The Palestinian Political Arena: Where Do Things Stand? What Lies Ahead?
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The original recording is available here.
Ron Skolnik: Let me welcome everyone to this Partners for Progressive Israel webinar, The Palestinian Political Arena: Where Do Things Stand? What Lies Ahead? This is the latest installment of Partners’ Conversations with Israel and Palestine series, bringing voices from Israel and Palestine to an international audience.
Our moderator today is Diana Greenwald, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the City College of New York. Her research focuses on politics of the Middle East, especially Palestinian politics, and her work has appeared in the National Interest, the Washington Post, and 972 Magazine.
Dr. Khalil Jahshan is a Palestinian American political analyst and media commentator, as well as Executive Director of the Arab Center in Washington D.C. Previously he served as Executive Vice President of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Director of its government affairs affiliate, the National Association of Arab Americans.
Dr. Khalil Shikaki is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. He has been a Senior Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis. Since 1993, Dr. Shikaki has conducted more than 200 polls among Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and participated in dozens of joint polls among Palestinians and Israelis.
Diana Greenwald: We’re talking about over 13 million Palestinians globally, nearly half of whom live within Israel and the occupied territories. That includes over 3 million in the West Bank—inclusive of East Jerusalem, about 2 million in Gaza, about 2 million inside Israel within its 1949 boundaries, and additionally, 6 to 7 million Palestinians abroad. Palestinian politics is taking place all over the world. Dr. Jahshan, how would you characterize the current mood within the Palestinian national struggle?
Dr. Khalil Jahshan: Thank you all. If I’m to describe the status of Palestinian politics today, I would say that we’re in the post-Oslo paralysis period but it’s important to avoid taking a static approach. It’s not just the size and the diversity of the population. There is a certain internal dynamic to Palestinian politics that is often ignored by the parties, including mediating parties, and by the media. The tendency is always to talk as if there’s a static Palestinian body politic.
If I were to it put into different phases, I would say that the Palestinians went through a first stage from 1948 to 1967, where they were classified and dealt with as “refugees.” The emphasis of their politics was on rectifying the injustice that had been done to them and returning home. That’s why jokingly I refer to this as the “ET” phase, the “I want to go home phase” of Palestinian politics. At the end of the ‘60s the Palestinians began to realize that they have to take matters into their own hands. That was the period of toying with armed struggle. I say toying, because I don’t think Palestinians really took armed struggle seriously. That’s the period when the emphasis of Palestinian politics was on liberation and forming a body to represent them internationally and with Israel, and that’s when the PLO was formed.
The next phase was ‘73 to ’87, the beginning of the idea of a two-state solution or political compromise, ending with the first Intifada. This inaugurated the so-called “peace process” that we began to see between ‘88 and ’93. The US began to deal directly with the Palestinians through the PLO, and a peace negotiations process began that resulted in Oslo.
1994 to 2000—the fifth phase of Palestinian politics, witnessed the transformation of the PLO into the Palestinian Authority – the PA. The PLO itself deteriorated quickly and was reduced to a local PNA, the Palestinian National Authority, based in Ramallah. It tended to overshadow the PLO and all that led us to this sixth period in Palestinian politics: the post-Oslo paralysis. The Palestinians have been trying for the past 20 years to adjust to the failure of the Oslo process. Unfortunately, it imploded and did not produce the intended results. In order to understand Palestinian politics, we also have to refer to the dispersion that Diana mentioned earlier. Half of Palestinians are under Israeli control.
It cannot be asked, “Why can’t the Palestinians unite and have a uniform politics that make it easy for me to understand?” Palestinians live under three Ds: dispersion, division, and discrimination. Experts often say that the Palestinians have hit a brick wall. Frankly, it’s a bit more complicated. Imagine hitting a brick wall. You probably are shocked, and you might get a scar on your forehead, but you tend to realize that it’s the end of the road. The Palestinian situation is worse than that. The Palestinians have hit a cul-de-sac. You keep moving and you get the impression that you’re getting somewhere, but you aren’t.
The Palestinians are stuck in this desert. There is this semblance of movement, of getting somewhere; that maybe next year will be better. Maybe the next American president will be better. Maybe the next Israeli prime minister will be better. Meanwhile, the PA has become the guardian of the status quo; the gatekeeper of the Israeli occupation because it doesn’t have an option. Its survival depends on it.
Greenwald: Dr. Shikaki, what kinds of trends or developments are you seeing in Palestinian attitudes in the West Bank and Gaza? Earlier this year, the Palestinian authorities suspended elections that had been planned for the presidency and legislature within the PA, and for the PNC within the PLO. There have been protests around the ongoing evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, conflict between Hamas and Israel, the Gilboa prison outbreak, and much else.
Dr. Khalil Shikaki: Three broad areas are relevant here. The first is “division,” because of the impact it has on public attitudes regarding both the domestic scene and Israeli-Palestinian relations. The second is “bad governance under the PA.” Palestinian politics have become more and more authoritarian. This is a clearly a fundamental transformation. Third is the dysfunctional relationship with Israel—the lack of any political process to get the Palestinians somewhere.
For example, the unification of the West Bank and Gaza and reconciliation between the PA and Hamas has long been a top priority. However, given repeated failure over the years, we have seen expectations plummeting, and we have seen attitudes shifting as to who is responsible.
Most Palestinians now blame the president and Fatah for the lack of unity; while in the past, the blame was squarely put on Hamas. In governance preferences, we see real stability regarding democracy and liberal values. Most Palestinians, particularly the youth, tend to be very liberal in terms of political values. As to some social values, we see significant support for gender equality among Palestinians compared to other Arabs in the region.
Despite the attachment to liberal social values, when asked to evaluate the status of Palestinian democracy, the trend is very clear. Most Palestinians no longer believe that they have a democracy or that their current political elite is capable of producing democracy. They believe that there is little opportunity for democracy under the old guard. If you ask them today to tell you whether they have a free press, 80% say no. This is also true regarding the independence of the judiciary, pluralism in civil society, et cetera.
Today, there is a grim view of the third issue, Israeli-Palestinian relations. In the mid-‘90s, the golden era for peace attitudes and the two-state solution, diplomacy and negotiations were the most effective means of getting us there. People trusted the leadership to negotiate such a deal after Oslo. Now, most of the support for the two-state solution has vanished, but we still don’t see a competing paradigm. Support was at 80 or 85% in the mid-‘90s and still 70% 10 years ago. Now it’s just about half that. We’ve also seen a shift in support for violence, a real rise. It’s not a majority, but compared again to the mid-‘90s, it is significant. You could hardly find one fifth in favor of violence; today, almost half of the Palestinians believe in it. Most Palestinians believe that they have no Israeli partner interested in reaching a two-state peace agreement—or a one-state solution for that matter.
There is significant demand among the Palestinians for elections. But if you ask if they think elections are about to take place anytime soon, the answer is no. If you ask if it was the right call to cancel the elections again, three-quarters will say no. There is little trust in the president today, and 78% of Palestinians believed the president must resign.
Greenwald: We see the Israeli government pursuing policies to “shrink the conflict.” Small- scale reforms, increasing the number of permits for Palestinians in Gaza to go into Israel to work, rectifying the legal status of Palestinians in the West Bank who have relocated their residency years ago from Gaza. Do you see any hope in these or other policies that come out of this government?
Shikaki: Without doubt, for most Palestinians, the current Israeli government is even worse than the previous government. The current government takes a harder line and essentially leaves the PA without a purpose. The goal of the Authority is to deliver a state through negotiations. But the Israeli government, through settlements, undercuts everything the PA is trying to achieve. Looking at the last two months, you can see planned expansion in the size, location, and number of settlements. If these plans are implemented, they will destroy any prospect for future Israeli-Palestinian peace along the lines of a two-state solution.
Jahshan: The Palestinian public is frustrated. But it hasn’t despaired totally. It is changing its expectations. What we see is the frustration of previously rising expectations; expectations have not been met, and there is a price for that. What this frustration has produced is a pressure cooker that is bound to explode sooner or later, especially in the absence of credible, visionary leadership in Palestine. “Shrinking the conflict,” which has become a cute mantra, only makes the situation more dangerous.
Growing up as an Israeli Palestinian, I have seen quite a few people try to do this “shrinking of the conflict” under various terminologies, ever since Ben-Gurion. This has been an attempt from the beginning to try to reduce the Palestinian conflict as if it could disappear. Even some Palestinians are prone to drift in that direction. Definitely some of the progressives among our colleagues here in the States and the Jewish community “shrink the conflict.” “Palestine” becomes just the West Bank and Gaza; and then “Palestine” becomes only 30 or 40% of what originally was contemplated.
By this shrinking, Gaza disappears from the equation. And Jerusalem has been shrunk now to Sheikh Jarrah. Where is the conflict? Where is Palestine? My problem is not Sheikh Jarrah, and it’s not equality. It’s not ending discrimination. My problem is Palestine. Unless we, in a protracted conflict, stop this tendency to keep reducing the ceiling lower and lower in order to eliminate the conflict, we’re not going to get there.
What is being proposed in terms of “shrinking the conflict” is nothing better or worse than the Kushner plan. No to peace, no to negotiations, no to meeting with the Palestinians, no to Palestinian statehood, but let’s make your life a little easier. Palestinian life has been difficult for hundreds of years, going back to the Ottoman empire. That’s not the issue. The issue is political. The issue is self-determination. The issue is statehood.
Greenwald: What can we do, or what can Palestinians do, that would most likely create change towards a resolution?
Shikaki: Palestinians continue to demand of the Authority that it clean up its act. I don’t expect these demands to succeed. The PA is isolated from the Palestinian public. Clearly this Israeli government is not interested in a two-state solution or letting the Palestinians create their own sovereign Palestinian state.
The international community must confront Israel with a choice. It should tell Israel that there are two possibilities: either let the Palestinians have an independent and sovereign state, or else grant them all equal rights. To support or to tolerate the status quo is to contribute to its persistence, and makes it even more difficult for those Palestinians who are struggling right now to create a better future for themselves, both against their own Authority and against the state of Israel.
Jahshan: I agree that the current state of Palestinian governance is untenable. Unfortunately, nothing happens without violence in Palestine. Intifada 1, Intifada 2; there has to be some movement in the Palestinian street threatening to American interests and threatening to Israel’s existence before there is any serious movement by the US. It’s up to the Palestinians to take matters into their own hands. I agree totally with Dr. Shikaki about what needs to be done on the Palestinian side to pressure the leadership to deliver, even though both of us are not very optimistic. In terms of the US, unfortunately, we see nothing.
Any return to peace processing in the Middle East without the goal of ending the Occupation and creating a Palestinian state is pointless. The harsh truth is that Biden needs to tell Israelis now about their future.
I know Biden. I’ve dealt with him as a Senator. On one occasion, I debated with him in front of a J Street audience. He wasn’t properly briefed. He came with a traditional pro-AIPAC speech and embarrassed himself quite visibly. The good intentions declared by this Administration require moral and political leadership that he hasn’t shown.
Greenwald: Is there any chance that the Palestinian leadership and the PA itself will disband in the near future? We also have Abbas’s age and health to consider. Will there be a succession crisis anytime soon?
Shikaki: The PA is not on the verge of collapsing or disbanding itself. In fact, if anything the main driver, incentive, and motivation of the current leadership is self-preservation. There are demands among the Palestinian public for the PA to dissolve itself, that it has essentially failed in its mission to be the midwife for Palestinian statehood, and that with bad governance, there is no need for it anymore. However, there is still a small majority that is against disbanding it.
There are no written or unwritten rules right now as to what happens to the leadership of the PA when Abbas is done. Without elections, there is no real process in place for a succession. This current government is the only government since the 2006 elections. This makes the current government more likely to resist any change, reforms, or any attempts to try and meet the demands of the public.
Jahshan: Elections are vital. There is no way to move forward except through democratic elections. The Palestinians, with the support of the international community, can administer democratic elections. They shouldn’t be giving Israel veto power over any aspect of the elections. Let’s say they are not going to allow the Jerusalemites to vote; therefore we cannot hold elections. No, we should hold the elections. Palestinians should have elections. You can even bring the whole population of Jerusalem over the city limits and make sure that they vote.
The authoritarian tendencies of the security agencies in Palestine and their coordination with the Israeli agencies and becoming a tool of the occupation; this has to end. Palestine does not need 12 to 18 security agencies, including Naval Intelligence in Nablus. One security agency is enough, and it needs to measure up morally and politically to the fact that the Palestinians are struggling for independence and are not an authoritarian state, like the rest of states in the region that require these types of authoritarian security apparatuses to suppress people.
Abbas should declare that he no longer wants to stay as president, that he wants to preside over elections. If he wants to go down in history as a constructive, useful leader, he has to lead reform, because that is the shortest line between point A and point B.
Ron Skolnik: Thank you Dr. Shikaki, Dr. Jahshan, and Dr. Greenwald. Thanks to everyone for joining us for this latest installment of Conversations with Israel and Palestine.
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