(This post was updated at 7:30 am ET on 10/18/2023.)
I was tempted to title this post “Abu Mazen is toast”, but then I thought that wouldn’t be very helpful. The real political challenge for Palestinians right now is not the old age and extreme political infirmity of one ageing leader but rather the need to reimagine and reinvigorate the leadership of their entire national-liberation and national-independence movement.
It was in 1968-69 that, in the aftermath of the Arab states’ defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967, the collection of mostly small, mostly secular Palestinian guerrilla groups that grown up within the Palestinians’ far-flung diasporic communities came together to take over the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a body that had been created by the Arab League in 1964. (Read all about it in my 1984 book on the PLO.) The largest of those guerrilla groups was Fateh. Fateh’s collective leadership body decided that Yasser Arafat should be the person to head the PLO. The Arab states agreed with that. (In 1970-71, Jordan’s King Hussein launched a harsh crackdown on Palestinian guerrilla activity and organizing that was occurring among the Palestinian refugee populations that then, as now, formed a majority of Jordan’s population. But his crackdown did little to dent the general Arab-state consensus that the PLO was the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinians.)
In 1993 it was the PLO that signed the Oslo Accord with Israel from which was born the Palestinian Authority (PA), the full original title of which was the Palestinian Interim Self-Governing Authority. The PA/PISGA was intended to act only as a stop-gap body, to administer a tightly constricted degree of self-rule for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza during the five-year interim before a final-status peace agreement would be concluded between Israel and the PLO. As I’ve noted before, that never happened. Yet US/Western life support and funding has kept the increasingly creaky PA chugging along, even if only within some small islands of the West Bank.
Hamas was strongly opposed to Oslo in 1993. But by 2005 its leaders became convinced that taking part in territories-wide elections for a PA legislature could be a good step. They participated peacefully and in good order in those elections and won a strong majority of seats. But in 2007 that participation was “rewarded” by Israel, the U.S., and their bought-and-paid-for puppets in Fateh by a coup attempts and a super-tough crackdown on the Hamas strongholds in Gaza.
Today, in light of the Gaza-Israel crisis, it is not just the ageing PA leader Abu Mazen who is toast. It is the whole concept of the PA. Since the PA was born of the 1993 agreement between the PLO and Israel, I expect that the PLO (inasmuch as it has any independent existence at this point) will almost certainly be withdrawing from the Oslo Agreement very speedily. That would cause the final collapse of this long-sustained illusion of the Palestinians of the occupied territories having any meaningful “self-governance” at all.
But then what?
Some commentators have started writing about the problems of governing Gaza in the event that the Israeli government is capable of realizing its stated goal of “eliminating Hamas” there. To my mind, that is a narrow and actually meaningless discussion. Firstly, Israel cannot “eliminate Hamas” in Gaza or anywhere else. It can—and certainly will, as we are seeing before our very eyes—inflict crushing, quite illegitimate damage on the 2.3 million Palestinians of Gaza.
But secondly, if the post-crisis political challenge is cast in terms only of “who will govern Gaza?”, then that implies that some version of the Oslo process will continue after the dust—or rather, the millions of cubic feet of rubble much of imbued with with human remains—settles in Gaza. It won’t. Some initial fantasies that Abu Mazen and the rest of the Ramallah PA could ride (back) into Gaza atop the Israeli tanks proved completely fleeting. The Ramallah PA was already, long before October 7, seriously discredited among Palestinians everywhere for its paralysis, its inability to provide security or any other basic services for the people of the West Bank, and its total reliance on Israeli backing… So imagine how much more gravely it has been discredited by the continuous orgy of war crimes that Israel has been committing in Gaza ever since then? (Tom Friedman, in yet another of his attempts to breathe life into the corpse of the PA, suggests that his buddy Salam Fayyad might be the one to take over. Dream on, Tom.)
In the aftermath of this crisis, there will be no role for Oslo or any of its products.
There is now a growing flurry of international activity at the Security Council and among non-Western states to consider the impact of the crisis and possible ways to address it. China, whose foreign minister over the weekend publicly slammed Israel for its excesses in Gaza, is sending its special Middle East envoy Zhai Jun to the region sometime soon, in order to “push for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict and promote peace talks.”
For the Palestinians worldwide—but primarily for all those who are residents of the occupied territories and of Palestine-adjacent states like Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon—there is an urgent need to generate a new leadership that can represent their interests in all the peace confabs that will be coming. I think the best way to achieve this would be by convening, outside the occupied territories, a new session of the Palestine National Council (PNC), which historically was always the PLO’s main decisionmaking body. Prior to the Oslo Accords, the PNC held ten sessions, all in areas not under Israel’s control. Then since 1993, it has held three sessions, all in areas controlled by Israel: two in Gaza and one in Ramallah.
Convening a new PNC and including in it all the significant Palestinian currents will be a challenge, but not an insuperable one. Since the PLO/PNC was initially a creation of the Arab states, then there is certainly some legitimacy to the Arab states taking up the reins of convening the PNC once again.
The fact that most Arab states have now set aside their earlier campaign for regime change in Syria and have normalized their relations with Damascus will make this task much easier. As will the diplomatic and other achievements that China has been winning in the region. China helped to nail down the Saudi-Iranian entente of last March, which helped de-escalate regional tensions a lot. China has broad economic relations with many regional governments (including Israel.) China supported the admission into the BRICS grouping of three regional powers: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt… and has extensive plans for “Belt and Road” infrastructural investments in all three of them.
In the context of the current crisis, it’s notable that China, the Arab states, and other power centers in the Global South all refused to be railroaded into issuing one-sided condemnations of Hamas’s violence. Instead, these parties have all called for an end to the immediate violence by both Hamas and Israel, and have stressed the need for a far-reaching, final-status two-state solution in Palestine/Israel, not just for further stopgap measures.
It is in that much broader context of achieving a final peace that the more immediate matter of “who will govern Gaza?” should be viewed. Yes, there will extensive and truly heartrending physical rebuilding that needs to take place within Gaza. (And that will require some administrative body to oversee the task. The most appropriate would probably be one of the many U.N. bodies that long nbeen active in the region, such as the UNDP.)
But there also needs to be far-reaching and urgent political rebuilding within the Palestinian body politic. Israel and its allies in the Western world have succeeded for far too long in kicking the can of a “final-status peace” endlessly down the road to allow for the continued expansion of Israel’s settler-colonial project ever deeper into the occupied territories—and also, in playing an insidious “divide and rule” among varying Palestinian trends. The latest crisis demands that all those approaches end. Oslo and whole PA make a nice toast sandwich. Onward to the regeneration of a new PLO and to the attainment of an independent Palestinian state in the Palestinian lands that Israel occupied in 1967…