The Battle for Palestinian Representation

“From now on, Palestinian leaders will be judged by the stand they took on the Goldstone Report — anyone who tried to bury it, or who remained silent, will have lost their claim to leadership,” a Palestinian historian friend remarked after popular outrage forced the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas to rescind his decision to postpone the Report at the Human Rights Council.

Now the Report has moved to the United Nations General Assembly, where the United States, flanked by Israel and some European allies, has reportedly spent the weekend putting heavy pressure on representatives from African countries and others who might have wanted to uphold international law and end impunity.

Two key issues faced the General Assembly at its November 4 debate: Whether to endorse or simply “take note” of the Goldstone Report, as Israel’s supporters would like. And whether to exclude the High Commissioner for Human Rights from follow-up in favor of the U.N. Secretary General’s office. Seasoned U.N. observers fear that giving Ban Ki-moon’s office control over follow-up would effectively bury the report because of the political pressures that can, and are, placed on him.

Squeezed in the middle is the Palestinian mission at the United Nations. The mission in theory reports to the Palestine Liberation Organization but is in practice controlled by the Palestinian Authority. In a serious case of “office overload,” Abbas heads the P.L.O., the P.A., and the mainstream Palestinian movement Fatah.

The effective “merger” of these three bodies — which dates back to the time of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — has become particularly dangerous given the P.A.’s almost complete dependence on U.S. political, financial, and military support to survive. That dependence has, among other things, torpedoed Palestinian attempts to bridge the Fatah-Hamas divide.

But now the P.A. is squeezed by a growing counterweight of Palestinian public opinion formed against U.S. pressure. The weight of public opinion is augmented by Fatah following its recent elections, and by the potential of revival in the P.L.O., as well as activism by Palestinian civil society — particularly its development of an increasingly effective worldwide boycott movement.

In effect, the tussle over the Goldstone Report has uncovered a serious battle for representation of the Palestinian people. Who speaks for the Palestinians? And to what end? These questions, previously discussed behind closed doors, are increasingly out in the open, and the traditional leadership is being challenged.

Fatah pressures have been preventing Abbas from returning to the negotiating table in the absence of an Israeli freeze on settlements — no matter how sweetly Hillary Clinton spins the Israeli position. And now Palestinian human rights organizations are playing an increasingly forceful role at the U.N.

This week, several Palestinian human rights groups put the P.A./P.L.O. on notice. In a press release circulated at the U.N. they said they wanted to see a full endorsement of the Goldstone report by the General Assembly, along with pursuit of accountability mechanisms, credible internal investigations, and an escrow fund to compensate victims of Operation Cast Lead, among other things.

And they warned against a repeat of recent experiences “which saw international legal obligations sidelined in favor of political expediency.” Their activism reportedly pushed the P.A./P.L.O. to introduce a resolution stronger than that the United States and Europe had wanted.

The Obama administration is so focused on bringing the state actors — Palestinian, Arab, Israeli — back to the negotiating table that it has missed the signs of a resurgent activism among Palestinians around the world which is beginning to shape a new national movement.

Whatever credibility the P.A. may once have had has been largely exhausted, partly because, during the Clinton and Bush eras, the parties spent years at the negotiating table while Israel continued to colonize Palestinian land. And now the Obama team has eroded much of its credibility by spending nine months just trying to get back to where the Bush administration left off.

What the future holds for a resurgent Palestinian leadership remains an open question. What is clear is that public limits are being set on P.A./P.L.O. action so as to stop the relentless erosion of Palestinian human rights. And one of the yardsticks any Palestinian leader will be measured by, now and in the future, is: “What stand did you take on the Goldstone Report?”

NADIA HIJAB is a senior fellow at the Insitute for Palestine Studies.


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