More than just the PA at stake in Palestinian reconciliation

Recent statements by Abbas and Hamas leader Abu Marzouk can be seen as the opening salvos in what is sure to be a hotly contested campaign to lead the PLO and, through it, the Palestinian body politic.

By Samer Badawi

Following the displacement, 66 years ago today, of more than three-quarters of their population and the ethnic cleansing of more than 500 of their villages, Palestinians took 16 years to coalesce around an institutional mechanism that would represent their rights before the world. Formed in 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization set out to right the wrongs of 1948.

Today, however, it has been upended by more than two decades of on-again, off-again negotiations that have shifted the locus of Palestinian political power from revolutionaries to a handful of apparatchiks, each owing fealty to their factions’ foreign paymasters.

It wasn’t always this way.

In an American-style diner an amble from the White House, I am mulling this and the state of Palestinian politics with a former advisor to the Palestinian negotiations team — that relic of a different era so often identified with the likeness of Saeb Erekat. Unlike the Palestinians’ 59-year-old negotiator-in-chief, my dinner companion has long since resigned his post, though nothing about him suggests that he has settled into his new life.

Still, his restlessness — like that of any political exile — exudes a certain grace. And when he speaks, it is with the leveled dispassion of distance:

“Our politicians,” he tells me, “have never mastered the art of a graceful exit.”

And so it is that, three weeks after they announced plans to forge a unified Palestinian leadership, the entrenched leaders of Fatah and Hamas have yet to offer any measurable means for doing so. If anything, excepting a few hat tips to the other and meetings about meetings, they seem to have foregone the most important of their pledges: to begin reconstituting the PLO.

Instead, they have repeated the familiar factional polemics that have left the Palestinians’ “sole legitimate representative” emasculated for so long. On May 4, for example, the AFP reported that Hamas deputy Mousa Abu Marzouk denied his movement would recognize Israel. That such a recognition was touted by Fatah head Mahmoud Abbas just days after the reconciliation was announced might have signaled a breakdown of the April 23 agreement. But the rhetorical tussle is more likely about a larger fight: who will wield the most power within a reconstituted PLO.

Indeed, more important than Abbas’s words was their tone and the venue within which he spoke them — not before the Western press, but before the Central Council of the PLO, which is to be “reactivated” in six months through elections that would include Hamas. To his PLO audience, Abbas was emphatic: an interim technocratic government to oversee Palestinian Authority affairs in the West Bank and Gaza would “obey” him, and part of that obedience would include toeing the line on negotiations with Israel.

“I recognize Israel and reject violence and terrorism,” Abbas said, “and [I] recognize international commitments.”

It was no accident, then, that Abu Marzouk, who was Hamas’s chief interlocutor at the reconciliation talks, seemed to be rebutting Abbas directly when he later told reporters in Gaza: “We will not recognize the Zionist entity.” That he went on for good measure to reject the other two conditions set by the so-called Quartet in 2003 — namely, the renunciation of violence and recognition of all prior agreements with Israel — made Abu Marzouk’s comments seem even less conciliatory, prompting exaggerated rumors of the tenuous factional truce’s demise.

But as others have rightly pointed out, the April 23 agreement was not about a unity government. Rather, the long-term aim of the reconciliation is to bring Hamas into the PLO fold, where a strategy of national liberation — which would include all Palestinians, including those in the diaspora — could be forged.

In this light, the recent statements by Abbas and Abu Marzouk can be seen as the opening salvos in what is sure to be a hotly contested campaign to lead the PLO and, through it, the Palestinian body politic. Given its plurality — from the starving refugees of Yarmouk to the extremely effective advocates for Palestinian rights on college campuses worldwide — neither Fatah nor Hamas can take their popularity for granted. Even the politically meek PFLP has begun offering an “evaluation of current political events,” concluding, rather anachronistically, that “it is time to reject the Oslo agreement and its consequences in total.”

That stance, too, amounts to little more than political theater, especially with the very real constraints faced by tens of thousands of Palestinian Authority employees, whose livelihoods, however meager, support tens of thousands more. Fashioning a safety net for them from the frayed tapestry of Palestinian politics will take far more than factional rhetoric — or a single handshake between oligarchs.

Still, the fact that Palestinian factions are speaking to (and at) one another — and not only to their respective backers — may be a sign of greater pluralism to come. Should the PLO truly experience a rebirth, it is conceivable that Mahmoud Abbas could himself someday make a graceful exit, yielding his power — and, with it, the tenor and trajectory of the Palestinian struggle — to an as-yet-unknown Palestinian leader.

None of that can happen, however, if those with the political heft—namely the leaders of Fatah and Hamas—continue to delay actionable steps that would include a new generation of voices in the PLO. A first step would be to refresh the roster of PLO Central Council members. That roster currently includes 124 members whose qualifications may or may not make them suitable for a new era of Palestinian resistance. After all, it is an era defined, not by political posturing, but by direct non-violent action (like the ongoing mass hunger strikes by Palestinian political prisoners) and bold global protest. It is, in this way, a time for revolutionaries — for students, artists, and their peers among the fearless. A time for new entrants and graceful exits. A time for change.

Samer Badawi is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. He is the former DC correspondent for Middle East International. Read this post in Hebrew on Local Call here.

Why Fatah-Hamas reconciliation might just work this time
True Palestinian reconciliation must include refugees