By: Hossam Shaker:
Tawajjuhat al-Nukhbah al-Siyasiyyah al-Filastiniyyah Nahwa al-Sira‘ al-‘Arabi al-Israeli (The Approaches of the Palestinian Political Elite Towards the Arab-Israeli Conflict) is the title of a new book by Dr. ‘Azzam ‘Abdul Sattar Sha‘th. It is considered an added value in its domain, for it studies this elite, their formation and orientations. Added to the 200-page text, and tens of pages of appendices, the book is based on a study conducted by the researcher, examining the Palestinian political elite, analyzing them and revealing the nature of their role in managing the conflict with Israel, in addition to their orientations.
The new book is published by al-Zaytouna Centre, which has previously published studies about the political elite, especially the book Simat al-Nukhbah al-Siyasiyyah al-Filastiniyyah Qabla wa Ba‘da Qiyam al-Sultah al-Wataniyyah al-Filastiniyyah (The Characteristics of the Palestinian Political Elite Before and After the Establishment of the Palestinian National Authority), by Samar Jawdat al-Barghouthi, which was published in 2009.
The 300-page book by Dr. ‘Azzam Sha‘th, has an additional value, for it discusses a current issue related to the reality of the Palestinian people and the future of their issue, at a very delicate time. For, on the one hand, there are an impasse and accumulated crises, and on the other, the risk of the occupation to become exacerbated and the Palestinian dossier to be closed.
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Chapter Two: The Palestinian National Authority Elite (52 pages, 2.1 MB) (Arabic)
– Title: Tawajjuhat al-Nukhbah al-Siyasiyyah al-Filastiniyyah Nahwa al-Sira‘ al-‘Arabi al-Israeli (The Approaches of the Palestinian Political Elite Towards the Arab-Israeli Conflict)
The Chapters of the Study and Their Contents
The book includes five chapters, preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion. The chapters discuss consecutively the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) elite, the Palestinian Authority (PA) elite, the role of the Palestinian resistance in the conflict equation, the role of political settlement in the conflict equation, then the field study results.
The first chapter reviews the official efforts to establish the Palestinian entity, the structure of the Palestinian political system, and the stages of forming the Palestinian political elite within the PLO framework during the period from 1964 (when the PLO was established) until 2017. Throughout this period, which is more than half a century, the Palestine issue and its political elite have passed through difficult and critical milestones. This chapter studies also the formation of the legislative and executive elites through the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the Palestinian Central Council (PCC), and the PLO Executive Committee, and the circumstances that influenced their formation. For there has been a quota system, through which the PLO factions insure that their elites are members in the legislative and executive institutions, and other PLO frameworks and different committees. Hence, the PLO did not adopt an electoral system to choose its members or the leadership of its institutions, and this was usually justified (pp. 37–38, 221).
In chapter two, the study discusses the frame of the PA institutions and their structure—since it is the second constituent of the Palestinian political system—and the mechanisms of political elite formation within it, which was established after the ratification of Oslo Accords (1993–1994), by holding general legislative and executive elections in the PA areas, in 1996, 2005 and 2006. The study mentions that, after thirty years of quotaism in PLO institutions, these elections were the first democratic manifestations of the Palestinian political system, and these mechanisms that the PA has used to choose the political elite members of the legislative authority has distinguished it (p. 71). The establishment of PA has paved the way for the formation of a new Palestinian political elite that have their own characteristics and specifications; they include the “local elite,” i.e., the elite of Gaza Strip (GS) and the West Bank (WB), and the “returning elite,” who came to the PA areas after the Oslo Accords. The study has distinguished between two phases of PA’s political elite formation; the first one is that of post presidential and electoral elections 1996–2005. These were known as the traditional elite, who were of one political color and who supported the Oslo Accords. The second phase was after the legislative elections in 2006, in which there was wide participation by Palestinian factions, and based on that the political elite were renewed and became diversified in the PA’s legislative and executive institutions, in addition to other manifestations. However, the feature of the traditional elite who are of one political color has accompanied the schism in the Palestinian political house after 2006, as the study notes.
Chapter three displays the developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the choices that the Palestinians took when managing that conflict. These included the use of the popular armed and peaceful resistance tools by the guerrilla forces and organizations, and how this use was affected by the conditions of the status quo, and the available freedom of movement and regional circumstances. The same chapter discusses the notion of peaceful and armed resistance in the Palestinian political thought.
Then comes chapter four to describe the PLO political transformations, when it changed its objective from a comprehensive liberation to an internationally mediated political settlement and interim solutions, and that starting in 1974. Then, it displays the developments of the Palestinian scene concerning the peace settlement, the relation with Israel, and the relevant international and regional mediations and initiatives.
In chapter five, the study investigates the approaches of the Palestinian political elite towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, by asking the elites themselves about their vision of the future of the conflict, in light of the current crisis, manifested in the failure to regain the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. The chapter is based on a field study the includes two parts: the first is the field study procedures and the second is the results and the ensuing discussions. The study was conducted on an intentional sample of 50 figures from the Palestinian political elite of different affiliations; members of the PLO executive committee, members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the ministers of the seventeenth government called “The National Consensus Government,” members of the political bureaus of six factions: Fatah, Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (PIJ), and Palestinian People’s Party (PPP). The sample was asked through a questionnaire containing questions divided into two parts: Personal data of the elite member, and questions regarding the political situation. This latter was composed of three parts: The Palestinian national objectives, the mechanisms of conflict resolution, and mechanisms of an international and regional solution of the conflict.
The Perplexity of the Elite and the Confusion in Choices
The results of the analytical field study give the impression that the Palestinian political elite are in a waiting state, with no tangible choices that are clear enough or have enough consensus. For they are not satisfied with the results of the peace process, but at the same time, it seems from their answers that they do not have a coherent vision or a seemingly alternative project. Most of the elite support ending the Oslo Accords (72%), and there is an overwhelming recognition that the negotiations after the Trump Declaration concerning Jerusalem are no longer of national interest (80%) (p. 215). However, the study indicates that the Palestinian political elite are confused as to how to deal with the dead end status, where some approaches indicate that there is a confusion in choices. Three quarters of the elite (76%) support holding an international conference on the basis of international legitimacy to resolve the conflict, but more than half (52%) stated that the current balance of power does not allow the development of a new international political initiative to resolve the conflict.
It seems that such results make one question the chances of holding an international conference, while, in the first place, the possibility of developing a new international initiative is excluded. This could be understood—Apart from what the book has mentioned—as a traditional bet on some choices, which the political rhetoric of the PA and the PLO have called for since what is known as “The Middle East Peace Process” was stalled. Confirming this disorder feature is noticed in the extent of pessimism in the Trump administration concerning the Palestine issue. The study shows that 96% of the Palestinian political elite in the research sample do not believe that the US President Trump will offer a peace plan that would meet the aspirations of the Palestinian people to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state. Furthermore, 76% of them do not believe that Trump would retract his decision on Jerusalem—i.e., recognizing it as the capital of Israel and transferring the US Embassy to it—as a condition to resume the talks and continue the political process (p. 216).
Such results can be partly understood in the fact that an international role may be relied on to a certain extent, as an alternative to American sponsorship of negotiations. This can be seen when 54% of the studied sample are convinced of the possibility of finding a sponsor to the peace process who would be to a certain extent an alternative to the US. In details; 48.2% accept the United Nations (UN) as a sponsor; 17.9% the UN Security Council permanent members; 16.1% the European Union (EU); 8.9% Russia; 7.1% China; while the US was accepted by only 1.8%, a result that has a profound indication about the stalled peace process experience that began a quarter of a century with a bet on the US role (See Chapter Four, pp.143–172).
In this context, there is a clear recognition of the changes in the prospects of a peace settlement, for only 8% are convinced that the Arab Peace Initiative is still valid to solve the conflict (p. 217). This raises questions about the seriousness of the conviction of the Palestinian political elite by the suggested Arab official options to solve the conflict, when taking into consideration the 29th Arab League Summit in Dhahran, the “Jerusalem Summit,” in 2018, which adhered to the Arab Peace Initiative launched in 2002. The study indicates that 44% of the elite sample support a regional political solution that guarantees the establishment of a Palestinian state on the borders of June 4th, 1967 (p. 216).
The perplexity in the tendencies of some political elite, and the relative confusion in handling the current dead end is now understandable, for the results of the study have made that clear. The Palestine issue, in general, and the “Palestinian leadership” and the post-Oslo Palestinian political system in particular, have their hands tied, and this is due to the signed agreements and the ensuing obligations. The leadership, the PA, the institutions, and political elite themselves are geographically, politically and financially besieged by conditions controlled by Israel and dominated by the US, aside from the fact that the Arab regional status is shaken and international support is absent.
The general conferences of the Fatah Movement, which were held after the establishment of the PA—i.e., after the Sixth Conference that was held in 2009 in Bethlehem—showed that the current situation is facing blockage and having a dependence crisis without being open to other choices. This can be noticed in the details the study included (p. 148 for example).
What exacerbates the dilemma now, is that the Palestinian political elite, especially those who have ties with the PA project, which is based on political settlement and on the notion that negotiations are a strategic option; are currently facing the collapse of the two-state project as defined by the Quartet in the last decade. Step by step the Trump administration is pushing step by step towards the dissolution of the Palestine issue, rather than solving it as required by the Oslo Accords or the Quartet. It seems that this administration is going ahead with ending some files apart from the negotiation process, as was the case concerning Jerusalem, apart from the negotiation track, in addition to what is looming under the title of the “deal of the century.” The Israeli occupation is imposing severely aggravated conditions on the ground, where settlements are built impeding territorial contiguity of the supposed PA areas, as put in the Quartet’s project; hence, there would be no prospect of a foreseeable “viable” Palestinian state, in the first place. With time, the PA security forces would be devoted to their functional role, in a way that would put it in contrast with the armed resistance option and is incompatible with the popular resistance culture, too. This is while the schism of the Palestinian political house deepens and the administrative gap between WB and GS widens.
What increases the gravity of the crisis is that the Palestinian political elite seem pessimistic concerning the possibility of repairing internal cracks and agreeing on a common Palestinian point of view. The study shows that less than half of the studied sample (48%) believe that the Palestinian political forces may agree on a unified political and strategic program with which to face the Israeli occupation (p. 215).
The Effect of Stressful Transitions
The orientations of the political elite and the current conditions and transitions are quite interconnected. The author studied the impact of the defeats of the Arab region, and the stressful international transitions, on the Arab and Palestinian conditions, and their effects, also, on the choices and orientations of the Palestinian political elite. For example, this was made clear by studying the impact of the June 1967 War (p. 40, p. 152), the Gulf War 1990–1991 (p. 158) which was concurrent with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the socialist system, which constituted a relative international backbone to the Palestinian position. The study included also the repercussions of some major developments after the September 11th, 2001 milestone and the moves made afterwards by George W. Bush (p. 163). The study also notes, implicitly, the effects of the Arab position and its steady decline on the choices of the Palestinian political elite (p. 153); the effect of the field situation of the Palestinian revolution and guerrilla action on the Palestinian political choices, such as when the Fedayeen (freedom fighters) lost their bases in Jordan and Lebanon, and when Egypt left the confrontation (p. 154); and the impact of the diminishing resistance surrounding Palestine from a “full ring” to a “demolished ring” to a “missing ring” (p. 125).
The study tracked the emergence of the idea of establishing a Palestinian state, its development, and its gradual inflation in the Palestinian political discourse after 1967. Consequently, the state came to have the priority over liberation, until the claimed state became an empty slogan. For this “state” may be non-sovereign or, in some cases, may mean a developed state of self-rule, albeit unarmed and unable to defend its people. This is what the study discusses in the peace process section (pp. 153–156). As for the study’s results, 44% of the studied sample supports the establishment of a Palestinian state within the borders of June 1967, in light of a two-state solution.
However, these results are inconclusive since it is not clear if such an orientations is related to the notion of the interim phase or the permanent solution. For most of the same sample doesn’t support the recognition of Israel, 60% do not support “the recognition of the state of Israel and its right to exist,” 72% support the liberation of all Palestinian soil, and 86% see that the Palestinian national project is not limited to the state only.
In general, these results reveal a separation from the official discourse adopted by the PA, which limits the “national project” to the scope of what has previously been a phased solution, according to the “Ten-Point Program” of 1974 (pp. 154–155).
A Dilemma or a Failure?
The study implicitly reveal that the Palestinian political elite feel that the Palestine issue is in deep crisis, and that is what the researcher concluded by saying that the answers indicate that the PA, in its current condition, is no longer able to carry its responsibilities concerning liberation and national independence, due to the pressure it is under and the circumstances it is passing through (p. 200).
The Palestinian arena is facing a chronic stumbling of the peace process, a prolonged blocking of talks, and diminishing chances of establishing a Palestinian state establishment, even with the specifications of the Quartet itself, which are way below those of what was known as the national Palestinian project, in the first place. Therefore, an ensuing fundamental question is due: Did the peace process already fail or not yet, or has it just stumbled? One can conclude that the parties who are concerned with not announcing the collapse or the failure of the peace process—sometimes some of the political elite fate is linked to the success or failure of these choices—are the ones that established their approaches, strategies and political calculations on peace settlement as the only choice, and some even they themselves made the case. Consequently, even when Trump was burying the peace process and trying to impose an alternative project that would end the Palestine issue that does not respond to the minimum that any Palestinian party would accept. The failure of the peace process was not announced. Avoiding the announcement of failure may be a smart move by the international community, Europe for example, to keep the situation depending on an empty slogan, since there is a lack of alternative promises that can be marketed to the Palestinian people.
The study of “The Approaches of the Palestinian Political Elite” overrides the question of whether the peace process will fail or not, for some of its questions were basically phrased in a way that excludes failure so far: “In case the political settlement efforts failed…” This is understandable, in light of the fact that the related parties did not officially recognize the collapse of the peace process and the blockage of any of its tracks. Here comes a legitimate question about the possibility of announcing the failure or explicitly talking about it by those who made the case, or contributed to it, or those who cannot afford the consequences of announcing the failure, which is clearly accelerating; for they did not offer alternatives or they excluded them in advance in Palestinian official discourse under the pretext of the objective binding under existing agreements and beyond.
In any case, the choices alternative to the current situation do not seem clear, for example 46.8% of the sample see that the PA must be dissolved and the PLO must take its place in case the peace process efforts fail; 32.1% support a unilateral announcement of a Palestinian state; 14.3% approve keeping the status quo, i.e., the continuation of the PA and the PLO; and 7.1% support that the PA continues its tasks until the UN recognizes the Palestinian state with full membership (p. 216).
Forms of Struggle and Resistance
One of the core results that most of the elite sample is convinced that “all sorts of struggle, fore and foremost the armed one, are still valid so that the Palestinian people would obtain their right of freedom and national independence.” This was fully approved by 72% of the sample, partially approved by 22% and disapproved by only 6%. However, the general approval disintegrates when choosing between “the most viable options for conflict resolution,” where popular resistance was chosen by 28.2%, armed resistance 16.9%, negotiations 5.6%, combining armed resistance and negotiations 9.2%, popular resistance and negotiations 8.5%, diplomatic efforts to apply international legitimacy 13.4%, joining international organizations and using them to support Palestinian rights 18.3%. The choice of combining the armed and popular resistances do not stand or are not clear enough in this study, although combining them is possible and has been practically tried by the Palestinian people, in the past and now, as was shown in the study. It was also manifested in the style of the “Great Return Marches,” which were launched in Spring 2018, i.e., after the time of the study (until 2017). These were basically peaceful popular activities that did not imply the stoppage of the armed resistance option in GS, rather it was impressively concomitant.
In general, this note indicates that there is a conceptual problem that the Palestinian arena has known when dealing with popular resistance, and which is beyond the hereby study. The study discussed the approaches of the Palestinian political elite concerning the popular resistance or the peaceful popular resistance, showing that it enjoys clear support, however, this support do not provide a clear picture of the nature of this resistance and its extent. For does the concept/notion imply that this resistance is limited to specific local movements in some WB villages, like Bil‘in, Ni‘lin, al-Ma‘sara and Nabi Salih? or does it transcend them to become a more broad national resistance strategy using various popular means? Furthermore, since 2007, the PA discourse and that of Salam Fayyad in particular have highlighted the popular resistance, and this can be read as part of the justification for folding the page of the “al-Aqsa Intifadah,” which adopted the combined popular and armed resistance. It gives also the impression that as the peace process stalls the official leadership has other options, and this was somehow mentioned in the study (p. 115). Such a conclusion is supported by the fact that the popular resistance decisions (p. 114) were not actually reflected in a tangible, tireless and serious way, like other decisions calling to stop “security coordination,” for example.
In this context, it is noted that the study questions have put choices for the elite sample, while implicitly excluding the combination of armed resistance and peaceful popular resistance, even though some questions combined between either form of the resistance and negotiations.
About the Palestinian Political Elite
Despite the importance of this study, its extensiveness and clear discipline in research tools, as well as being a peer-reviewed university thesis, however, one must refer to the limited inclusion of the Palestinian political elite. Actually, the study included only leaders living in WB and GS (96%), or 48 out of the 50 elite sample. Consequently, the leaders abroad, who represent two thirds the Palestinian people, were absent, the leaders of the prisoners’ movement were absent (and this could be understood for objective considerations), and the leaders of the 1948 occupied territories. The needed discussion in this regard must be about the feasibility of limiting the concept of political elite in the Palestinian case—legislative and executive—to the leaders of factions, the PLO, and the PA, excluding other segments participating in varying degrees in the Palestinian political scene and the broad Palestinian struggle. Hence, overriding these relatively narrow categorizations, especially with the deterioration of the Palestinian institutions, the aging of executive structures, the weak renewal of the elite leadership itself, and the generation gap. This was indicated also by the study, evidenced by the situation of the studied sample (pp. 193–194).
The study researches the approaches of the Palestinian political elite, after studying the elite themselves. Then, during the study, chronic disorders in the Palestinian political system are revealed, which occur due to the difference between established systems and practice. One of the problematic aspects, for example, is what is known as the “Palestinian leadership.” For in the media, it could mean a general title that refers to the PA and PLO leadership close to the President, or the commission established by the late Yasir ‘Arafat to serve as an advisory board and a body to legitimize the president’s decisions. It includes: the members of the PLO Executive Committee, the PNC Presidential Bureau, the cabinet, some heads of the security forces, some governors, some heads of municipalities, the PLC speaker, independent figures from both the PCC and PLC, a number of political advisors, some members of the Fatah leadership, and a number of military advisors (p. 94).
The researcher Dr. ‘Azzam ‘Abdul Sattar Sha‘th concludes that it is important to establish “a new phase of Palestinian national struggle to achieve the legitimate political and legal objectives (…).” Consequently, there comes very difficult questions; whether the Palestinian political elite would be able to do so and lead the new phase with competence, what will be the characteristics of the elite at this desired stage, or will those dominating the current situation and who have been involved in creating this impasse remain at the forefront, with all what that means for the Palestinian people and the future of their cause?