Echoing the Arab rejection of peace with Israel expressed at Khartoum almost exactly 42 years ago ("no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel"), the Palestinians declared at the Fatah conference in Bethlehem in August 2009 three no's: no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and no end to the armed struggle against Israel.
The delegates to the conference, the first Fatah has convened in two decades, were competing among themselves to see whose position toward Israel would be more radical. Though deeply divided over who will control the movement, the Palestinians were united in their obduracy toward Israel.
In fact, in addition to the three no's to peace, the Palestinians had more than a dozen other demands, including Israeli acceptance of the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees, the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, the freezing of all settlement construction and the lifting of the Gaza blockade. They also vowed to continue the struggle against Israel "until Jerusalem returns to the Palestinians void of settlers and settlements." These recalcitrant positions come after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's previous statements that he will not negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and expects President Obama to bring about Netanyahu's downfall.
Fatah officials also discussed the possibility of forming a strategic alliance with Iran, the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism, which opposes the peace process and has threatened to destroy Israel. Fatah's Jerusalem Affairs Liaison, Hatim Abdul Qader, said that in light of the stalled peace process, Fatah had no choice but to seek help from Iran and, last month, Palestinian Chief Negotiator, Saeb Erekat, met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in Egypt. Paradoxically, Iran has funded Fatah's opponents, Hamas, which prevented Palestinians in Gaza from participating in the conference.
The Fatah conference demonstrated once again that the range of Palestinian opinion is not from radicals opposing peace with Israel to moderates who favor a negotiated settlement, but from radical to even more radical opponents of an end to the conflict. Sadly, the desire of the Palestinian people to coexist with their Israeli neighbors has once again been sublimated to the irredentist ideology of their fanatical leaders leaving Israel with no partner for negotiations. Roughly half of the population is under the thumb of Hamas, which is at war with Fatah. Meanwhile, Fatah is at war with itself and divided into at least three factions. And none of the men (and they are all men) who claim to represent the people are interested in peace with Israel.
The Palestinian position, combined with that of the king of Saudi Arabia and other Arab leaders who rejected President Obama's pleas to take steps toward normalizing relations with Israel, has driven a stake through the heart of the administration's entire Middle East strategy. The administration approach was built on the premise that publicly pressuring Israel would win support from the Arab states, who would then take steps to normalize ties with Israel, which would lead to a peace agreement, which, in turn would result in Arab cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue and make all of the other problems in the region melt away.
The question now is whether the administration can recalibrate its policy to the reality that negotiating with Abbas is a dead end and that pressuring Israel alienated the Israelis while emboldening the Arabs to believe he would force Israel to capitulate to their demands without them having to do anything in return.