On Nov. 17 and 19, MEI’s Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs convened a two-part series looking at the future of Palestinian politics and the Palestinian national movement. Below is a summary of Part 1, “Reviving Palestinian Political Life,” which focused on issues such as national reconciliation, elections, succession, the future of institutions like the Palestinian Authority (PA), and reform of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Watch Part 1 of the webinar series the Future of Palestinian Politics Under a Biden Administration, Reviving Palestinian Political Life, here.
A change in administration
The election of Joe Biden and the defeat of incumbent President Donald Trump promises some relief to Palestinians after four years of unrelenting assault on their rights and political aspirations. However, as many analysts have pointed out, the Biden presidency will not save the Palestinians, nor is the Palestinian strategy prior to Trump sufficient to undo the harm inflicted by the Trump administration, which was possible in great part because of decades of American indifference to Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
Human rights attorney Noura Erakat believes that Palestinians must pivot after the Trump administration on the basis that there is no real difference between Republicans and Democrats and that Biden represents the mainstream electoral base, which is being fractured by a progressive insurgency from within.
“The Biden administration is not going to offer necessarily any solutions … and nonetheless, the Biden administration offers opportunities for strategic intervention. Twofold: one is time, the time we were not given by the cascading blows that the Trump administration represented. The second is being able to take advantage and leverage this [progressive] wedge within the Democratic Party.”
Erakat also differentiates between the necessary pivot she believes Palestinians must make and pandering, which is how she describes the pre-Trump strategy pursued by the Palestinian leadership.
“In the past when we did pivot to the United States, it was pandering, and that’s what we need not do. The United States is not going to deliver a Palestinian state, and yet this Palestinian official leadership has been banking on that and pursuing that strategy of acquiescence since 1993, and even more so since 2001 upon the collapse of the Camp David peace talks. It’s important for us not to see in the United States an ally but a point of strategic intervention that cannot be missed.”
Part of this pivot that many believe will be instrumental in reviving Palestinian politics in the wake of the Trump presidency involves reconciliation between Palestinian political factions and national unity.
On Nov. 17, Hamas and Fatah convened in Cairo to discuss reconciliation and the implementation of the September agreement, with a mutual agreement on the principle of elections. The cost of disunity is greater than ever, and Palestinians want a united front ahead of a Biden presidency.
Tareq Baconi is not optimistic about the prospects for these latest reconciliation talks, however. He believes that the PA may see in Biden an opportunity for a new round of negotiations with Israel that could lead to a Palestinian state. As a result, the PA may be willing to forego unity in order not to complicate potential negotiations by including Hamas in the equation.
Baconi cites three reasons for his pessimism. “These talks, to me, are a form of defensive reconciliation,” he argues first. “What I mean by that is that the impetus for reconciliation is coming from the outside. What’s happening is a reaction to external attacks against Palestinians; it’s not an internal strategic choice driven by the admission that disunity harms the Palestinian cause.”
“The second reason I am wary that these discussions are consequential is because they are still largely based on the body of the PA and not on the body of the PLO. … It’s arguably missing the point.” Baconi believes that if the parties were responding to popular demands, unity would be far more effective and representative, rather than offering more of the same.
The third reason for pessimism is what Baconi describes as a “fundamental flaw” that has plagued the reconciliation discussions since 2006. He believes that neither Hamas nor Fatah is willing to make the concessions necessary to make unity viable.
“The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank remains committed to a liberation strategy that is focused on the principles of negotiations and international law … and Hamas remains committed to the notion of resistance, whether its armed or otherwise, rather than negotiations.” They both see each other’s strategies as catastrophic to the Palestinian cause, and Baconi believes that reconciliation talks allow the parties to defer doing the necessary work to define together a single liberation strategy that represents their Palestinian constituencies writ large.
In conjunction with national unity, as Baconi mentions, many believe elections to be key for an effective Palestinian political pivot. Elections have not been held in Palestine since 2006, due to contested outcomes that resulted in the current political division.
Sam Bahour believes that elections themselves are overrated, citing an open letter he authored to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He says that elections must be part of a package deal including the following conditions: Abbas must not run for president again and should appoint deputies for the three positions he holds (as the Palestinian president, head of Fatah, and chairman of the PLO’s Executive Committee), Abbas should go to Gaza often and engage Hamas and all political parties, political party laws should be enacted prior to PA and PLO elections, the Central Elections Commission should be re-mandated to include Palestinians all over the world, there should be free and fair elections, there should be a new representative leadership that leads the global Palestine solidarity movement, and finally, there should be engagement with the United States at every level.
“We cannot be looking at the United States through a single window called the White House, and when the White House is closed to us like it was under the last four years of Trump, we pretend the United States should not be looked at. The United States as we all know is a very complicated political animal and we need to start to take the United States seriously and start working at all levels of government and start speaking political language; I don’t see that happening today,” Bahour said.
Speaking to the attempts at national unity and reform, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti lamented the breaking news that the PA had renewed security ties with Israel and believes that there was a group in Palestinian politics who were waiting for a Biden presidency in order to return to the status quo of negotiations. “My biggest worry today is we will move back from the situation of proper possibility of immediate annexation under Trump to incremental annexation and settlements under Biden.” He added, “The peace process becomes an alternative to peace and a process of negotiations that becomes an alternative to a solution. … This is what is awaiting us now.”
Barghouti does not believe that the so-called “Deal of the Century” will disappear with Trump since it represents the long-term ambitions of the Israelis. Therefore, it will not be so easy to reverse it completely even under a Biden presidency. Unless Palestinians have a strategy that changes the balance of power, Barghouti believes that nothing will change.
Barghouti highlights some major issues within Palestinian politics, given his experience in engaging the system as the founder of al-Mubadara, a Palestinian political party. In particular, he emphasizes the dissolution of the PLO at the expense of the creation of the PA, internal political divisions, the presence of two separate authorities, the lack of separation of powers within Palestinian politics, and the problems of nepotism, clientelism, and corruption.
Palestinians need unity, democracy, and an alternative strategy. In the time pending before Biden’s inauguration, the PA is taking steps toward a return to the status quo: renewing security ties with Israel and sending its representatives back to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, despite their normalization of ties with Israel.
The Trump administration is also making a final effort to permanently cement four years of destructive policy toward the Palestinians. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently visited the Israeli settlement of Psagot and declared that goods made in Area C of the West Bank should be labeled as “made in Israel,” a de facto recognition of Israeli annexation of the West Bank. He also labeled the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-Semitic and promised that the United States would take harsher measures against it.
It is clear that Trump’s policies and the appeasement of the American and Israeli far right are not going away with a Biden presidency. Now more than ever, Palestinians must unify and a create a political strategy that can take on Israel’s disregard for the peace process, human rights, and international law and pushes for more just American policy toward the Palestinians, including accountability for Israel.
Nooran Alhamdan is a graduate research fellow with the MEI Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs.
Photo by Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images