Strengths and Weaknesses in the Palestinian Initiative

Abbas is behaving more like a parent who promises his or her children a birthday surprise than a responsible leader who has been handed responsibility for the fate of some eight million Palestinians entering their fourth generation of exile, occupation and refugeehood.

Credible press reports and recent hints by Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas both indicate that Abbas will soon unveil a new diplomatic initiative aimed at achieving Palestinian statehood, and the end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. As is usually the case with this kind of political development by the Palestinian leadership, it includes very sensible and very foolish elements, which diminishes its chances of success.

The reports suggest that the initiative comprises three elements: first, the United States would be asked to resume its diplomatic mediation in order to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on defining the borders of a future Palestinian state. The United States reportedly will be asked to do this within a time period of four months. The second phase would see the Palestinians go to the UN Security Council to seek implementation of their case for statehood and ending their occupation by Israel. The third phase would have the Palestinian non-state member of the UN raise cases against Israel in arenas such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) or other international forums.

The good news about this process is multi-faceted. This kind of ambitious, dynamic initiative is a welcomed move by the Palestinian leadership because it is precisely what a leadership should do for its people — lead them towards the goal they all share, using all available and legitimate means. Its three elements are logical means for achieving the goal of credible Palestinian statehood, especially if coordinated with other means of direct political action with Israel or global popular mobilization and political or legal moves.

The bad news is equally significant and multi-faceted. The most serious flaw about this initiative is that it does not seem to build on the single most critical imperative for the Palestinians today, which is to cement the national unity that was so visible during the recent Gaza war. To work effectively in international forums, the Palestinians need above all strong national unity in leadership and among the citizenry. This means that Hamas, Fateh, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and half a dozen other smaller factions must operate on the basis of a single national political program, while drawing on the cohesion and support of thousands of civil society and popular organizations across the region and the world.

President Abbas’ initiative shows no signs of being based on any such consensus, and there are absolutely no indications that any of these ideas have been discussed among, or ratified by, the millions of Palestinians whom Abbas is supposed to represent. Abbas also does not seem to care to draw on the many good ideas and valuable mobilizing participation that Palestinian activists and professionals all over the region and the world can offer in the service of their national cause. This lack of popular consultation is the second major flaw in this initiative, which perpetuates a personalized, paternalistic style of governance among Palestinians that has always been a reason for failure.

Abbas had been indicating for weeks that he was going to produce a diplomatic “surprise” of some sort after the Gaza fighting stopped. This kind of unilateral, secretive, father-knows-best style of governance is an insult to the Palestinian people, along with being a recipe for continued diplomatic failure. We went through this a few years ago when Abbas held the world and his people in suspense about whether the Palestinians would seek non-state membership in the UN. That option was finally activated, but with little impact so far.

Retrospectively, I would suggest, the lack of impact of becoming a UN member largely reflects the fact that the decision to do this was taken surreptitiously, totally without any strategic thinking, and fully devoid of the power that should have come from massive popular support for it. Now we see the same process playing out as to whether or not the Palestinian leadership will take its case to the ICC.

Abbas is behaving more like a parent who promises his or her children a birthday surprise than a responsible leader who has been handed responsibility for the fate of some eight million Palestinians entering their fourth generation of exile, occupation and refugeehood. The Gaza war’s many negative aspects were offset by the positive display of national unity that clearly was an asset for the Palestinian negotiators in Cairo. It would be a terrible shame for this promise to be dissipated now by the political incompetence of a few aging Palestinian men in the twilight of their leadership years — some of them with 40 years in power and little to show for it — who have never understood that their weakness and failure have been due heavily to their refusal to make the effort needed to harness the power of a unified national citizenry.

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.

Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global