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Palestine After Abbas: The Future of a People at Stake

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Although intended to inspire his Fatah Party followers, a televised speech by Mahmoud Abbas on the 51st Anniversary of the group’s launch highlighted, instead, the unprecedented crisis that continues to wreak havoc on the Palestinian people. Not only did Abbas sound defensive and lacking in any serious or new initiatives, but his ultimate intention appeared as if it was about his political survival, and nothing else.

In his speech on December 31, he tossed in many of the old clichés, chastising Israel at times, although in carefully-worded language, and insisted that any vital decisions concerned with “the future of the land, people and national rights” would be “subject to general elections and (voted on by the Palestine) National Council (PNC), because our people made heavy sacrifices and they are the source of all authorities.”

Ironically, Abbas presides over the Palestinian Authority (PA) with a mandate that expired in January 2009 and his party, Fatah, which refused to accept the results of democratic elections in the Occupied Territories in 2006, continues to behave as the ‘ruling party’ with no mandate, aside from the political validation it receives from Israel, the US and their allies.

As for the PNC, it served as the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) until the PA was established in 1994. Propped up by international funds, the PA was initially formed as a means to an end, that being ‘final status’ negotiations and a Palestinian State. Instead, it became a status quo in itself, and its institutions, which largely reflected the political interests of a specific branch within Fatah, replaced the PLO, the PNC, together with all other institutions that expressed a degree of democracy and inclusiveness.

Whatever PLO structure that symbolically remained in place after the PA soft coup is now a rubber stamp that does not merely reflect the wishes of a single party, Fatah (which lost its majority among Palestinians in 2006), but an elitist, wealthy group within the once-leading party. In some way, Abbas’ current role is largely to serve the interest of this group, as opposed to charting a path of liberation for the entire Palestinian collective, at home, in refugee camps or in the Diaspora.

Nothing was as telling about Abbas’ real mission at the helm of the PA than his statement in his speech of December 31, where he completely ruled out the dismantling of the PA – now that it has failed in its mission, and while an elaborate PLO political structure already exists, which is capable of replacing it. Oddly, Abbas described the PA as one of the greatest achievements of the Palestinian people.

I say, ‘oddly’ because the PA was the outcome of the now practically defunct Oslo ‘peace process’, which was negotiated by Abbas and a few others in secret with Israel, at the behest of the late Palestinian Fatah leader, Yasser Arafat. The whole initiative was founded on secrecy and deceit and was signed without taking the Palestinian people into account. Worse, when Palestinians attempted to vote to challenge the status quo wrought by Oslo, the outcome of the elections was dismissed by Fatah, which led to a civil war in 2007 where hundreds of Palestinians were killed.

But aside from the historical lapses of Abbas, who is now 80-years-old, his words – although meant to assure his supporters – are, in fact, a stark reminder that the Palestinian people, who have been undergoing a violent uprising since October, are practically leaderless.

While Abbas explains that the reason behind the ‘habba’ or the ‘rising’ – a reference to the current Intifada – is Israel’s continued violations and illegal settlement, he failed to endorse the current uprising or behave as if he is the leader of that national mobilization. He constantly tries to hold the proverbial stick in the middle so that he does not invite the ire of his people nor that of Israel.

Like a crafty politician, he is also trying to reap multiple benefits, siding with the people at times, as if a revolutionary leader, to remind Israel and the US of his importance as someone who represents the non-violent strand of Palestinian politics, and ride the wave of the intifada until the old order is restored. In fact, signs of that old order – interminable negotiations – are still evident. The PA’s Chief Negotiator, Saeb Erekat, has recently announced that talks between the PA and Israel are still taking place, a terrible omen at a time when Palestinians are in desperate need for a complete overhaul of their failed approach to politics and national liberation.

However, the problem is much bigger than Mahmoud Abbas. Reducing the Palestinian failure to the character of a single person is deeply rooted in most political analyses pertaining to Palestine for many years. (This is actually more pronounced in Western media than in Arabic media). Alas, once aging Abbas is no longer on the political scene, the problem is likely to persist, if not addressed.

While Fatah has made marked contributions to Palestinian Resistance, its greatest contribution was liberating the Palestinian cause, as much as is practically possible, from the confines and manipulation of Arab politics. Thanks to that generation of young Palestinian leaders, which also included leaders of the PFLP and other socialist groups, there was, for once, a relatively unified Palestinian platform that did represent a degree of Palestinian priorities and objectives.

But that relative unity was splintered among Palestinian factionalism: within the PLO itself, and then outside the PLO, where groups and sub-groups grew into a variety of ideological directions, many of whom were funded by Arab regimes which utilized the Palestinian struggle to serve national and regional agendas. A long and tragic episode of national collapse followed. When the Palestinian Resistance was exiled from Lebanon in 1982, following the Israeli invasion of that country, the PLO and all of its institutions were mostly ruled by a single party. Fatah, by then, grew older and more corrupt, operating within geographical spheres that were far away from Palestine. It dominated the PLO which, by then, grew into a body mired in political tribalism and financial corruption.

True, Abbas is an essential character in that sorry episode which led to the Oslo fiasco in 1993; however, the burgeoning political culture that he partly espoused will continue to operate independent from the aspirations of the Palestinian people, with or without Abbas.

It is this class, which is fed with US-Western money and perks and happily tolerated by Israel, which must be confronted by Palestinians themselves, if they are to have a real chance at reclaiming their national objectives once more.

The current wisdom conveyed by some, that today’s Intifada has superseded the PA, is utter nonsense. No popular mobilization has a chance of succeeding if it is impeded by such a powerful group as those invested in the PA, all unified by a great tug of self-interest.

Moreover, waiting for Abbas to articulate a stronger, more convincing message is also a waste of time, since the ailment is not Abbas’ use of vocabulary, but his group’s refusal to cede an inch of their undeserved privilege, in order to open up space for a more democratic environment – so that all Palestinians, secularists, Islamists and socialists take equal part in the struggle for Palestine.

A starting point would be a unified leadership in the Occupied Territories that manages the Intifada outside the confines of factions, combined with a vision for revamping PLO institutions to become more inclusive and to bring all Palestinians, everywhere, together.

Abbas is soon to depart the political scene, either because of an internal Fatah coup, or as a result of old age. Either way, the future of Palestine cannot be left to his followers, to manage as they see fit and to protect their own interests. The future of an entire nation is at stake.

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

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