President Donald Trump’s meeting last week with the President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), Mahmoud Abbas, was pitched as an effort by the author of ‘The Art of the Deal’ to restart the United States-sponsored peace process, long stalled. But as next month’s 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation approaches, the process is worse than stalled. In the face of an intransigent right-wing government in Israel, which doesn’t believe Palestinians should have full rights, negotiations are futile.
Where does this leave Trump and the American policy of propping up the PNA and Abbas? Given the abject failure of talks built on a bankrupt framework that heavily favours Israel, Palestinians are debating the need for new leadership and a new strategy.
Many question whether the PNA plays any positive role or is simply a tool of control for Israel and the international community. The inescapable logic is that it’s time for the authority to go. Established in 1994 under the Oslo Accords, the authority was intended to be a temporary body that would become a fully functioning government once statehood was granted, which was promised for 1999. Its jurisdiction has, therefore, always been limited. It is in charge of a mere 18 per cent of the West Bank. Compared with Israel’s overall control of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the PNA’s powers are paltry.
To many Palestinians, though, the establishment of their own government was a dream realised. Finally, those who had lived under occupation since 1967 would be free from repressive Israel’s military rule to govern themselves. But as the negotiations under Oslo dragged on, the obstacles imposed by Israeli rule became only more entrenched.
I spent several years involved on the Palestinian side of the talks and can attest to their futility. Palestinian delegates, who needed permits to enter Israel to participate, were routinely held up at Israeli checkpoints. When we spoke of international law and the illegality of colonies, Israeli negotiators laughed in our faces. Power is everything, they would say, and you have none. As time went on, it became clear that the authority’s budget and its priorities were largely geared to policing the Palestinian population. The overwhelming focus on security, we were told, was necessary for the duration of peace talks. Today, fully a third of the authority’s roughly $4 billion (Dh14.7 billion) budget goes to policing, more than for health and education combined.
In effect, the PNA became a subcontractor for the occupying Israeli military. The internationally lauded “security cooperation” between Israel and the PNA has resulted only in the arrest and imprisonment of Palestinians, including nonviolent human rights activists. Meanwhile, armed Israeli colonists, over whom the authority has no jurisdiction, can terrorise Palestinians with virtual impunity. The raison d’etre of the Palestinian Authority today is not to liberate Palestine, but to keep Palestinians silent and quash dissent while Israel steals land, demolishes Palestinian homes and expands colonies. Instead of a sovereign state, the authority has become a proto-police state, a near dictatorship, endorsed and funded by the international community
Its leader, Abbas, who is now 82, has ruled for more than 12 years, for most of that time by presidential decree, with no electoral mandate. He has presided over the disastrous decade-long split between his Fatah party and Hamas, the other major player in Palestinian politics, and three devastating Israeli military assaults on Gaza.
Under his presidency, the Palestinian Parliament has become moribund, and many Palestinians have never voted in presidential or parliamentary elections because Abbas has failed to hold them, even though called for by law. Opinion polls show that his popularity is at its lowest ever, and two-thirds of Palestinians want him to resign.
Few now believe that negotiations will secure their freedom. The PNA institutionalises dependency on international donors, which tie the authority’s hands with political conditions. Thus, the simple act of using the International Criminal Court to hold Israel accountable for its illegal colony-building has to be weighed against the likely financial repercussions.
To remove this noose that has been choking Palestinians, the authority must be replaced with the sort of community-based decision making that existed before it. And we must reform our main political body, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which Abbas also heads, to make it more representative of the Palestinian people and their political parties, including Hamas. Hamas’ recently published new charter affirms its long-held wish to be part of the PLO. With the negotiation process dead, why should Palestinians have to cling to a body that has only undermined their struggle for justice and helped to divide them?
Given that there are about 150,000 employees who depend on the authority for their salaries, I am under no illusion that closing it down will be easy. But this is the only route to restoring our dignity and self-determination. A reformed PLO, with renewed credibility, will be able to raise funds to support those living under the occupation, as it did before the Oslo process.
To some, this may sound like giving up on the national dream. It is not. By dismantling the authority, Palestinians can once again confront Israel’s occupation in a strategic way, as opposed to Abbas’s merely symbolic bids for statehood. This means supporting the community-based initiatives that organise nonviolent mass protests and press for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, like those that helped to end apartheid in South Africa.
The new strategy may mean calling for equal rights within a single state, a far more just and attainable outcome than the American-backed process that pretended peace could come without addressing the rights of Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian citizens of Israel. More than one-third of Palestinians in the occupied territories already support a single-state solution, without any major political party advocating it.
By dismantling the PNA and reforming the PLO, the real will of Palestinians will be heard. Whether the endgame is two states or one state, this generation of Palestinians must decide.
— New York Times News Service
Diana Buttu is a lawyer and a former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.