Another “Symbolic Victory”: Abbas’ New Political Gambit

When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decided to go to the United Nations to request the admission of Palestine as a full member, he appeared to have had an epiphany. Had he finally realized that for the past two decades he and his party, Fatah, have gone down a road to nowhere? That Israel was only interested in him as a conduit to achieve its colonial endeavor in the remaining 22 percent of historical Palestine? That his national project – predicated on the ever elusive ‘peace process’ – achieved neither peace nor justice?

Abbas claims to be serious this time. Despite all US attempts at intimidation (for example, by threatening to withhold funds), and despite the intensifying of Israeli tactics (including the further arming of illegal Jewish settlers to combat possible Palestinian mobilization in the West Bank), Abbas simply could not be persuaded against seeking a UN membership this September.

“We are going to the Security Council. We need to have full membership in the United Nations…we need a state, and we need a seat at the UN,” Abbas told Palestinians in a televised speech on September 16.

For months, Palestinian intellectuals, historians, legal experts and academicians have warned against Abbas’s haphazard, understudied move. Some have argued that if Abbas’ UN adventure is a tactical maneuver, its legal repercussions are too grave a price to pay for little or no returns. If ‘Palestine’ replaces the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) – currently recognized by the UN as the sole representative of the Palestinian people – then Palestinians risk losing the only unifying body they all have in common (its replacement representing only two million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank).

“Most damaging is that this initiative changes our ability as a people to represent the totality of our inalienable rights,” said Abdel Razzaq Takriti, activist and political historian at Oxford University (according to Ma’an news agency, September 3). “The simple act of replacing the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people with a state removes the claims of the PLO to sovereign status as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

The PLO, which for decades served as a bulwark of the Palestinian national struggle, continues to exist today, but only in theory. The PA, which was founded in 1994 as a temporary authority to oversee a Palestinian transition to statehood has slowly but decidedly hijacked and undercut PLO institutions.

More, the PA itself has neither legitimacy nor credibility. Whatever remained of the latter was lost during the Israeli war on Gaza and the publishing of the Palestine Papers by Al Jazeera and the Guardian. The papers showed that the very individuals now championing a Palestinian statehood bid at the UN once regularly collaborated with Israel to crack down on Palestinian resistance. They helped Israel undermine Palestinian democracy, isolate democratically-elected Hamas, give away the refugees’ right of return, and worse, deprive Palestinians from any meaningful sovereignty in occupied East Jerusalem.

As for its lack of legitimacy, the matter requires no leaked documents. In fact, Fatah’s refusal to concede to 2006 election results led to the circumstances that exasperated a civil war in Gaza. Gaza’s besiegement (a direct consequence of the elections and the civil war) continues to serve both Israel and the PA equally. The latter is functioning in the West Bank with no popular mandate, surviving on international handouts and ‘security coordination’ with the Israeli army. Even Abbas’s term as a president of the PA has expired.

All of this summons an urgent question: how can an authority that lacks the legal legitimacy as a representative of the Palestinian people take on a role that could change the course of the entire Palestinian national project?

A leaked legal opinion by Oxford University law professor Guy Goodwin-Gill warned of the legal consequences of Abbas’ bid, including the sidelining of the PLO. Goodwin-Gill intended to “flag the matters requiring attention, if a substantial proportion of the people are not to be accidentally disenfranchised.” An equally worrisome issue is the PA’s history of acting in ways that contradict the interests of the Palestinian people. Years of such experience left most Palestinians with significantly less land and greatly reduced rights. On the other hand, a small segment of the Palestinian population prospered. Evidently, the ‘new rich’ of Palestine were all affiliated with the PA, Fatah and the very few on top.

This iniquitous situation would have easily continued were it not for the so-called Arab Spring, which began demolishing the status quo governing Arab countries. Abbas’ corrupt regime was also a member of the ailing Arab political apparatus. Its existence, like others, was propped by American or other Western support. In order to avoid brewing anger in Palestine and the region, the Palestinian leadership was forced to present itself as breaking away from the old paradigm

More, the “the PA feels abandoned by the US which assigned it the role of collaborator with the Israeli occupation, and feels frozen in a ‘peace process’ that does not seek an end goal,” according to Joseph Massad in Al Jazeera. “PA politicians opted for the UN vote to force the hand of the Americans and the Israelis, in the hope that a positive vote will grant the PA more political power and leverage to maximize its domination of the West Bank.”

The reasons behind the PA bid for statehood range between tactical politics (involving Israel and the US) and diverting attention from the PA’s own failures. The elitist politics almost complete discount the Palestinian people. If Palestinians truly mattered to Abbas, he would have started by unifying Palestinian factions, reenergizing (as opposed to stifling) civil society, and setting in motion the process needed to reform the PLO (as opposed to destroying its hard-earned international legitimacy).

“It is evident that Palestine needs newly elected leadership through an inclusive democratic process encompassing all Palestinians, not just those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” wrote leading Palestinian historian Salman Abu Sitta in the Middle East Monitor (July 10, 2011). This, in fact, should be the task at hand, not wasting time and energy pursing political gambits, which, at best will only yield symbolic victories.

Indeed, the Palestinian people are fed up with symbolic victories. They may have guaranteed Abbas and his men all the trappings of power, but they have failed to reclaim even one inch of occupied Palestine.

Ramzy Baroud is an author and a journalist. His latest volume is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle (Pluto Press, London). He can be reached at ramzybaroud@hotmail.com. Read other articles by Ramzy.