By Ramzy Baroud
It is abundantly clear that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has underestimated the seriousness of the challenges facing Palestine and the Palestinians. The rushed agreement made between Abbas’ party, Fatah, and Hamas in Istanbul on Thursday and his speech at the 75th session of the UN General Assembly the following day indicate that the Palestinian leadership is insisting on operating within the stifling confines of the Oslo Accords and the dead-end road of the “peace process.”
Abbas has spent most of his political career mastering an intricate balancing act; one that allows him to remain the favored leader of Palestinians — to the West — while legitimizing his rule among ordinary Palestinians through a system of political patronage, itself subsidized by US-led international funders. This has worked well for Abbas and a clique of Palestinians who became rich because of their ties to his PA, but terribly badly for the Palestinian people.
Since the establishment of the PA in 1994, the Palestinian cause has subsisted in its darkest and most demoralizing period. This time has been defined by extreme Israeli violence, the rapid expansion of illegal settlements, unhindered corruption among Palestine’s political elite, and unprecedented disunity among Palestinians everywhere.
The PA’s scheme would have continued for longer were it not for US President Donald Trump’s decision to disengage from his predecessors’ strategies in the Middle East — foremost among them being the fruitless so-called peace process.
However, it was not the Trump administration that opted for an American retreat from the Middle East in general and Palestine in particular. Trump merely accelerated what was becoming the new US foreign policy doctrine.
During the two terms of former President Barack Obama, Palestine featured fleetingly in US calculations: In the early months and again when the “lame duck” administration refrained, in December 2016, from vetoing UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemned Israel’s settlement activity.
For many years, the peace process existed only nominally. On the ground, the Oslo Accords were transformed to mere technical security and financial arrangements between the PA’s upper echelon and the Israeli government.
When, in February 2019, Washington decided to cease its financial assistance to the Palestinian leadership, Abbas and the PA understood this decision as a political declaration that Washington and Tel Aviv no longer saw their “moderate” Palestinian allies as assets. Bewildered by the abrupt US policy shift, Abbas sought alternatives.
However, instead of offering an unconditional apology to the Palestinian people for his leadership’s corruption, his personal failures, the factionalism and the squandered opportunities to unify Palestinians around a new national liberation strategy — one fueled by popular resistance and global solidarity — Abbas continued unhindered with the same old discourse.
At his UN speech on Friday, Abbas insisted on referencing the peace process, again calling for an international peace conference, among other fantasies. Abbas’ references are both outdated and unfeasible, for Washington is now turning to a new phase that is predicated on the complete disregard of international law and the de facto acceptance of Israel’s colonialism and occupation.
Aside from appealing to Western sensibilities, another crucial element in the PA’s new balancing act is to reinvent itself among ordinary Palestinians who, for decades, have felt abandoned and leaderless. In his UN speech, Abbas labored to rebrand himself to these two different target audiences.
“We will continue creating life and hope under the flag of national unity and democracy,” he said, adding: “We will remain faithful to peace, justice, human and national dignity under all circumstances.”
In fact, Abbas has neither committed to democracy nor to Palestinian unity. He is currently unelected, as his presidential mandate expired in 2009, and never in his 15-year rule did he earnestly opt for inclusion or unity among his people.
The latest episode of the “unity” saga took place in Istanbul last week. Despite the triumphant speeches afterwards, this too seemed like a mere self-serving exercise. The expeditious declaration that rivals Fatah and Hamas are finally ready for democratic elections is a cunning but ultimately futile initiative. The agreement will buy Abbas time to promote himself as a political moderate, even though free and democratic elections can never be held under occupation.
It is doubtful that any kind of elections, free or otherwise, are possible. Following last week’s agreement, the Fatah representative at the talks, Azzam Al-Ahmad, declared that “without Jerusalem, there will be no elections.” In other words, “there will be no elections.”
During Palestine’s first elections in 1996, Israel barred Jerusalemites from participating, merely agreeing to very limited votes in areas located on the outskirts of the city, and only through the post office. It is unthinkable that Israel would allow for a mass Palestinian vote in Jerusalem now that Washington has fully recognized the city as Israel’s capital.
What about Palestinians living in Areas B and C of the West Bank, which are largely under Israeli military control? Will they be included in the vote? What about the Palestinians trapped behind the Israeli apartheid wall? Or in the “firing zones?” Or those isolated in small pockets in the Jordan Valley, etc.?
Democratic elections are ideal in circumstances where a nation has true sovereignty, legal and political jurisdiction, and territorial control. The PA has none of this. Moreover, insisting on elections that, even if possible, will merely lead to the overhaul of the PA is equivalent to sustaining the many illusions of Oslo and its adjoining peace process.
While Oslo failed the Palestinians entirely, it was useful for Israel as it brought to an unceremonious end to the entire Palestinian national liberation project, in favor of a “state-building” program that had no tangible basis in reality. If it is serious in its intentions, the Palestinian leadership must demolish, not sustain, the status quo.
Even successful elections within the Oslo framework would further divert Palestinian energies from their liberation project in favor of another political dead end, which will only protect the gains of Palestine’s ruling elites, while selling more false hope that the coveted peace is still at hand to ordinary Palestinians.