Among the great tragedies facing Palestinian society today is the overall lack of public debate or soul-searching concerning the future direction of the liberation movement and what Palestinians now hope to achieve after twenty years of a failed peace process. This shortcoming is present at all levels, not just inside the political establishment, but among intellectuals and mainstream society as well, who are enabling a deficiency in leadership by not voicing their discontent and demanding change. Palestinian newspapers remain absent of the questioning that should be taking place at this critical moment and a great disconnect exists between the ruling class and the average citizen—not to mention the alienation felt by Palestinians living in the diaspora from the decision-making process.
At the end of the day, Palestinians are facing a crisis of leadership. The Palestinian Liberation Organization has ceased to function as the representative of Palestinians everywhere and as the spearhead of the liberation movement in general. The leadership in the occupied territories is fixated on management of the status quo. Nothing is being done to develop a positive strategy or broad based movement capable of challenging the current situation—because in the end, that same leadership is part of the class of beneficiaries.
Understandably, average Palestinians are not very interested in another uprising because of the heavy toll they have paid in the past and their economic reliance on the current system. In the occupied territories the mentality is: ‘let us ride this wave of stability as long as possible because we know it will not last forever.’ Therefore, not only is there a lack of desire to challenge the occupation, there is a correlated hesitancy to pressure their own leadership—outside of a small group of core, youth activists who do not hold much clout or inroads into broader society.
Not only does the absence of discourse perpetuate the interminable status quo but it also makes the likeliness of another violent confrontation with Israel more probable by failing to offer a way to transition into something new and productive. In other words, if and when the whole stack of cards comes tumbling down, chaos will likely ensue because there will be no positive, consensual strategy in which to channel the people and fill the void. One only has to look at the tense stalemate in Gaza and the periodic flare up in violence to see that these underlying circumstances must be resolved or the violence will only intensify.
In an effort to stave off a potential collapse of the Palestinian Authority, the leadership has sought to bolster their position and find a new outlet in which to channel the hopes of their people in the absence of negotiations. This led to the first attempt to secure recognition of Palestinian statehood (and with it the PA government) at the United Nations—a strategy that was ultimately unsuccessful. Despite having failed the first time, President Mahmoud Abbas returned to the United Nations and secured “non-member” status in a historic vote. Although the tangible consequences of this have hardly been determined, at the moment it appears to have been a positive development. It is very unlikely, however, that the current leadership will capitalize on any of the gains that were made at the United Nations, such as access to the International Criminal Court. This would require an open challenge to Israel, which would certainly respond by punishing the Palestinian leadership and stripping them of a privilege that it has allowed them to have.
On the ground there is little doubt these days that the Palestinian Authority is running out of steam. It is not that the mainstream of Palestinian society wants the PA dead and gone, far from it. But as an interim governing authority, the PA’s mandate to rule ended long ago. Elections have not been held since 2006 and there is no longer a functioning parliament. Every decision is made by the presidential decrees of a president whose term ended almost three years ago. There is no vice president and Mahmoud Abbas, 77, is aging. If something were to happen to him, there would be no legitimate successor with the authority to govern and there will be a complete crisis over political leadership of the Palestinian Authority. What would fill this void is anyone’s guess, but it is likely to be a power vacuum with deadly consequences.
Another likely candidate that could force a collapse of the status quo would be a continuing deterioration of the Palestinian economy and subsequent fiscal bankruptcy of the Palestinian Authority. The economy in the occupied territories is a lot like a bicycle, with donor aid turning the pedals. If foreign cash infusions come to a halt, or even just slow down long enough, the bicycle will tip over. The latter appears to be what is currently happening with the PA unable to deliver salaries to their employees on a number of occasions over the past few years. This boiled over into mass demonstrations twice in 2012, forcing the government to retreat on a series of tax increases and austerity measures. Given the way the economy in the PA-controlled territories is structured, this pressure will only become more acute in the months ahead.
This is why President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are currently pulling out all the stops in the frantic attempt to secure further cash infusions. In a stunning move that can only reflect the desperation of the times, Fayyad went as far as asking Stanley Fischer of the Bank of Israel to request a loan from the IMF on behalf of the PA (Palestine is not recognized as a state by the IMF and therefore cannot make the request itself), which was ultimately denied. Besides being a nonsensical maneuver in asking your occupier for a loan—making resistance to that occupier even more difficult than it already is—it leaves little doubt that the PA is in a severe financial crisis.
Some analysts have countered that the world will not let the Palestinian Authority fall apart—least of all Israel and the United States, which have too much to lose from the prospect. This is probably accurate to some degree; although it should not be underestimated that Israeli brinkmanship in purposefully weakening the PA may miscalculate and go too far. Recent efforts to acquire cash from the Gulf have prevailed in keeping the PA afloat but how long can this last? They may receive a hundred million dollars from Saudi Arabia one month and the UAE the next, but with each month of uncertainty comes growing frustration and a lack of faith in the system. Add to that the absence of vision or a plan for the political future and you have an even more volatile situation on the ground.
Descent into turmoil is not limited to the economy, however, but could be caused by a spark similar to the first and second Intifadas, in which large scale movements were precipitated by relatively minor catalysts, tossed like a match into gas tank of frustration. Palestinian civilians are under daily attack by Jewish settlers safeguarded by the Israeli military with no protection from Palestinian security forces, an occurrence that is increasing exponentially. The recent hunger strike movement has enormous potential to spark unrest if prisoners begin dying of starvation inside Israeli prisons. And Jerusalem always remains a hotbed of instability as the process of “Judaization” continues unabated.
Responsibility for getting out of this mess lies in the Palestinians’ court. They cannot depend on Israel to alter a situation that is ultimately convenient for them, if not beneficial, and it all starts with a change in discourse. As long as the Palestinian leadership keeps talking about negotiations and the peace process they are not going to move anywhere new. No one is going to make the effort to change the current paradigm unless Palestinians get the ball rolling first.
Maybe the simplest (but most unlikely) way would be for Abu Mazen to deliver a speech for the entire world to hear ending the push for a two-state solution and calling for an equal rights struggle in a bi-national state.
If nothing else, the global reaction to this would be enormous. The real objective here, however, is to force the world to re-examine the situation on the ground. If looked at with clear eyes—without the veil of a peace process—it is difficult for any objective observer to come to another conclusion for what is happening on the ground other than apartheid. Two people occupy a single territorial space, in which one has full sovereignty and rights and the other does not. Two people live side-by-side but under two separate legal systems—one civil and the other military. This is the definition of apartheid and the realization of that is the first step in dismantling it. It is simply not an acceptable reality in the 21st century. It won’t happen overnight but the long road to building external pressure to the Israeli regime would gain a significant boost. The widely held perception that the occupation is temporary is exactly what allows it to persist. Strip the occupation of this façade and the debate begins to change.
The challenge going forward should be to generate a creative solution that meets the needs and aspirations of both people living between the river and the sea. Two states can exist in a confederation that allows both nations to share the land and resources and live and work where they choose, while dividing citizenship into separate political entities. It is possible to take account of the settlers and the refugees, while opening Jerusalem for all under joint administration. As long as provisions are drawn up that allows for freedom of access for the entire country based on parity, there is no reason that zero-sum cannot turn into non-zero-sum.
No conflict can be solved unless the real issues underlying it are addressed. The two-state solution simply does not tackle the grievances at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor meet the aspirations of either people. The elites may be able to sign a deal but over time it is almost certain to fall apart. This conflict is not simply one over partition, which would be settled as soon as the Palestinians have a state of their own. It is about sovereignty, rights and control.
As previously stated, there is no indication that things are going to move in a sensible direction. In the absence of a plan, there is a strong likeliness for an outbreak of another round of turmoil. The smoke clouds periodically hanging over Gaza are a vivid reminder of what happens when longstanding problems are addressed with short-term solutions.
The lack of leadership in Palestine is felt by all Palestinians, everywhere. And when the precarious status quo that is keeping the current peace falls apart, we will all know what that looks like.