The PLO goal of statehood has lost its glitter as a new national mood transforms the Palestinian struggle
Ahmad Samih Khalidi, 19 April 2011
Barring unforeseen developments, it appears as if the PLO and its Ramallah-based arm, the Palestinian Authority, it appears, will head to the UN general assembly in September seeking international recognition of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Via a mechanism known as “uniting for peace”, the idea is to bypass the stalemated and futile bilateral negotiations with Israel and circumvent an inevitable US veto at the security council by securing general assembly sanction for a Palestinian state. This would put Israel in the position of being not just an occupier of a disputed territory – but a transgressor of a world-recognised sovereign UN member state.
Israel has so far been vainly objecting to this departure from a bilaterally agreed settlement and the US has already promised to contest this move and try to block it at the UN. But there seems to be a groundswell of support, including from the EU, for an initiative that in effect sets the borders of a two-state solution along internationally recognised lines, and determines the endgame for a political resolution of the conflict.
The PLO move to the General Assembly is born out of frustration with the years of negotiations (it will be 20 years since the Madrid peace conference this autumn), disillusionment with the US and envoy George Mitchell‘s apparently endless and hitherto sterile mission, and 44 years of escalating occupation and colonisation. It will almost certainly secure overwhelming support, manifest in the decision by eight Latin American countries to recognise Palestine within the 1967 borders in the last few months. In this sense, the prospects of international acceptance of Palestinian statehood may never have been stronger. But as the PLO inches towards this goal, it seems out of tune with prevailing Palestinian sentiment.
For one thing the PLO is as much a part of the crumbling Arab order as any of the collapsing regimes around it; and it is now losing the last vestiges of its founding legitimacy as a product of the era of armed struggle and the contemporary national movement forged by Yasser Arafat. Today the PLO can claim no genuine representative status; (its local arm the Ramallah PA) the PA rules by decree and is sustained by a combination of foreign aid, the power of the Israeli military, and Palestinian police action on the ground; and the factions that once were a credible reflection of the Palestinian political will (such as Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) have faded into ossified insignificance, their power-sharing formula fatally compromised by the absence of Hamas.
The Gaza-West Bank split, the experience of PA rule, the failure to stem the tide of Israeli settlement, and the increasingly strident terms for any final agreement articulated by Israel have all contributed to a new popular Palestinian mood where the goal of statehood has lost most if not all its glitter and resonance. While UN recognition will undoubtedly mark an important stage in the Palestinian struggle, there is a clear and growing realisation that this will neither fulfil Palestinian national aspirations nor address the needs of significant constituencies such as the diaspora and Israel’s Arab citizens – together a majority of the Palestinian people. For those under occupation in the West Bank or besieged in Gaza, moreover, it will have no palpable effect.
What is emerging instead is a slow but sure manifestation of a new transnational movement, centred less on statehood and more on forging a national project that will traverse the existing Palestinian divides – diaspora, occupied territories and Israeli Arab citizens – and bypass the notion of an independent Palestinian state on part of Palestinian soil.
In what may be the beginnings of an unprecedented and fertile exchange of ideas, recent meetings have brought together intellectuals, opinion-formers and policymakers from the different Palestinian constituencies to review the challenges arising from the blocked prospects for negotiations and the surging revolutions changing the map of the Arab world. This has been matched by a renewed spirit of popular activism that is starting to take hold in the occupied territories, spurred and inspired by events elsewhere in the region.
What this approach, still in nascent and tentative form, reflects may be profoundly important for the future of the struggle; a move away from seeking the ever-shifting goalposts of an inevitably constrained and incomplete form of statehood that would come at the expense of equally fundamental rights to a much broader interpretation of self-determination that includes all the divergent Palestinian constituencies, and a much wider and continuing confrontation with the Zionist enterprise in Palestine.
This shift is premised on forging a new common identity and common national goal – embracing all sectors of Palestinian society and aimed at the entirety of Palestine before 1948. Its means will include the struggle for civil rights in Israel, ending the West Bank occupation, healing the split with Gaza, and safeguarding refugee rights including the right to live free in Palestine. It will be primarily expressed by popular and mass protest and the appeal to universal values, and articulated and developed through interaction within and between the various Palestinian communities.
From this perspective West Bank statehood seems an irrelevance, almost an anachronism. It matches neither the popular revolutionary zeitgeist of the Arab world nor wider Palestinian aspirations. At best it addresses part of the Palestinian condition on part of the land. The alternative may have no short cuts, but will reclaim the legacy of the past and revive the legitimacy of a struggle that may now be on the verge of yet another historical transformation.