The Palestinian Morning After

morning after. noun; plural, mornings after. a moment or period of realization in which the consequences of an earlier, ill-advised action are recognized or brought home to one.

The Palestinian “September” has come and gone. The standing ovation in which President Abbas basked in New York is only a warm memory, and all those portraits carried aloft in Ramallah are back in storage. Now, after the party, comes the morning after.

As I feared when writing at World Affairs in September (here and here), Palestinian unilateralism has damaged the prospects for Palestinian statehood. Adventurism in New York, far from producing a state in Palestine, has triggered a crisis in the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself.

The international aid money is drying up, nation-building is under threat as improvements in West Bank security and economic development are compromised, and a return to violence is a real possibility. UNESCO has a new member, but that symbolic victory has been paid for by substantive reversals on three issues essential to any conflict-ending agreement—Palestinian state-building, trust between the negotiating parties, and international community engagement in the peace process.

Fayyadism in decline

The first casualty is “Fayyadism.” The urbane and technocratic Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, with international backing coordinated by Tony Blair, has been busy these last four years “building [the Palestinian state] rather than ballyhooing it” as the New York Times’s Roger Cohen put it. Fayyadism has inspired confidence in the international donor community and has begun to transform the West Bank—economic growth, falling unemployment, new roads, schools and health clinics, and a Palestine Stock Exchange with 40 publicly traded companies, including the Palestinian Telecommunication Co., which made $122 million in profits last year. Dismissed as a “Ramallah bubble” by Western commentators, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) has taken a very different view, concluding that in six areas—governance, rule of law, and human rights; livelihoods and productive sectors; education and culture; health; social protection; and infrastructure and water—performance was now sufficient for the functioning government of a state.

All this is now under grave threat.

Fayyad the man will probably have to be sacrificed by Fatah to make “reconciliation” possible with the Islamist terrorists of Hamas. The two Fatah officials responsible for the unity agreement—Azzam Ahmed and Mohammed Shtayyeh—have been pressing Abbas to abandon Fayyad. They may now have succeeded. Abbas met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Cairo on November 24th to finalize an agreement and declared: “There are no more differences between us now. We have agreed to work as partners.” For its part, Hamas said that it “will not recognize Israel and won’t give up its principles.” The international community’s alarm has been widespread. In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu appealed to Abbas to think again, saying the “only path to achieving peace is through direct negotiations.”

The Fatah-Hamas agreement is expected to see a caretaker unity government put in place to prepare for elections in May 2012.

Fayyadism as a policy of Palestinian state-building through cooperation with Israel and the international community was dependent on international donors and Israeli facilitation, and both are now under question. The PA has a severe fiscal deficit—perhaps $900 million this year—and the political dynamics set off by the UN bid are making matters worse. The first problem for the PA came with the temporary freezing of  tax transfers after the unity government between Fatah and Hamas was first announced in May. Since then, because the Palestinians have ignored every request to return to negotiations and have instead taken the UN route, the US Congress froze for a period the transfer of approximately $200 million to the PA. The looming prospect of a unity government including Hamas, which continues to promote violent “resistance” as the only way to promote Palestinian goals, does not recognize Israel, and does not recognize existing agreements, has led to Israel temporarily suspending the transfer of $100 million in tax revenues it collects on the Palestinians behalf. These funds are critical to the survival of the PA, amounting to 45 percent of its monthly recurrent spending and the decision was taken against the advice of the military and security echelons and the pleas of Defence Minister Ehud Barak. The spokesman for the Palestinian Authority government, Ghassan Khatib, has admitted the loss of funds is an “existential threat” to the PA.

Broken trust

The second causality of the Palestinian strategy is trust between the parties. The Palestinian decision to return to “ballyhooing it, not building it” is having the unintended consequence of draining away the mutual confidence essential for a conflict-ending resolution. And this only strengthens the extremists on both sides.

Hamas feels emboldened by the Shalit deal—in which one kidnapped Israeli soldier was swapped for more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners—and is reconsidering its position on elections. Given that Abbas will not run, the group thinks maybe it can win. Hamas is also encouraged and emboldened by the anticipated success for the Muslim Brotherhood in elections in Egypt. A unity agreement that sees Hamas in and Fayyad out could spell the beginning of a new era. On the other side, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is competing for Netanyahu’s center-right support base, has increased his rhetorical attacks on the Palestinian leadership and Abbas

The strategy of relying on the UN, international law, and a hostile global public opinion to achieve statehood, rather than negotiations with Israel, is pushing the parties farther and farther apart. What may have been a short-term gambit by the Palestinians may turn out to be a long-term disaster if the parties can’t find their way back to each other. Once dramatic and magnetic attractions have been created away from the negotiating table, then the excruciating compromises each side must accept to end the conflict can begin to look less appealing than ever, and less possible to deliver. And if the Palestinian diplomatic struggle becomes entangled with a poisonous global campaign to deepen Israeli isolation internationally through boycotts and divestment, then the possibility of the Israeli public backing a peace deal will be only further diminished.

Worse, the collapse of the PA’s Security Council bid may push Abbas to pursue even more radical strategies. He is reportedly keen to resign his position as president of the Palestinian Authority—and looking for an opportunity to do so. He has made statements praising the Shalit kidnapping, refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and he has rejected all Quartet entreaties to return to negotiations. Some Palestinian officials are even mooting the possibility of dismantling the Palestinian Authority. The influential Palestinian Strategy Group 2008 report proposed a “radical reconfiguration (or abolition) of the PA” in the face of failed negotiations.

Third party fatigue

The third casuality of the Palestinian “September” looks likely to be the international community’s engagement in the process. The PA’s determination to force the Americans to use their veto in the Security Council was intended to embarrass President Obama’s administration. But this only risks creating a diplomatic vacuum, as no other international actor has the leverage on both parties that is required to take the US role as the key broker in the peace process. And the Palestinian diplomatic effort has also exposed the extent to which the EU lacks internal cohesion on the issue, despite the efforts of Britain, France, and Germany to coordinate policy. The UNESCO vote saw a three-way split with France supporting the bid, Germany opposing it, and the UK abstaining. How long before third parties ask: who needs this?

If there was ever a time for wise heads to prevail, it is now. Yossi Beilin, the Israeli architect of an influential plan for peace with his Palestinian partner Mahmoud Abbas, writing in the newspaper Israel Hayom, has warned that dismantling the PA would be emotionally satisfying but politically disastrous:

Tens of thousands of PA employees would find themselves unemployed, the donor states would stop their contributions, the leadership would lose its special status, and even if it is true that from the Israeli standpoint this is a problematic move and Israel will have to scratch its head long and hard to find a solution—the Palestinian price could still be heavier.

In other words, we do not have gridlock in the peace process. We have something far more dangerous—a loss of control by all parties in the context of a region broiling in revolution. Hopes now reside in international efforts to formulate a General Assembly resolution that would enable the Palestinians to claim success in their bid for recognition, without inalterably damaging the peace process. This means not prejudicing future negotiations by imposing final status terms that Israel cannot accept, or paving the way for steps that make negotiations harder to resume, such as litigation at the International Criminal Court. And it means Israel taking confidence-building steps that could draw the Palestinians into the negotiations that are the only way to make a deal and against which everything else is, frankly, a distraction. A negotiated two-state solution remains the only way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is time the Palestinians sobered up by beginning to transition from the podium in New York to the log cabin at Camp David. 

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