The Palestinian Authority Is a Sinking Ship

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, the West Bank, on Jan. 22, 2020. President Abbas said “a thousand no’s” to President Trump’s peace plan. Credit Majdi Mohammed/Associated Press
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, the West Bank, on Jan. 22, 2020. President Abbas said “a thousand no’s” to President Trump’s peace plan. Credit Majdi Mohammed/Associated Press

Palestinians have remained glaringly absent throughout the grand unveiling of President Trump’s “deal of the century.” As Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel — one facing impeachment, the other indictment — laid out the conditions for Palestinian submission last Tuesday in Washington, the Palestinian leadership, in the form of President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, rejected the plan with “a thousand no’s.”

Mr. Abbas, who had not even been consulted during the drafting of the plan, declared on Saturday that his government would end all relations with the United States and Israel. This included a decision to end the authority’s security coordination with Israel. Outwardly, it might seem like a tough stand, but it’s not the first time Mr. Abbas has made this promise. And for many Palestinians, these threats ring hollow given the authority’s repeated failure to halt Israel’s de facto annexation of Palestinian land.

Mr. Trump’s plan again exposes the power asymmetry between the Palestinians and the Israelis — an imbalance evidenced by the systematic denial of Palestinian rights and the enabling of Israeli expansionism. But it may nonetheless be a turning point: It will mark the end of the charade of Palestinian leadership and autonomy by proving that even when Palestinians capitulate to and collaborate with their occupiers for decades, they remain shut out.

The signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 — intended as a five-year interim agreement — gave Palestinians partial autonomy over fragments of their land in the form of the Palestinian Authority, which was to replace the Palestine Liberation Organization as the official representative of the Palestinian people. With the help of the United States, Israel manufactured and endorsed a “moderate” Palestinian leadership in the form of the authority, for whom liberation was premised upon statehood — and the nation-building and bureaucracy it entails — on 22 percent of historic Palestine.

Rather than working to end the Israeli occupation, the Palestinian leadership has become a key component of it. Security coordination with the Israeli military, which was written into the Oslo Accords, has become the Palestinian Authority’s core duty: It takes up more of its budget than the education, health and agriculture sectors combined. That eroded Palestinians’ trust in the authority, and incentivized corruption and surveillance in Palestinian communities. Twenty-five years later, the authority has failed to deliver peace, justice and self-determination for the Palestinians.

Under the guise of pursuing peace, security coordination has enabled Israel to continue encroaching into occupied Palestinian land on the one hand and entrenching the one-state reality on the other. Over half a century after the occupation began and a quarter of a century after the signing of the Oslo Accords, it should come as no surprise that Israel is now primed to formally annex almost all of its settlements and the Jordan Valley (altogether constituting up to 30 percent of the West Bank).

The real lesson here is the disposability of the Palestinian partner — no matter how acquiescent it may be. The marginalization of the Palestinian Authority by Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu has demonstrated once and for all that Palestinians have no place in any future plans. This dynamic is not unique to the current administration in Washington, although it has been made especially explicit by it. American presidents from both parties have pursued policies that ignored, undermined and weakened Palestinian leaders for decades. As was the case in the negotiations before Oslo, the options for Palestinians are limited to either accepting permanent occupation, or having it imposed on them against their will. The Trump peace plan and Mr. Abbas’s response show that Palestinians have no way to hold their occupier to account through their current political leadership.

What would the outcome have been if the Palestinian leadership had never complied with Israeli dictates — particularly around security coordination? Where would we be today had the “thousand no’s” been uttered 25 years ago? Painful as these questions may be for Palestinians, they present an opportunity for all parties to finally reframe the conversation.

Many Palestinians, including millions of refugees, are no longer willing to wait for piecemeal negotiations over scraps of land. But while there is a general distaste for a “peace process” that has delivered little for the Palestinians, many avenues remain open. One is through the International Criminal Court — a process already begun by the recent war crimes investigation into Israel’s use of force in the 2014 incursion on Gaza and the transfer of Israeli civilians into the occupied West Bank. (Such are Israeli fears of prosecution that the Trump peace plan expressly prohibits the Palestinians from partaking in any action at the court.)

More exciting is the opportunity to recalibrate at a grass-roots level. Palestinian organizers have been returning to the anticolonial principles of the 1960s and ’70s, and Palestinian rights are increasingly folded into a global progressive agenda. There has been successful local and transnational mobilization around issues including women’s liberation, ending mass incarceration, climate justice and indigenous rights. Moreover, if the push for anti-boycott laws across the West are any indication, support for the peaceful, rights-based Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement continues to grow in response to calls from Palestinians. What lends these efforts power and momentum is that they bypass the tarnished Palestinian leadership. Success for these movements will come when Palestinians are afforded basic principles of equality and dignity.

Palestinians remain mute and marginalized, caught between Israeli expansionism, unbidden Western interference and poor internal leadership. The Trump peace plan, quite apart from greenlighting annexation, lays bare the expendability of the Palestinian Authority. With precious few options left, Mr. Abbas’s call to end security coordination is a last-ditch effort by the captain of a sinking ship.

Nevertheless, the past century has illustrated that Palestinians will abandon neither their rights to return, equality and freedom nor their demand for dignity. Neither can be bought or sold with lucrative investment deals and promises of economic development. Nothing less than a plan — and a leadership — bold enough to promise these fundamental rights for the Palestinian people would be worthy of their support.

Zena Agha is a writer and a policy analyst at Al Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.

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