This is the second in a three-part commentary reflecting on the political realities the author observed while in the region. Read further analysis of the situation in Jordan and of Islamist movements in the wake of the unrest in the region.
International proclamations about the internal Palestinian situation have echoed the apparently oxymoronic phrase, “The situation continues to be unsustainable.” While it is easy to poke fun at such a claim, it increasingly appears to be a very accurate description of where things stand.
Last year, I wrote two reports on the state-building project associated with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.1
While respectful of Fayyad personally, both reports cast doubts on the international reliance on the program. I found that the closer one looked the less institutional development one could see—there were certainly impressive pockets of improvement, but most institutions associated with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank were being maintained rather than improved. Some areas—political parties, professional associations, and civil society—saw very worrying signs of decay. The authoritarian political context meant that the limited successes were based on a shaky political foundation. Institutional development in the 1990s was deeply problematic in many ways but it was far more extensive and much better anchored than the efforts of recent years.
The recent and much ballyhooed economic upturn has relied far less on improvements in governance and more on Israeli relaxation on movement and access. That relaxation in turn depended on renewed Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation that was politically costly to Palestinian leaders in the short term and unsustainable in the long term, absent any credible diplomatic process. And, as Fayyad himself repeatedly stresses, his program cannot work without a supportive diplomatic process that leads to the same destination. What is now clear to virtually all observers—and what should have more frankly acknowledged several years ago2
—is that no such process is in sight.
In my trip to the West Bank last week, I saw reasons to tweak these conclusions but no reason to abandon them. And the sense that the unsustainable cannot continue for long is beginning to spread, staved off only by the absence of attractive alternatives.
On the institutional front, the same broad picture I found in previous years (maintenance in most governmental fields; pockets of impressive performance; worrying decay in non-governmental institutions) continues. The authoritarianism of the Palestinian Authority has been ameliorated in some areas (with municipal elections scheduled again; torture on the decline; and moves to end the use of military law for civilians). But it has continued and even deepened in others (interference in judicial affairs and even individual judicial decisions; sharper limitations on public protest; continued political tests for public employment; and growing reliance on issuing decree-laws by executive fiat).
In my earlier pieces I spoke of a growing sense of political fear as well—one that is not strong by regional standards but still striking to an observer used to hearing unrestrained political speech from Palestinians. That impression has now been confirmed by survey research by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research
, which reports a stunning drop in the number of Palestinians in the West Bank who feel able to criticize authorities without fear—and the drop is even steeper in Gaza.
Furthermore, the diplomatic process on which the success of the state-building effort is supposed to rely has simply not been revived. West Bank leaders placed all of its hopes in the Obama administration until the fiasco caused by the Goldstone report—the UN investigation that the United States pressed Palestinians to drop, even though it accused Israel of war crimes during 2008-2009. They then generally cooperated less hopefully (and sometimes sullenly) with U.S. efforts until this past fall, when the pointlessness of negotiations in the current framework led Palestinian leaders to work internationally outside of U.S. efforts—resulting in scattered moral victories but no practical ones, as seen in the recent failed UN Security Council vote.3
Fayyadism, in short, may be about to meet a dead end. The September 2011 date by which the Palestinian Authority is supposed to be ready for statehood—a condition it actually reached in the late 1990s—is rapidly approaching. The failure of U.S. efforts and the resignation of Mubarak, the Arab leader on which President Mahmoud Abbas relied most heavily, has left the West Bank leadership without viable options or sources of support. The only questions are whether this will be openly acknowledged and what will come next. Nobody in the West Bank seemed to know the answer to either question.
On the first question, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank shows a growing sense of a need to respond to its deteriorating position but does not seem to know how to do so. As a result, it is flailing. Over the past couple of weeks, it has offered a cabinet reshuffle, new presidential and parliamentary elections (an offer made and quickly retracted without much explanation), local elections, and, most recently, an offer to Hamas to restart reconciliation efforts. But none of these steps addresses its domestic and international weakness.
Thus there is increasing talk of September 2011 as a turning point—a date by which the bankruptcy of current efforts can be openly proclaimed by all. But if that step is taken, what alternatives are available? Virtually every conceivable idea is being aired. And all have deep, probably fatal, flaws.
Turning then to the second question of what will come next, some argue that the Palestinian Authority should be dissolved—yet nobody has a convincing plan to deal with the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who will then lose their source of livelihood. Others talk of reviving national unity efforts—but both Fatah and Hamas show no serious sign of interest in the idea. Resurrecting the Palestinian Liberation Organization is an option that is both daunting and unlikely to lead to tangible benefits.
In addition, a return to resistance is discussed—but the population of the West Bank seems too deeply scarred by the last bout of violence and too disengaged from politics to support such an endeavor. Various forms of popular and nonviolent resistance are also considered—but just as often dismissed with the claim that those have been tried and found wanting. In short, if Palestinians select their least bad option through a process of elimination, they may not have a single choice left.
But we come then to the impact of the Egyptian revolution. And here I came away with a definite impression of a generation gap in Palestinian society. All of the Palestinians I spoke with thought the effects would be real and possibly deep. But older Palestinians tended to focus on the international implications—the departure of Abbas’s main diplomatic patron, the possibility of the loosening of the siege on Gaza, or the collapse of the “moderate camp” in Arab politics.
But younger Palestinians tended to turn away from discussions on how Palestinians would be affected and instead what they could do. I met with two separate groups of younger activists who seemed deeply energized by Egyptian events. The excitement and optimism set off by an imaginative, creative, and (in their eyes) successful revolution in Egypt has led many youth activists to discuss how to emulate the example.
But the obstacles are daunting. Palestinians face not an isolated autocrat but a tactically adept occupation. Activists enter an already crowded political field (with existing factions themselves anxious to take advantage of any opportunities) and must appeal to a dispirited and geographically dispersed population. Most of all, they do not have a clear strategy or agenda. Egyptian opposition movements, in all their diversity, could unify around the immediate and simple demand that Mubarak leave.
Palestinian youth debate whether to prioritize the occupation or the West Bank-Gaza division and what the connection is between the two. They worry about their ability to reach a mass audience, their relationship with existing movements, whether they could work on a truly national level (reaching out to Gaza or even Palestinian citizens of Israel), and the precise tools to use. They are fully aware that the events that took place in Egypt depended on years of prior work, tremendous tactical innovation, and a very clumsy official response.
In short, their thinking is sufficiently realistic and sophisticated to know that they do not have answers to the questions that vex their elders as well. But some are seeking to plunge into action anyway, hoping that the tactics they learn from their Egyptian counterparts can lead the way forward. I do not know whether they will be successful, but I left with a general—but still strong—feeling that the unsustainable may not continue forever after all.
The writer has just returned from a trip to Jordan and Palestine. This is the second in a three-part commentary reflecting on the political realities he observed while in the region. Read Nathan J. Brown's analysis of the situation in Jordan and of Islamist movements in the wake of the unrest in the region.
The culmination of that approach forced last week’s U.S. veto of a UN Security Council resolution. While the veto itself provoked Palestinian indignation, the hour-long telephone call President Obama placed to President Abbas sparked amusement and derision because it seemed to demonstrate especially forcefully the unreality of the U.S. approach. It was widely reported that Obama unsuccessfully tried to persuade Abbas to agree to defer the resolution; while Palestinian leaders have an interest in making themselves appear to firmly support the nationalist cause, the account has not been contested by the U.S side. Had Abbas complied with such a request, virtually every Palestinian I spoke with believes it would have been his last act as Palestinian president; whatever the wisdom of the veto, Obama’s phone call made him appear profoundly unaware of Palestinian political realities.