By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
Usually the political elite is defined by those who have the real authority in the state. Their circle may be broadened to include influential people, those who influence decision-making, and those who have religious, economic, military, ethnic and tribal… authority and dominance. However, what makes the Palestinian political elite distinct, is that it is the elite of a liberation movement and not those of a state. They are geographically dispersed, a high percentage of them are under occupation or siege, and the political environment outside Palestine affect the elite living there, who are obliged to take into consideration each country’s ceilings and criteria.
The current crisis of the Palestinian political elite lies in the fact that its large dominant sector behaves as a state but without a state, coordinates with the occupation, and manages his elite status according to the occupation’s conditions and within its environment. It suffers crises in vision, tracks, leadership, symbols, rotation of leadership and institutional structure.
There are many studies concerning the Palestinian political elite, whereas among the most prominent is 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, and 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). Both are PhD dissertations and both were published by al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations. They studied the elite of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) from different angles/perspectives. Both are worth reading and benefitting from. This article is not a review of either study, but it benefits from some of their information.
The PLO was established in 1964 led by Ahmad Al-Shuqairy, and in 1968, the Palestinian factions dominated the PLO and restructured the leadership elite in the Palestinian National Council (PNC) and its executive committee, where the Fatah movement has dominated the political elite of the PLO. In 1994, when the PA was established, the Fatah movement led its founding and management, having a clear impact on its elite. However, the landslide victory of Hamas in the 2006 elections of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) granted it a powerful entrance into the PA political elite, forming the tenth and eleventh government, then dominating GS after the Palestinian schism, whereas Fatah dominates the PA in WB.
The PLO crises had their impact on the Palestinian political elite, who paid a hefty price for trying to work freely in the Arab environment surrounding Palestine. This happened at a time when the Arab countries did not tolerate the “burdensome guest” and the ensuing dues of hosting a liberation movement facing the Israeli enemy, which is backed by the great powers; they tried to introduce their own elite and cancel opposing elites. This was accompanied by the absence of a free environment for a Palestinian political action. And there was neither a healthy Palestinian leadership rotation, nor genuine “democratic” procedures to form leadership and legislative councils. Consequently, the leadership selection of the Palestinian elite was driven by the domination of Fatah over the PLO and factional calculations.
Since the 1980s, active and influential forces began to appear in the Palestinian arena, while having no representation in the PLO (Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (PIJ)…). Their leaders and symbols were not counted among the “official” Palestinian political elite. It is a phenomenon that has expanded as those forces grew (Hamas in particular) and won in the 2006 PLC elections.
Furthermore, the political elite of the PLO have showed symptoms of weakness, frailty and inefficiency along with the deterioration of the PLO’s organizations, and the suspension of holding Palestinian National Council (PNC) meetings for 27 years 1991–2018, except for some limited formal meetings to pass some prior decisions or to “legitimize” the work of the PA leadership (1996, 2009, 2018). This led for the PNC political elite to be “inert,” whose median age reached more than 70 years and that of the students’ representative more than 60, while dozens of them had died. The PLO is facing a “chronic” elite who are reproducing themselves and their problems, and whose ability to produce new generations has been an abject failure.
As for the PA, its establishment has ended the existence of a political system outside its soil, while producing a new problem by being under Israel’s occupation and hegemony. Along with that came the complexities of moving the political elite living abroad to the Palestinian territories, Israel’s control of borders, crossings and the movement of individuals and goods, and its imposition of political, security and economic conditions on the PA. The Israeli occupation has become the authority issuing VIP cards to PA elites, with the possibility of arresting any of these “elite,” if they cross Israeli red lines. And with the hampered peace process, and the chances of the PA to become a state with full sovereignty on its national territory are diminishing, a deformed political system has emerged, located amidst an occupation environment and subject to its terms. Whereas the political elite has “adapted itself” to the requirements of the “the settlement” and the requirements of the “Authority”… and changed from being the elite of a “liberation movement” to become the elite of an authority acting as a state but under occupation. They are forced to respond to the agenda of the occupation in its pursuit of the resistance within the “security coordination,” while suffering frailty, and financial and administrative corruption, whereas living luxuriously…at the same time, the “revolutionary” aspect has been diminishing except for slogans, historical boasting, or tactical employment.
With time, as the 1996 and 2006 PLC elections were held, and several ministries were formed, and a new class of political, economic and security PA influential people emerged, the PA political elite were able to introduce new ones, who are more educated, more youthful and more integrated into the local social environment of WB and GS.
However, the PLO and PA mentality (i.e., Fatah leadership) of dominance and monopoly of decision-making, has forbade it from accepting the results of the 2006 democratic elections. As a result, the new political elite (Hamas), who imposed themselves through the resistance program or popular legitimacy, were not welcomed. Consequently, a crisis emerged when the PLO and PA leadership attempted to “monopolize the elite,” or when they tried to put influential and effective elite outside the “legitimacy” and “official” frames.
A second crisis emerged due to the dominance of one faction over the PA and PLO, insisting on certain political tracks (the peace settlement), and unwilling to forge any partnerships that would negatively affect its political dominance and the national action tracks it assigned. This led to the obstruction of the natural sorting of the elite and the peaceful rotation of authority, and the absence of a healthy environment of leadership change and replacement. Thus, this led to the door to the emergence of young leaders to be closed, and a huge gap to exist between the current old elite and emerging generations.
The movement of the Palestinian leadership into the Palestinian territories, and the decline of its and PLO’s roles abroad, have led to the negligence of Palestinian diaspora (more than half the Palestinian people), who are full of potentials, expertise and energies. This leadership currently concentrate on Ramallah, which is surrounded by the occupation and its tools. Noteworthy here that the Palestinian elite of the 1948 occupied territories did not occupy its well-deserved role and place in the Palestinian national project.
The study conducted by ‘Azzam Sha‘th on 50 figures from the Palestinian political elite reflects their confusion and lack of a coherent vision. Most of the elite, i.e., 72% supports ending the Oslo Accords, 80% recognizes that the negotiations after the Trump Declaration concerning Jerusalem are of no use, more than half of them admits that the current regional and international balance of power does not allow the development of a new political initiative to resolve the conflict, and 72% supports the liberation of all the Palestinian soil using all sorts of struggle. However, 76% supports holding an international conference on the basis of international legitimacy. And when choosing between the most viable tools to confront the enemy, 28.2% chose popular resistance, 17% armed resistance, while the rest chose other tools with smaller percentages. Furthermore, there is division and lack of vision of what can be done in case the PA was dissolved.
This overlap or inconsistent thinking indicates that the current political elite suffer a crisis of vision and tracks, and may be this is consistent with the state of a blocked horizon, frustrations and divisions in the Palestinian arena.
In general, the crisis of the political elite is a deep crisis that touches the core of the political system, its leadership structure, and its elite selection. It is affected by the state of Palestinian dispersion, occupation environment and the Arab and international influence tools.
This article was originally published in Arabic on TRT Arabic “trt.net.tr/arabic” on 8/5/2019.