Time For Serious Palestinian Leadership

Serious issues of national fate require serious leadership, and Abbas does not fit that bill any longer.

The move by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to sign the documents to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), and give it jurisdiction to investigate allegations of Israeli and other war crimes in Palestine, should be seen as a positive development that brings international law into play in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yet I find it difficult to be enthusiastic or optimistic about this move, due to the whimsical, personalized, uninstitutionalized and erratic manner in which Abbas and the current Palestinian leadership go about the business of managing statehood.

We have just witnessed the sad spectacle of Abbas deciding to take the issue of Palestinian statehood to the UN Security Council (UNSC), and in the end discovering that he was unable to secure the 9 votes needed to pass the resolution (which would have been vetoed by the United States in any case). The failure at the UNSC is symptomatic of the wider problem that has bedeviled the rump Palestinian leadership that remains in place under Abbas, while many Palestinians have abandoned his drifting ship and joined Hamas and other political groups.

That problem is simply that Abbas and his few advisers have consistently failed to undertake the hard work needed to succeed in political and diplomatic action, and to mobilize those assets that the Palestinians do enjoy in the region and the world. The hard work I am talking about is nothing magical or exotic. It is simply the hard work of spending days and weeks undertaking the basic mobilizing, consulting, negotiating, threatening, enticing, and other such activities that are necessary for the success of any political campaign — whether running for local judge in a small town in Arkansas, or president of France, or seeking passage of a resolution at the United Nations or any such international forum.

What Abbas has not done is to go to the UNSC armed with political firepower that could assure his success, because he did not bother to spend time consulting with Palestinians everywhere in order to mobilize a strong national consensus for his move. The lack of consultations with Palestinians is one of Abbas’ fatal flaws, because he ends up looking like a frail old man who naively calls for the application of law and justice to the cause of his people — a noble and just cause, to be sure — but nobody takes him very seriously because he is perceived to be speaking for himself and his few advisers only.

At the Security Council specifically, he seems not to have done the necessary hard work of consulting widely with all members of the council and other interested parties, nor to have engaged in reasonable bargaining to achieve a draft resolution that could secure a majority. There is no moral victory or any advantage whatsoever in doing what Abbas just did — go to the UNSC and fail to get a 9-vote passage. All he has done is to diminish himself and look like a bumbling beginner in the eyes of the diplomatic world, and thereby set back the Palestine cause at least in the short term.

I fear now that the Palestinian decision to join the ICC will repeat this pattern of political failure anchored in a personalized, non-democratic and authoritarian style of governance that has been the ruin of the modern Arab world. The Palestinian cause has massive support around the world, among ordinary citizens, political groups, governments, religious and professional organizations, and the overwhelming majority of Arabs, and most of their governments. Abbas has consistently failed to mobilize these forces and direct them into the political arena where he engages in global action, such as the UNSC and the ICC.

There is no price to be paid if a country does not support the Palestinians in the UNSC, because Abbas and his colleagues do not constitute a formidable force that can cause anyone any pain. The Israelis and the pre-state Zionists in Europe especially understood this very well, and have consistently achieved their main political objectives globally because they understand how to transform a limited number of assets into maximum political leverage.

Abbas lacks the charisma and political legacy that Yasser Arafat enjoyed, but the main reason for his repeated failures to move the Palestine cause forward has been his insistence on acting like a lone old man. The Security Council failure should be a huge wake-up call. Abbas and the people around him should acknowledge that their political approach or strategy have failed repeatedly, and they must reach out first and foremost to the human, political, and intellectual wealth of their millions of fellow Palestinians who have been alienated from the Palestinian leadership since the Oslo accords in 1993.

If the Palestinian leadership under Abbas’ wobbly, personalized guidance pursues the ICC route as it has pursued other diplomacy, the Palestinian people have nothing to look forward to. Serious issues of national fate require serious leadership, and Abbas does not fit that bill any longer.


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.