The Missing Ingredient in Palestinian Politics
The voice of ordinary Palestinians seeking a new generation of leaders is mostly absent from the debate
“Our people have lost hope,” one Palestinian leader admitted with more resignation than anger in his voice during a visit earlier this month to Ramallah in the West Bank. It’s a sentiment widely echoed in every conversation I had with Palestinians of all walks of life.
From figures rumored to be the next Palestinian leader to friends I’ve known for more than a quarter century ago when I worked on democracy and governance programs with Palestinians in the 1990s, the overriding consensus was doom and gloom: more violence and internal divisions, all emanating from the lack of any clear political horizon from their own governing authorities.
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Only a few voices I met offered ideas that could lead to a more optimistic future for Palestinians, and many of these hopes are linked to the simple fact that a leadership transition for Palestinians is inevitable at some point. Whether this transition produces change for the better or worse depends on reckoning with some big questions that have plagued the whole Palestinian political enterprise for decades.
The Palestinian political system has always suffered from exceptional constraints. The biggest limit is that the Palestinian people and its leaders lack basic freedoms and rights. Without a fully independent state and facing daily challenges from the Israeli occupation, Palestinian politics has morphed and mutated in recent years into a fragmented and volatile dynamic that seems destined towards a bumpy transition when the current leaders transition from the scene.
An unprecedented Palestinian political legitimacy crisis
One affliction that Palestinians today have in common politically with Israelis is that they lack healthy politics capable of building stable national coalitions responsive to the concerns of their people. But the symptoms are starkly different for Palestinians.
While Israel’s divided and dysfunctional political system moves towards a fifth election in three years this November, Palestinians haven’t held a “national” election in more than a decade and a half. The last elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) were in 2006, and the most recent presidential election was in 2005, when the current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) won by 67% of the vote. Abbas, who is 87 years old, leads only part of a dysfunctional and fragmented political system that lacks much control over its own affairs.
Telling the complex story of how Palestinian politics has evolved is one that requires a seminar class like this one at Georgetown University to do it justice. Multiple entities claim to represent and speak for the estimated 14 million Palestinians living in Palestine, Israel, and the diaspora, but not many Palestinians seem happy with the job these organizations are doing:
The Palestinian Authority (PA) that Abbas leads in just one of many structures that claim to rule or represent Palestinian people. It nominally runs Palestinian enclaves in urban areas the West Bank established under the Oslo agreements in the 1990s. Part of the PA’s governing structure includes the elected Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), which has essentially been defunct for 15 years following a split between two leading Palestinian factions. The PLC was formally dissolved in 2018 by the Palestinian Constitutional Court. But the PA is not the only institution or group in the game.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), established in 1964, is a broad umbrella organization of different Palestinian factions. The United Nations and organizations such as the Arab League recognize the PLO as the “sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” The PLO is the entity that has signed interim Oslo agreements with Israel, and it claims to represent all Palestinians, including millions of Palestinians living as refugees around the Middle East in places such as Jordan and Lebanon.
The Gaza Strip, a small, crowded enclave between Israel and Egypt has nearly 2 million Palestinians. It is controlled by Hamas, an Islamist political group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and dozens of other countries that operates as a political rival to the factions dominating the PLO and the PA.
Another dimension of the complicated architecture of Palestinian politics is the fact that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, a disputed area according to international law but claimed by Israel as part of its undivided capital and sought by the Palestinians as the capital of their own future state.
This thumbnail sketch above suffers from oversimplifications, and even basic population numbers in different areas and categories are often the subject of bitter debates. But two basic facts about the current political legitimacy crisis are worth keeping at the forefront.
1. Israel’s overriding power over the situation. Palestinians don’t have anything close to autonomy and self-determination due to the lack of their own state and the ongoing Israeli occupation. Palestinian politics are overshadowed by this basic fact. Since Palestinian control over the most basic elements of life is heavily circumscribed – control of territory, law and order, movement and access, basic services such as water and energy – political debates about those elements are quite limited and whatever debates exist are focused on more basic questions such as the struggle for self-determination, dignity, and access to resources.
2. Palestinian divisions and elite politics cut off pathways towards greater national unity. The basic fact that Palestinians have multiple entities claiming to represent their interests and speak for them complicates any effort to make the case for an inclusive nationalism that fosters greater unity and a sense of purpose. Elite Palestinian politics are increasingly disconnected from the concerns of the people they purport to represent, creating a precarious house of cards. Corrupt authoritarianism plagues the lives of ordinary Palestinians.
The current Palestinian political legitimacy crisis is the product of the unique conditions the Palestinian people face but it is also the result of choices made by a range of Palestinian leaders across the spectrum, too.
Palestinians used as props by outsiders
For the past few decades, voices on the left and right in America and Europe have used the countries and people of the Middle East as props in their own political and social debates, a phenomenon I’ve called neo-Orientalism. This phenomenon is particularly strong when it comes to all things Palestinian.
Debates about Israel and Palestine in recent years have generated heated political debates inside America’s politics, but very few of these discussions have produced new pathways towards improving the situation for Palestinians. They amount to little more than rancorous venting about an awful situation, screaming into a void in a way that fails to produce any consensus about the pathway forward. If anything, these efforts have produced greater disunity in America, and that only reinforces the current trends on the ground in the Middle East.
Pro-Palestinian voices in America’s debate have operated under the assumption that they can mount enough political backing to challenge and overturn America’s long-standing support for policies aimed at keeping Israel secure and utilize this as leverage to open a pathway towards greater Palestinian autonomy and freedom. But these efforts to isolate and in some cases boycott Israel have not generated broad public support and provoked more counterreactions from the right and center.
So-called pro-Israel elements on the right in America don’t help matters either, as they tend to use Palestinians as a foil in their own advocacy efforts and usually operate in narratives dependent on caricatures about the Palestinian people. These stories often ignore the complicated reality of Palestinians’ lives and the fact that no math equations about stability in the Middle East will ever add up without the Palestinian people being part of it.
In Israel, the relative stability and prosperity of the past decade has pushed the Palestinian question into a curious blind spot of Israeli politics. Israel has prospered in the nearly 30 years since the Oslo process with the Palestinians began, seeing its gross domestic product grow from around $80 billion in 1994 to $430 billion last year. (By contrast, Palestinian GDP was around $3 billion in 1994 and was only about $16 billion in 2021). This comfort for Israelis is likely only a temporary one because for practical reasons the “out of sight, out of mind” approach cannot ignore basic demographic and geographic realities.
Recent regional openings including the Abraham Accords, normalization deals between Israel and the Arab monarchies of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco, have reinforced the faulty notion that somehow the region’s security and economic fortunes can be enhanced while excluding the voice of millions of Palestinians. On the other end of the spectrum in today’s Middle East, certain retrograde elements like Iran’s regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon try very hard to expropriate the Palestinian cause for their own purposes.
None of these efforts to either marginalize or instrumentalize the Palestinian people will help produce lasting peace in the region.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Palestinians hope not
If Israelis are sick and tired of voting in elections every year and sometimes twice a year, Palestinians are sick and tired of the faces that have ruled them for decades. The Palestinian people may be divided over a lot of issues, but there’s one thing that is close to a national consensus: the desire to hit the reset button on who leads them and speaks for them. Doing this in the complicated and increasingly violent political atmosphere of the Palestinian territories is easier said than done, but it seems like a necessary ingredient in any recipe for moving forward.
A poll conducted this summer by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre found that strong majorities of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza supporting change on several fronts:
Three quarters believe it is important to hold legislative elections (75%) and presidential elections (79%); and
83% believe Palestinian youth had the ability and potential to play a leading political role in public life.
A more recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) conducted in September 2022 found extreme dissatisfaction with the current rulers in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
President Abbas has a 26% approval rating, and 74% want Abbas to resign as president.
In addition, fully 86% percent of Palestinians in the West Bank described the PA as “corrupt” and 73% of those in Gaza said the same about the ruling authorities of Hamas.
These data points confirm the overall tenor of my conversations with Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem on this most recent trip. The idea of trying to hold another round of elections right now may seem impractical or unwise to some, especially given past experiences with elections as well as the uncertainty that looms over the entire situation. The Palestinians last tried to organize national elections in May 2021, but those elections were scuttled for several reasons, including tensions over Jerusalem and a war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
If circumstances somehow allowed for a new national election among Palestinians, recent polling finds an important opening for a new inclusive nationalism and voices to build new political movements. The September 2022 PCPSR poll found that if legislative elections were held today, 34% would vote for Fatah (the faction aligned with Abbas) and 32% would vote for Hamas.
Importantly, 22% are undecided and another 12% would vote for third parties combined. This basic political architecture demonstrates that no single party or movement should have a monopoly in Palestinian politics. Yet it’s basically a monopoly, and a crumbling one too, that has dominated politics in the West Bank and Gaza for years.
Perhaps the best idea for breaking the current deadlock is helping the Palestinian build a new political horizon for themselves and opening the door to a new generation in politics. Getting there won’t be easy, but it may be the only hope the Palestinian people have.
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