President Trump’s meeting this week with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, was pitched as an effort by the author of “The Art of the Deal” to restart the United States-sponsored peace process, long stalled. But as next month’s 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation approaches, this much is certain: The process is worse than stalled. In the face of an intransigent right-wing government in Israel, which doesn’t believe Palestinians should have full rights, negotiations are futile.
Where does this leave Mr. Trump and the American policy of propping up the Palestinian Authority and Mr. Abbas? Given the abject failure of talks built on a bankrupt framework that heavily favors Israel, more and more Palestinians are debating the need for new leadership and a new strategy.
Many now question whether the Palestinian Authority plays any positive role or is simply a tool of control for Israel and the international community. The inescapable logic is that it’s time for the authority to go.
Established in 1994 under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority was intended to be a temporary body that would become a fully functioning government once statehood was granted, which was promised for 1999. The authority’s jurisdiction has, therefore, always been limited. It is in charge of a mere 18 percent of the West Bank (divided into eight areas). Compared with Israel’s overall control of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority’s powers are paltry.
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To many Palestinians, however, the establishment of their own government was a dream realized. Finally, those who had lived under occupation since 1967 would be free from repressive Israel’s military rule to govern themselves. Palestinians clamored to assume posts in the new body and took pride in establishing institutions despite the obstacles imposed by Israeli rule. As the negotiations dragged on under Oslo, these blocks became only more entrenched.
After more than two decades, the talks have produced no progress. I spent several years involved on the Palestinian side of the negotiations and can attest to their futility. Palestinian delegates, who needed permits to enter Israel to participate in talks, were routinely held up at Israeli checkpoints. When we spoke of international law and the illegality of settlements, Israeli negotiators laughed in our faces.
Power is everything, they would say, and you have none.
As time went on, it became clear that the authority’s budget and its priorities were primarily geared toward ensuring that Palestinians remained one of the most surveilled and controlled people on earth. In effect, the Palestinian Authority served as a subcontractor for the occupying Israeli military. The overwhelming focus on security, we were told, was necessary for the duration of peace talks. Today, fully a third of the authority’s roughly $4 billion budget goes to policing, more than for health and education combined.
These security forces do not provide a normal police service to Palestinians, but instead aid the Israeli Army in maintaining the occupation and Israel’s ever-expanding settlements. The internationally lauded “security cooperation” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has resulted only in the arrest and imprisonment of Palestinians, including nonviolent human rights activists, while armed and violent Israeli settlers are allowed to terrorize Palestinians with impunity. The Palestinian Authority has no jurisdiction over the settlers, and the Israeli Army almost always looks the other way.
The raison d’être of the Palestinian Authority today is not to liberate Palestine; it is to keep Palestinians silent and quash dissent while Israel steals land, demolishes Palestinian homes, and builds and expands settlements. Instead of becoming a sovereign state, the Palestinian Authority has become a proto-police state, a virtual dictatorship, endorsed and funded by the international community.
Look at its leader. Eighty-two years old, Mr. Abbas has now controlled the authority for more than 12 years, ruling by presidential decree for most of that time, with no electoral mandate. He has presided over some of the worst days in Palestinian history, including the disastrous, decade-long split between his Fatah party and Hamas, the other major player in Palestinian politics, and three devastating Israeli military assaults on Gaza.
Under his presidency, the Palestinian Parliament has become moribund and irrelevant. Many Palestinians have never voted in presidential or parliamentary elections because Mr. Abbas has failed to hold them, even though they are called for in the Basic Law governing the Palestinian Authority. The latest opinion polls show that his popularity is at its lowest ever, with two-thirds of Palestinians so discontent that they want him to resign.
An equally high number no longer believe that negotiations will secure their freedom. The Palestinian Authority institutionalizes dependency on international donors, which tie the authorities’ hands with political conditions. As a result, even using the International Criminal Court to hold Israel accountable for its illegal settlement-building has to be weighted against the likely financial repercussions of such a simple act.
To remove this noose that has been choking Palestinians, the authority must be replaced with the sort of community-based decision making that predated the body’s establishment. And we must reform our main political body, the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Mr. Abbas also heads, to make it more representative of the Palestinian people and their political parties, including Hamas. Hamas has long indicated that it wants to be part of the P.L.O., and its revised charter, recently released in Doha, Qatar, affirms this aspiration.
With the negotiation process dead, why should Palestinians be forced to cling to the Palestinian Authority, which has only undermined their decades-long struggle for justice and helped to divide them?
Given that there are about 150,000 employees who depend on the authority for their salaries, I am under no illusion that closing it down will be easy or painless. But this is the only route to restoring our dignity and independent Palestinian decision making. A reformed P.L.O., with its credibility renewed, will be able to raise funds from Palestinians and friendly nations to support those living under the occupation, as it did before the Oslo process.
To some, this may sound like giving up on the national dream of self-rule. It is not. By dismantling the authority, Palestinians can once again confront Israel’s occupation in a strategic way, as opposed to Mr. Abbas’s merely symbolic bids for statehood. This means supporting the community-based initiatives that organize nonviolent mass protests and press for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, like those that helped to end apartheid in South Africa.
This new strategy may mean calling for equal rights within a single state, an infinitely more just and attainable outcome than the American-backed process that pretended peace could come without addressing the rights of Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Already, more than one-third of Palestinians in the occupied territories support a single-state solution, without any major political party advocating this policy.
By dismantling the Palestinian Authority and reforming the P.L.O., the real will of Palestinians will be heard. Whether the endgame is two states or one state, it is up to this generation of Palestinians to decide.
Diana Buttu is a lawyer and a former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization.