A leading Arab journalist, who has covered Palestinian affairs for nearly 30 years for both the international and Israeli press, told a University of Pennsylvania audience that the current round of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders have no chance of succeeding.
"All the talks that are taking place are a waste of time. Why? Because the guy you are talking to, Mahmoud Abbas, he has no real power," said Khaled Abu Toameh, a correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, U.S. News & World Report and other international media outlets, during a Feb. 24 talk at Penn's Jon M. Huntsman Hall. About 75 students attended.
Toameh, a Jerusalem-born Muslim who remarked that he's "a simple Arab reporter" who's neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestinian, launched into a sustained critique of both the rampant corruption and ineffectiveness of Abbas' Fatah movement, as well as U.S. policy in the region.
"They [Fatah] have lost most of their credibility on the Palestinian street -- and what do you do? You take them to Annapolis to represent the Palestinians on extremely sensitive issues," said Toameh, who started his career as a reporter and editor at a paper that he said was simply a mouthpiece for the Palestine Liberation Organization.
But after graduating from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a degree in English literature, Toameh decided that he wanted to become what he called a "real" journalist and produce impartial, accurate reports. For a time, he served as a guide for foreign journalists before he began filing his own reports for outlets around the world. He's been The Jerusalem Post's chief Palestinian-affairs correspondent since 2002.
"As a journalist, I have absolutely no problem working for a newspaper that provides me a free platform," he said, regarding his attitude toward working for an Israeli newspaper. "I find it sad and ironic that myself and many of my colleagues end up working in the international media, and also in the Israeli media, because we don't have a free media in Palestinian territories."
'Never Accept Responsibility'
According to Toameh, life for Palestinians declined after the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993. He said that it was a mistake for Israel and the United States to provide Yasser Arafat with $6.5 billion in funds, without closely monitoring or stipulating how the money would be spent.
"Instead of helping the poor people in the refugee camps, he was giving his wife $100,000 to support her shopping sprees in Paris," said the reporter and occasional columnist.
According to Toameh, in 2000, Arafat encouraged the Palestinians to launch a second intifada partly as a means of distracting a public that had reached a boiling point over P.A. corruption.
"You always blame the miseries of your people on the Jews; you never accept responsibility for anything," quipped Toameh, paraphrasing a well-worn maxim in Arab politics.
After Arafat's death, Abbas campaigned for the Palestinian Authority presidency on a platform of reform and restoring law and order, but he did nothing once he came into office, stated Toameh.
That opened the door for Hamas, he continued, which co-opted Abbas' pledge to reduce corruption, and actually had a decent record of building schools and hospitals.
Once Fatah was routed, said Toameh, the United States and Israel should have demanded that Fatah reform itself, rather than provide guns and logistical support to oust Hamas, a policy that backfired when Hamas routed Fatah from the Gaza Strip.
While he didn't say that Hamas should have been invited to Annapolis, he suggested that Israel should engage in some level of logistical talks with the group, since its leaders, unlike those of Fatah, at least say the same things in English and Arabic, and since the party has only one terror wing instead of the multiple terrorist groups that seem to be aligned with Fatah.
Hamas, however, has pledged to wipe out Israel and the Jews.
Toameh admitted that his willingness to criticize leaders and Palestinian society has not made him a very popular figure among Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza.
"Many of my colleagues have been shot, many of my colleagues have been killed, many of my colleagues have been imprisoned," he acknowledged.
But "if they want to kill me," he said, "I'd rather die as someone who told the truth than as a hypocrite."