Beyond Sterile Negotiations: Looking for a Leadership with a Strategy

Al-Shabaka Policy Brief

Given the abject failure of the Palestine Liberation Organization to secure Palestinian rights over the decades since it was established, it is long past time to explore how a national liberation strategy can be elaborated and by whom. In this policy brief, Al-Shabaka Policy Advisor Noura Erakat examines the political leadership vacuum left by the Oslo Accords and then discusses the role of the Palestinian diaspora in the creation of numerous transnational networks that have attempted to fill the void of authoritative leadership. She then discusses the role of the Boycott National Committee and the strategy of using boycott, divestment, and sanctions as a human rights-based approach without a political program. Erakat also draws on lessons from the South African experience and addresses the dangers of achieving reconciliation without revolutionary solutions.

In search of Palestinian leadership: The collapse of the PLO and the PA

The Palestinian leadership briefly returned to the weathered tables of diplomatic niceties to negotiate a path to negotiations. The return signaled an alarming regression from the confrontational stance the leadership made in September 2011, when it took its case to the United Nations. Then, notably buoyed by President Mahmoud Abbas’s liberation message to the global community, Palestinians thought it possible that the leadership would remove its self-determination struggle from the sterile confines of bilateral negotiations and place it on an international stage. In the event, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) decision to resume negotiations for a while dashed any hope that the Palestinian leadership has a strategic vision for national liberation. During the 18 years of the ‘peace process’ the settler population has more than doubled, the Jordan Valley has been all but declared a closed military zone, the Annexation Wall has expropriated 12 percent of the West Bank, with 62 percent of the West Bank beyond Palestinian control, the Gaza Strip has been reduced to destitution under the heavy-handedness of war and an ongoing blockade, and the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem has dramatically accelerated. In these circumstances, any return to negotiations, however brief, can neither be justified nor forgiven. Absent a Palestinian national liberation strategy, negotiations are counterproductive to Palestinian national interests.

The Palestinian Authority’s (PA) electoral mandate of the West Bank’s 2.5 million Palestinians has long expired and, even were it in force, the PA “represents” only a quarter of the global Palestinian population. Thus, it may be fair to ask whether some other body can responsibly develop a national liberation strategy that will be more representative than what the PA/PLO has been able to offer for more than two decades, and if so, what its goals should be.

The lack of a political program representing Palestinian national aspirations follows the steady erosion of the PLO in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords. In his unpublished paper, “The Rise and Fall of the PLO: A History of the Palestine Liberation Organization,” Seif Da'na writes, "The Oslo agreement prepared the grounds for the demise of the PLO, both as a structure and program, initiating a conflict inside the PLO between the bureaucrats interlinked with the new ruling class, and figures professing PLO ideals and liberation and independence. This inevitable rivalry intensified as the Palestinian Authority has gradually replaced the PLO as a political structure and the nature of the Palestinian question was significantly redefined."

The tensions between the aims and structure of the PA with those of the PLO has sharpened with Hamas’s electoral victory in January 2006, and again, when the PA, under the auspices of the PLO, approached the United Nations in its bid for to become a member state.

In immediate response to Hamas’s legislative victory, the US, Israel, and the European Union imposed sanctions on the PA, having already declared Hamas a “terrorist organization.” This exacerbated tensions between Fatah, the once-dominant secular political party led by late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and the PA. Tensions reached their apex, when Hamas routed Fatah from Gaza in June 2007, in what can be described as a preemptive coup, which resulted in a politically and geographically bifurcated Palestinian government. Thereafter, the US and Israel resumed their financial and diplomatic support of the Fatah-dominated PA thereby affording Fatah considerable influence over the official Palestinian political agenda.

Mired in an internecine conflict, Palestinian leaders dedicated more effort to asserting their control over the Occupied Territory, than they did to combatting settler-colonial occupation or apartheid. Neither Hamas nor Fatah, nor their short-lived government of national unity has ever represented the entirety of the Palestinian nation. The conflict has led friends and foes alike to ask, “who speaks for Palestinians?”

Palestinians asked this question again in the lead-up to September 2011, when the PA/PLO applied for membership in the UN. Since 1974, the PLO, which likes to remind the world that it is the “sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”, has had observer status at the UN, when the UN General Assembly passed resolution 3236. The statehood bid raised concerns that if the UN granted Palestine membership, the PA, which only represents the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), would supplant the PLO as the Palestinian representative body to the global community. Palestinians living in the Diaspora feared that they would be excluded from Palestinian national representation altogether. The threat of such exclusion prompted many Palestinians in the Diaspora to reject the statehood bid in unequivocal terms.