When leaders fail to lead, when they fail to provide genuine guidance, inspiration and vision for the people they lead, when they fail to know what is the right thing to do and to do it right, and when they fail to find the way, show the way and go the way, as has been the hallmark of Palestinian leaders since they assumed national authority in the Occupied Territories not quite a quarter century ago, they sooner or later will be left by the wayside. But, sadly, in this case they take their people with them.
Palestinian leaders have so botched their role as the pathfinders to their people’s aspirations for statehood, independence and freedom that they are now dismissed by ordinary Palestinians as a laughingstock, and by the outside world, including that part of it we call the Arab world, as an irrelevance — so sidelined that several Arab states, with pivotal regional clout, have decided to back the implementation of the much-trumpeted “deal of the century” proffered by the White House. A deal that seeks a final settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but a plan that Palestinian leaders have grandiosely declared will avoid at all costs.
In short, here’s a peace initiative that will affect the destiny of the people of Palestine, being launched without these leaders’ participation, cooperation or contribution.
Is this what it has come to, what has befallen a national liberation movement once seen as the cause of causes, the behemoth of all struggles in modern Arab history? If so, how did it go from there to here? From then to now?
In the old days, before the Oslo agreement was signed on the White House lawn in 1993, before the ground began to shift under the Palestinians’ feet, before the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) officially recognised “the right of the state Israel to exist in peace and security”, there was the Palestinian national liberation movement, a movement that, soon after the Battle of Karameh in September 1968, managed to transform Palestinians from a fragmented and ignored people to major players in the determination of their political destiny.
They went from being a forgotten people to a people anchored in the actuality of their past and the potentiality of their future, who had a cause that gained international recognition (recall the spectacle of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s appearance at the United Nations General Assembly in November 1974) and near universal support around the world. The Palestinian struggle was viewed as being no different, possessed of no less elan, than its counterparts in Algeria, Vietnam, South Africa and elsewhere around the Third World where people sought to scrub the grime of colonialism off their bodies and souls.
After Oslo, when the PLO renounced — effectively, denounced — armed struggle and went on to morph into a bureaucracy, known as The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) based in the West Bank and Gaza, tasked with reaching a political settlement with Israel, the movement began to lose its lustre. All well and good. Political movements are not in the business of lustre. But, once in control, the leaders of the PNA failed to form democratic institutions and allow the emergence of free media that would have created a robust public debate, a much needed enterprise in a society about to realise its own sense of nationhood.
The problem was compounded by unchecked corruption, brazen nepotism, a clampdown on dissent and a smug sense of entitlement among the ruling elite. Thus, it did not take long for the social contract to fracture and alienation between ruled and ruled to surface. The problem was compounded even further still when, after years of futile on-again, off-again negotiations, not only did the leadership fail to bring about independence from occupation for the people, but stood helpless at impeding, let alone blocking, say, the construction of the apartheid separation wall, the accelerated colonisation of Palestinian land, and the institutionalisation of checkpoints — a humiliating experience than can hit you at the core — in Palestinians’ daily life, among other provocations by the occupiers.
Of course, the coup de grace for the people, whether living in Palestine or in the diaspora, came when they saw for themselves how enfeebled their leadership’s reaction was to the American administration’s recent decision to move the American embassy to occupied Jerusalem — in effect a declaration that the Holy City is now Israel’s. All of which led the long-suffering people of Palestine to disillusionment, despair and cynicism — as if they needed more of that in their lives. Meanwhile, their president’s theatrical endeavours to join various UN bodies, and his threats to take Israel to the International Criminal Court, rang hollow.
And what finally did in the man’s administration was the perception of ordinary Palestinians that the PNA’s security cooperation with Israel’s intelligence services was directly responsible for the perpetuation of the occupation, for which the PNA was seen as a subcontractor.
Though Jared Kushner, United States President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser and Middle East envoy, has his own invidious reasons for saying, as he did last Sunday, that “the Palestinian president lacks the ability to make peace”, he’s the one who has got a substantial majority of Palestinians in that posture. Ironic and sadly — it is true.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.