The latest ceasefire announcement in Gaza coincided with a trip for me from Beirut to Amman and back, during which I spent time discussing the Gaza situation with Jordanians, Palestinians and Lebanese who follow these issues closely. Whatever happens on the ground in Gaza and at the expected Israeli-Palestinian truce talks in Cairo this week, my sense is that we are passing through a unique and possibly pivotal moment that could lay the foundation for better days ahead — if effective political decisions are made that build on the developments of recent weeks.
The most important political action the Palestinians should take now is to rapidly reconstitute the institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), so that Palestinians speak with one voice and benefit from the total backing of the eight million or so Palestinians around the world. Two important recent developments make this both possible and useful: the national unity government of Palestinian technocrats that was recently established, and the joint delegation of Fateh, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions in Cairo for the ceasefire talks.
A critical weakness for Palestinians in the past two decades has been their political fragmentation, ultimately leading to the situation where Hamas controlled Gaza and Fateh controlled the West Bank; the other four million Palestinians around the world did as best they could for political leadership and representation. Fateh pursued fruitless diplomatic negotiations with Israel for two decades, while Hamas engaged in armed resistance against Israel.
Neither strategy has brought the Palestinians any closer to their goal of national self-determination, ending refugeehood and achieving statehood. Israel has continued its colonization of the West Bank-Jerusalem, and its siege and repeated savage attacks against Gaza. One reason for the absence of any serious Palestinian gains has been the fragmentation of the Palestinian leadership, a consequence both of their occupied/dispersed condition due to the conflict with Zionism-Israel, and also of their own political incompetence and immaturity. This terrible constraint can now be removed, if the Palestinian political movements and grassroots community institutions move swiftly to achieve what is now within their grasp: a single Palestinian national movement that pursues a consensus political/liberation program that is supported by Palestinians everywhere, and also enjoys massive international diplomatic support. Such a unified Palestinian political program would build on the agreement of the current national unity government as well as on the 2002 Arab Peace Plan that has been repeatedly reconfirmed by Arab summits.
A unified Palestinian position of this sort would put immense pressure on Israel, the United States and others to do two essential things that they have always avoided: engage with Hamas and others as part of the single Palestinian leadership represented by the PLO, and discuss permanent coexistence arrangements based on the 2002 Arab Peace Plan that acknowledges Israeli and Palestinian rights as having equal validity and priority.
Hamas and other militants groups’ positions have evolved sufficiently in recent years to allow all of these things to happen, which was not the case a decade ago. The armed resistance’s repeated shows of courage, persistence and technical ability in Gaza also allow Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others to enter into a more rigorous political negotiation with Israel with two elements that have always eluded Fateh and its hapless negotiating legacy: One is pride and self-confidence, and the other is a deterrence capability based on its ability and will to fight Israel, suffer heavy losses, but repeatedly force Israel into accepting ceasefires.
Reconstituting and relegitimizing the institutions of the PLO would allow Palestinian negotiators to speak with a more powerful and credible voice, because they would be speaking in the name of Palestinians everywhere in the world. This would help them affirm the democratic and representative nature of Palestinian governance, which would enhance their ability to mobilize popular support across Palestinian, Arab and other friendly communities and governments, ensure that national political positions reflect a genuine consensus, and thus strengthen the negotiators’ hand.
The combination of the existing national unity government of technocrats, the unified Palestinian delegation at the Cairo ceasefire talks, and the widespread sense of Palestinian solidarity in the wake of the Gaza fighting make this a rare moment. The suffering, destruction and losses suffered by so many Palestinians in the past month could provide the foundation for some serious political advances in the Palestinian national arena. Israel will try to prevent this at all costs, and in the past has allowed diplomacy to stall because it was always able to deal with only fragmented Palestinian elements rather than a unified national movement.
A unified PLO could also seriously confront Israeli crimes by using the institutional of international legitimacy to hold it accountable, such as the International Criminal Court, which a big majority of Palestinians supports. A unified PLO is the Palestinians’ top political priority right now.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.