Tuesday,26 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1373, (14 - 20 December 2017)
Tuesday,26 March, 2019
Issue 1373, (14 - 20 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Palestinian leadership stuck with the status quo

Palestinian leaders are in a bind following Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel but they won’t change tack, writes Amira Howeidy

Palestinian leadership stuck with the status quo
The signing of the Olso Accords in Washington, 1993



“Trump’s decision will not alter the reality of Jerusalem.”

Did Palestinians believe their Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Mahmoud Abbas's reassurances in his televised speech on 6 December, hours after US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel?

With his popularity ratings at an all-time low - 65 per cent of Palestinians want him to resign for not walking away from the failed 25-year-old peace process – Abbas is in a bind quite unlike any he, or any Palestinian leader before him, has ever encoutered during his decades-old hold on power.

The question is how can the PA, born out of the 1993 Oslo process which was supposed to lead to a two-state solution years ago, thwart the US president’s violation of international law and his detonation of what remains of the peace process?

For a week now the PA’s efforts have been directed towards mobilising the Arab and international community to denounce Trump’s decision in an effort to force a retraction. On 8 December an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council overwhelmingly condemned Trump’s announcement. A joint statement by the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, Italy and France said the the US decision was “not in line with the Security Council’s resolutions and was unhelpful in terms of the prospect for peace in the region”. But the council is not expected to officially seek a resolution condemning Trump’s move. The US, after all, is a permanent member and has veto power.

An emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers at the Arab League on 9 December urged the US to abandon its decision and described Washington’s move as taking sides with the occupation. It, too, fell short of recommending any concrete actions.

On the same day Abbas said he had refused a meeting requested by US Vice President Mike Pence who is due to visit the region. The PA chairman also said Trump’s decision had undermined the US’ role as an honest broker in the peace process.

“We will seek another broker from our Arab brothers and the international community” said Palestinian foreign minister Riyadh El-Malki.

Intense diplomatic consultations and supporting popular protests across the Palestinian Territories and elsewhere is how the PA is addressing Trump’s decision and its ramifications, says Nabil Shaath, Abbas’s foreign affairs advisor.

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation was due to meet in Istanbul for an extraordinary session on Jerusalem. As he headed to Turkey Shaath said: “At all these platforms we are seeking international support to confront Trump and Israel. The UNSC opposed his decision and so has the EU. Mobilisation is starting to yield results.”

“We want Trump to say he’s wrong, to retract his statements,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. “He is a businessman and businessmen are ready to go back on decisions in order to make successful deals.”

But this is a far cry, say critics, from the kind of actions necessary to defuse the dangers posed by Washington’s decision on Jerusalem, specifically as it pertains to the east of the city, occupied by Israel in 1967 and the site of Al-Aqsa Mosque- the third holiest site in Islam.

The majority of UN members do not recognise Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and its legal status remains unresolved. The peace talks delayed any discussion of the city, along with the Palestinian right of return and the setting of borders, to final status negotiations which never happened.

Since Trump’s Jerusalem decision several collective statements by Palestinian intellectuals, politicians and former officials have called on the PA to divorce itself from the Oslo process which they accuse of hindering, rather than advancing the Palestinian question.

The Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad (PCPA), a recent body formed by Palestinian figures and prominent activists in the diaspora, demanded Abbas abrogate the Oslo Accord, dissolve the PA and restore the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s Occupied Palestinian Land department and immediately halt all cooperation with the Israeli occupation.

A statement signed by more than 300 Palestinian public figures and academics demanded a critical review of the Oslo process and the transformation of the PA from an Israeli-dependent body that oversees security and cooperation with Israel to an organisation that governs the Palestinians and supports efforts to combat the  racist and settler policies of the occupiers.

Shaath dismisses such demands as “nonsense”.

“How can you confront your enemy by dissolving the PA and thus not being there?” he asks.

Even in Gaza, under Hamas’s control since 2007, the official reaction differs little from that of its rival the PA. Hamas’s leader Ismail Haniya called on Palestinians to mobilise to a maximum while a statement from the Islamic resistance movement encouraged a “Jerusalem Intifada” so that “this conspiracy does not pass”.

“I expected there to be a before and after 6 December,” says Diana Buttu, a Ramallah-based analyst and former legal advisor to the PLO.

Post-6 December Buttu anticipated “a wake-up call”, with the PA recognising 24 years of negotiations had lead to this moment and realizing that the Palestinians and Israelis have been pursuing negotiations like they’re two equal parties when they’re not. "And that Palestinians would abandon negotiations and focus on what is actually an occupation, a power imbalance and not try to normalise situations through negotiation”.

“Yet they have done the exact opposite. The PA is saying the peace process must continue but not with US,” she said.

“Instead of using the opportunity to regain some legitimacy and focus on what is actually happening - an occupation - they make it seem like it’s a border dispute they have to negotiate. This is not the case, its theft,” Buttu told the Weekly in a telephone interview from Ramallah.

With the gap widening between the Palestinian leadership, as represented by the PA and PLO, and popular demands to adopt radically different policies that address reality on the ground, observers see no easy way out.

“Cutting off security coordination with Israel or dissolving the PA are popular demands but hardly realistic moves for the PA,” says Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. 

From Abbas's perspective, the one upside of Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem is that it probably reduces Arab pressure on Abbas to accept a Trump peace initiative that the Palestinians would find problematic, Thrall adds.  

The quagmire extends to Hamas. In May, the group issued a revised political document which -for the first time- accepted the two-state solution by acknowleding the 1967 borders and removed religious or anti-Semitic language in redefining its struggle with Israel as a Zionist occupation entity. The document was announced just as the United States was distancing itself from the two-state solution and the Oslo framework.

“Hamas finds itself in the awkward position of having moved, slowly and grudgingly, towards an international consensus position only to find the consensus falling apart. Although Fatah is clearly more closely associated with what now seems to most Palestinians to be the dead or dying paradigm of Oslo Hamas, too, looks like it is wedded to a framework that is totally bankrupt,” Thrall said in an interview.

Hamas insists it long ago recognised that Oslo’s legal and political framework had failed. “Final status talks were supposed to take place within five years of the process’s onset but they never happened,” says senior Hamas official Bassem Naim.

The Oslo Accords envisioned a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital yet “Gaza has been under siege since 2007 and 60 per cent of the West Bank has been eroded beneath Israeli settlements. Only the name Oslo and its negotiators remain,” Naim told the Weekly from Gaza.

Like the PA, Hamas’s options are limited.

“This is bigger than Hamas and the Palestinians. Where is the international community? Where are Islamic and Arab countries? Without them the Palestinians only have their bare chests to confront this,” said Naim.

The PA’s Shaath echoed the same sentiment. “Israel has the fifth most powerful army in the world. It is the fourth nuclear power. The financial, military, media and political support it receives from the US has no limits while the Arab world is in a state of collapse. The imbalance between us and them is colossal.”

The realism smacks of helplessness on both sides of the political spectrum, leaving the Palestinian question unanswered by the Palestinian leadership.

Palestinians see that their two major political parties, while enormously frustrated by the limits of Oslo, have no realistic plan to escape from it, says Thrall. That of course increases general cynicism about the Palestinian factions, lending support to the belief that the leadership is too comfortable in the status quo.

“We’re at a point where this leadership is dying off, literally not figuratively,” says Buttu. “I don’t know what will replace it.”

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