The image of Mahmoud Abbas looms large over one of the main thoroughfares approaching the de facto Palestinian capital of Ramallah, a solemn look on his face, his arm raised skyward in defiance, the application for Palestine’s membership to the United Nations in his hand. Underneath, the words are written: “Palestine is reborn … this is my message.” The billboard is part of a well-funded public relations campaign launched by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to drum up support for the historic statehood bid.
On September 23, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) chairman and PA president, officially submitted Palestine’s application for full membership in the United Nations, with a bold speech delivered to the General Assembly. During the address, cities throughout the West Bank were alight with excitement. Young and old celebrated almost as if the UN had already granted Palestine full membership to the international governing body. Palestinians appeared to momentarily disregard the daily burden of Israeli occupation and instead embrace the euphoric vision of independence, political rights and a state of their own. Yet, as is all too often the case, their euphoria was short-lived. The day after was met with the sharp reality of an interminable status quo.
For nearly two decades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been characterised by a cycle of endless negotiations and episodic violence. Given the entrenchment of Israeli occupation, seen most clearly in its continued building of settlements in the West Bank, few observers see the viability of an equitable two-state settlement arrived at through negotiations.
The PA is now firmly engaged in what is perceived by many in the West Bank as a last-ditch effort to save the negotiations process by elevating their status inside Palestine and in the international community, thereby strengthening their position in relation to Israel.
Viewed from the standpoint of a negotiated two-state solution, the Palestinian statehood bid is not far-fetched, extreme or irrational. But the question remains, do the majority of Palestinians still believe in a process that has brought increased dispossession and a fracturing of the Palestinian political body?
“The Palestinians have lost confidence in the negotiations. How to get confidence again … I believe, this is the challenge,” says Ahmad Queri’a, former prime minister of the PA and current member of the executive committee of the PLO. Sitting in his office in Abu Dis on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, Queri’a noted: “I believe that we need to think about a new mechanism for negotiations.”
Underlying the statehood bid is a mounting crisis of legitimacy for a Palestinian leadership that has been unable to bring an end to the occupation through negotiations. According to a report released by the International Crisis Group in early September, this predicament has only been enhanced by the increasing economic strain being experienced by the PA, and the renewed motivation for change inspired by the Arab Spring.
Although Palestinian society remains emotionally and physically exhausted from the Second Intifada, the possibility of a confrontation between Palestinians and the PA leadership is growing as their economic situation becomes more acute and the government is unable to offer any positive programme for the future.
In an effort to defuse the frustration, the PLO has pushed forward with the statehood bid, but remained reticent over its exact contours and has yet to declare a definition of failure.
“The statehood bid is a corrective measure designed to put the negotiations process back on track after years of Israeli violations,” the PNC executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi told an audience of young Palestinian intellectuals in Ramallah in a rare public lecture by a high-ranking PLO official. Ashrawi also noted that “a state is our legitimate right and we believe that it will be a psychologically helpful move for the Palestinian people to go forward and claim our right”.
Despite the air of celebration surrounding Mahmoud Abbas’s speech, West Bank Palestinians remained largely unsure of where they stood on the issue. Even at the highest levels of the political establishment, officials privately voiced concern over the plan. Indeed, it has been difficult to pin down any two bureaucrats who could express the same reasons for the leadership’s decision to pursue this initiative. Popular opinion is even more varied, where it is clear no consensus exists. This is due, in no small part, to the lack of discourse between politicians and the wider populace over the issue, who themselves remained ambiguous.
“They have not explained this initiative to us,” said Nour Haider, a Palestinian political activist, after Ashrawi’s lecture in Ramallah. “We have not even been allowed to vote on it.”
This lack of debate has also raised concerns once again over the inability of average Palestinians to take part in a process that is shaping their future. The principal vehicle for achieving democratic consensus among Palestinians worldwide remains the PLO and its highest body, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), still recognised as “the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”.
However, as a result of the Oslo Accords and the profound effect it had on transforming the Palestinian national movement from a resistance model to a proto-state governing body, this latter institution suffered years of neglect as attention and resources were channelled away from the PLO and into the nascent PA.
Today, the PNC is composed of an ageing and increasingly disconnected membership that has failed to democratically update itself for years. A revealing example of this was the appointment of Hanan Ashrawi as a member of the PLO’s executive committee in 2009 because there were not enough living members on the committee to achieve quorum.
For grassroots activists, the statehood bid, while appreciated, is considered as lacking in input and authorisation from the wider Palestinian population. It is viewed by many as an unrepresentative initiative that has ignored rank and file Palestinians, particularly those living outside the occupied territories.
“The logic is very obvious,” says Dr Mamdouh Al-Aker, commissioner general of the Independent Commission on Human Rights.
“If I am going to make a move, which represents a strategic shift, it only needs a consensus within the Palestinian body politic. By marginalising the PLO, all Palestinians in the diaspora were … kept outside the decision-making process.”
If the bid at the UN ends up going nowhere, Palestinians may increasingly turn to PLO reform as a means of re-establishing consensus. Even more dramatic will be the role of Hamas and other political factions in this reformulation process.
“It is very important for the Palestinians to have the PLO functioning and reformed because they don’t have much trust in the PA and the relationship between the PA and Israel is in doubt,” says Dr Saad Nimr, professor of politics and Palestinian society at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
Many other factors will play a role in determining what happens in the aftermath of the statehood bid, particularly the actions of other states. Israel’s hysterical reaction, best displayed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before the UN General Assembly, coupled with a clearly partial US president, has confirmed what we already knew: that Palestinians will face a lengthy and uncertain application process in the UN.
Meanwhile, the US Congress, presumably with the blessing of Israel, announced last week that it would withhold upwards of $200m in aid to the PA. That money was reportedly earmarked for food aid, health care and capital necessary to build the Palestinian economy. Far from punishing the Palestinian leaders responsible for the statehood bid, or the PA security apparatus that Israel has come to depend on, these withheld funds will directly affect the lives of ordinary Palestinians.
Underneath the surface of this bid lays the prospect of another process, even more languorous and complex than the one that has stalled the realisation of Palestinian independence for nearly two decades. Indeed, it is the likelihood that this latest initiative will languish at the UN, unable to produce positive results for a broad base of Palestinians, that stands the greatest chance of provoking real change.
The crisis of legitimacy the PA has fostered now threatens to topple the entire framework from which it was conceived. Contrary to the perception that the UN bid is an alternate route for Palestinians, its chief architect Mahmoud Abbas has engineered it to reinforce his position at the negotiation table, a framework he has staked his entire career on succeeding. If the process of negotiations fails, Abbas does not have an alternative plan and will likely have to concede an open space for others to challenge for stewardship of the Palestinian national struggle.
True to Abbas’s words, Palestine is poised for a rebirth, but maybe not the way he imagines it. Abbas’s efforts to save the stagnant peace process with Israel could spell the end of his political career and produce a strategic reformulation of Palestinian political structures as well as the nature of the national struggle itself.
*co-authored with Jospeh Dana
This article was originally published in The National…