antariat is over !