The two speeches at the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week by the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president captured the depressing, stalemated, and increasingly violent condition of the century-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Israelis must judge the policies and strategy of their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Most of the rest of the world sees him as an extremist, out-of-control scaremonger whose policies affirm Zionist colonial expansionism and consolidation in occupied Arab lands, with the repeatedly reconfirmed support of a majority of Israeli voters.
My concern here is with the sad speech by Palestine Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) President Mahmoud Abbas. In his decade in office since the death of former President Yasser Arafat, Abbas has repeatedly failed at every moment when he could have achieved several critical goals: to rally the scattered Palestinian people so as to bolster the leadership’s negotiations with Israel and others; to achieve a united nationalist political program that envisages peaceful coexistence with Israel in adjacent states, based on the Arab Peace Plan that has been repeatedly reaffirmed by all Arab states; to generate widespread Arab, Islamic and international support for a unified Palestinian leadership and political strategy; and, to promote developmental policies and political agreements that improve the quality of life of Palestinians living under Israeli control in the West Bank, Gaza and Arab East Jerusalem, and also of Palestinian refugees living in nearby Arab countries often under difficult conditions.
These are not easy goals to achieve, I admit, in view of persistent Israeli policies that seek to prevent them at all cost. But Abbas’ failures on all these fronts have been so frequent, and his antidote of relying on gimmicks, showmanship, and symbolic advances has become so routine, that one must place on his shoulders a large amount of the blame for the fractured condition of millions of Palestinians today. Leadership in the end, requires men and women in elected positions of authority to rise above the routine daily constraints and humiliations that define so many Palestinians’ lives, and work diligently, intelligently, and politically to reduce those pressures. In his decade in office, Abbas has only deepened and perpetuated the misery that defines the lives of so many of his countrymen and women.
His announcement this week at the UN that the Palestinian Authority would no longer feel bound by the obligations of the 1993 Oslo Accords, if the Israelis for their part continued to ignore key parts of those agreements, should have been made twenty years ago, in 1995—when it became obvious two years into the Oslo process that Israel had no intention of ever stopping its settlements or allowing a sovereign Palestinian state to come to life. For Abbas to threaten abrogating the accords is the act of a weak and desperate actor who places his own political standing above the life conditions of his own people. This is because: Nobody really takes his statement seriously; if he were to do this it would allow Israel to increase its measures designed to push more Palestinians to leave their homeland and become refugees abroad; daily life prospects for several million Palestinians would deteriorate even further as a result of economic strangulation; some desperate Palestinians would gravitate towards renewed armed struggle against Israel, leading to more episodes of savage Israeli attacks like the one against Gaza last year; donor fatigue among those states that provide the bulk of aid that keeps Palestinians alive and in school would further worsen living conditions and political prospects for millions of Palestinians; and, American presidential candidates would support Israel’s every step and military attack.
The Palestinian people should never have reached this situation where their elected president has to threaten a move that promises to make their lives even more miserable than they are today—and to add insult to injury the decision to make such a move is made without any credible consultations among the scattered Palestinian people. For to cement his hold on political power within his restricted area of operations around Ramallah, Abbas has allowed the PLO to wither and lose its status as the legitimate national representative of the Palestinian people everywhere.
Obtaining non-state member status at the UN or having the Palestinian flag raised along 1st Avenue in New York are symbolic gestures that pale in comparison with the tangible suffering and statelessness that Palestinians experience under the triple weight of a vicious Israeli foe, an incompetent Palestinian leadership, and a largely uncaring and increasingly distracted world.
There is no doubt that foreign countries will support the Palestinian quest for statehood, and for citizenship and a normal life for those millions of Palestinians who lack these things. Yet, such global support will only materialize when the Palestinians themselves take decisions that are based on much, much more than autocratic showmanship, pleading, brooding, whimsical surprises, and symbolic advances that lack any substantive achievements.
The behavior of the Israeli leadership is criminal. The behavior of the Palestinian leadership is incompetent. The Palestinian people deserve much better than this on both counts.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global