The abandoned masses

Always surveilled: Border police officers stand in front of Palestinians as they wait to cross from Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank, into Jerusalem. Photo by

Israel’s problem isn’t Palestinian nationalism — it’s Palestinians themselves

Most of the circumstances that made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ripe for resolution — or at least made the peace process attractive to both parties — have all but disappeared over the past decade.

By Noam Sheizaf, +972
August 20, 2017

Many Israelis were likely to have been happy to read The New Yorker article titled “The End of This Road: The Decline of the Palestinian National Movement” earlier this month.* The piece is of particular interest due to where it was published — the liberal elite’s most prominent magazine, which generally champions the Zionist Left and the American-backed two-state solution.

The identity of its authors is also noteworthy: Ahmad Samih Khalidi was involved in Israeli-Palestinian talks for years; Hussein Agha is a close associate of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was charged with holding secret talks with Yitzhak Molcho — Netanyahu’s chief envoy to the negotiations — and Obama’s former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross in the run-up to John Kerry’s peace initiative in 2013.

For the same reason we should also take the authors’ main argument, according to which Abbas is the last remaining Palestinian who can sign a final-status agreement, with a grain of salt. Yet the headline is not misleading, and it joins a long list of publications that rightfully declare the end of the Oslo peace process.

Over the past decade, most of the circumstances that made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ripe for resolution — or at least made the peace process attractive to both parties — have all but disappeared. The process began with the Madrid Conference at the end of the First Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that subverted and upended Israel’s mechanisms of control in the occupied territories at the time, which meant that Israel was suddenly faced with managing a hostile population.

Meanwhile, as the Cold War came to an end, the United States was the sole remaining superpower to which the rest of the world wanted to get closer. The peace process promised Israel a thaw in relations with the Third World, an economic leap, and an end to the Arab boycott. Meanwhile, the then-exiled PLO was facing a crisis and feared the emergence of an alternative leadership developing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Twenty-five years later, Israel has grown stronger, including with regards to its influence over internal American politics. The low-hanging fruit of the peace process have already been picked. It is convenient for the Israeli Right, which loves to criticize Oslo, to forget the positive effect the accords had on Israel’s position in the world — its improved relations with Europe, China, and the United States, and the ensuing economic upswing. Other unharvested fruit, such as the prospect of total normalization with the Arab world, seem far less attractive following the Arab Spring.

Today Israel is perceived as a Middle East superpower. The United States, on the other hand, is buckling under the weight of crisis after crisis, as well as a weak and dysfunctional government. Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, can do everything in his power when he flies into the region later this month — a final-status agreement won’t come of it.

The decline of nationalism

It started with Arafat and ended with Abbas. There is now no peace process and perhaps no more national leaders. Posters of Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat are still pasted up, side by side, in the West Bank city of Nablus, March 14, 2017. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90

The Palestinian Authority is no longer a “state in the making,” as it was viewed by Palestinians in the years after the Oslo Accords were signed. Instead, it has become a part of the Israeli regime, used to manage the population in the West Bank, and Gaza to a certain degree. Agha and Khalidi rightfully point out that the PA’s most effective tool — or perhaps its only effective tool — is its security apparatus, which has long been Palestinian only in name. Today, the Palestinian security forces have become an integral part of Israel’s rule in the occupied territories, whose main function is to protect Israelis — as opposed to Palestinians — while ensuring the survival of the PA.

Just as Yitzhak Rabin foresaw, the Palestinian Authority has been far more effective at maintaining the occupation regime than Israel ever was. This is another reason we need not take too seriously the Israeli government’s intermittent threats against the PA. Such threats serve everyone involved: they allow both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to speak to their respective publics in a discourse framed by nationalism. In practice, Israel’s interest is ensuring a strong, effective Palestinian Authority; the PA, for its part, is entirely dependent on Israel for its existence.

But the most interesting argument put forth by Agha and Khalidi comes at the end of their article:

A national movement requires genuine mass engagement in a political vision and a working project that cuts across boundaries of region, clan, and class, and a defined and acknowledged leadership with the legitimacy and representative standing that empowers it to act in its people’s name. This no longer holds for Fatah, the P.A., or the P.L.O. Be that as it may, the Palestinians may need to acknowledge that yesteryear’s conventional nationalism and ‘national liberation’ are no longer the best currency for political mobilization and expression in today’s world, and that they need to adapt their struggle and aspirations to new global realities. […] Because nationalism itself has changed, Palestinians need to search for new means of expressing their political identity and hopes in ways that do not and cannot replicate the past.

Palestinians aren’t going anywhere

Nothing better exemplifies the decline of nationalism as a force for mass engagement than the fact that the two Palestinian dictatorships, in the West Bank and Gaza, prioritize their survival and the survival of the elites that run them over the interests of their people.

In the short-term, the dissolution of the Palestinian issue into a multitude of problems — the siege on Gaza, the occupation of the West Bank, political prisoners, East Jerusalem, the fate of refugees — is of great relief to Israel. As long as these issues come up separately it is relatively easier to respond to them, and the potential for a general uprising — with which Israel has had a difficult time contending — is small.

The road blocks and checkpoint were quickly installed on the road out of Ramallah – to prevent Palestinians from leaving the city. By such means all Palestinian movement can be closely controlled by Israeli police. Here the near-by settlement of Beit El is protected. Photo taken on February 1, 2016 by Thomas Coex/ AFP

But Israel’s real challenge is not Palestinian nationalism, it is the Palestinians themselves. And they aren’t going anywhere.

The Israeli right wing’s policies are premised on an inherent contradiction: on the one hand, policies that strengthen Israel’s grip on the West Bank and Jerusalem and broaden its oversight over Palestinian citizens of Israel increase the integration of Jews and Palestinians. On the other hand, the Israeli Right also encourages and engineers separation between Jews and Palestinians by building walls, obstacles, segregated roads, discriminatory policies, segregated communities, etc. In effect, these contradictory policies are effectively turning up the heat inside a pressure cooker.

The existence of a Palestinian national movement with a clear leadership meant that Israel had a clear somebody with whom it could either fight or negotiate. As the short-lived “knife intifada” demonstrated, we are entering a far more complex era — never mind the cultural and national-identity disintegration Israel is undergoing.

* Can national liberation still be the Palestinian goal?

© Copyright JFJFP 2017