Can a Palestinian Authority Rooted in an Untenable Status Quo Survive the U.N. Clash?

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrives for a meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the 66th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters Monday, Sept. 19, 2011. (Photo: Seth Wenig / AP)

Quiz question: Who is applying to the United Nations for membership of a Palestinian state not-yet-born? Is it

a) the Palestinian Authority, or

b) the Palestine Liberation Organization?

Much of the media reporting treats the two as if they were interchangeable labels for the same thing — hardly surprising, perhaps, given that Mahmoud Abbas is both the President of the PA and the Chairman of the PLO (and also the leader of the Fatah party, which dominates both). But the distinction is important, since even though the U.N. bid is in the hands of the PLO,  its consequences could land the PA in  a mortal crisis in the months ahead, with profoundly destabilizing consequences for the region.

The U.N. bid — whose precise content is not yet known, or perhaps even decided — will be made by the PLO, which since 1973 has represented the Palestinians via observer status in the international. The PA has no standing at the U.N. — it was created, under the 1994 Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the PLO, as an interim body that would administer the West Bank and Gaza during the six-year period in which the peace process was to have been completed, serving also as the bureaucratic and political foundation of the state the Palestinians expected would be created through talks between the PLO and Israel.

The PA is ostensibly accountable to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, with both its president and legislature chosen in democratic elections. But the Authority was turned into a kind of mini-Mubarak autocracy under orders from the Bush Administration, which literally reversed its vocal insistence on Palestinian democracy when Hamas won the 2006 legislative election. The PLO is supposedly more representative, in that it is deemed also to speak for the millions of Palestinian refugees who live outside of the West Bank and Gaza, in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and elsewhere. But the PLO’s governing body, the Palestinian National Council, has never been elected. Nor does the PLO include Hamas under its umbrella, despite the fact that election results show that the Islamist movement represents at least one third of Palestinian public opinion. And the fact that the U.N. bid is opposed by Hamas simply underscores a legitimacy problem facing that initiative. (Abbas, as Israel has often pointed out, does not actually govern Gaza, which houses more than one third of the population of the “state” he wants recognized.)

Had the peace process gone as planned, of course, both the PLO and the PA would have by now been supplanted by a new Palestinian state. But the peace process has not gone as planned; it stalled a decade ago after the two sides failed to agree terms for Palestinian statehood at Camp David and then Taba, and it has remained essentially frozen ever since.

Failure to complete the peace process has turned the PA from the putative harbinger of a sovereign, independent state, into an integral part of the administrative and security architecture of the status quo. Despite occasional bouts of misplaced enthusiasm among U.S. columnists and Prime Minister Netanyahu for the achievements of the West Bank economy, that economy remains hobbled by the occupation and almost entirely dependent on foreign donor aid. PA security forces are deployed to protect Israel against both Palestinian terror attacks and Palestinian peaceful protest, but not to protect Palestinians against Israeli settlers and soldiers. The PA controls only that which Israel allows it to control; it has no say over freedom of movement in the West Bank or Israeli military operations in its cities; it has no ability to stop Israeli land grabs for settlement expansion or the building of the security wall (and its appeals for Washington to restrain the Israelis has yielded no effective response); it depends on Israel for everything from electricity to the collection of import tariffs.

“In areas where government effectiveness matters most – security and justice; revenue and expenditure management; economic development; and service delivery,” the World Bank wrote in a report released last week, “Palestinian public institutions compare favorably to other countries in the region and beyond. These institutions have played a crucial role in enabling the positive economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza in recent years. Though significant, this growth has been unsustainable, driven primarily by donor aid rather than a rebounding private sector, which remains stifled by Israeli restrictions on access to natural resources and markets.”

The occupation, in other words, remains the salient factor shaping Palestinian reality on the ground — and the issue about which Palestinians care about far more than they do about the accoutrements of virtual statehood. The reason Abbas has been forced to break with the U.S. tutelage to approach the U.N. is precisely because it has become blindingly obvious that negotiations with Israel under U.S. auspices offer no hope of ending the occupation. There’s an almost Orwellian cast to the Obama Administration’s mantra that “direct negotiations with Israel remain the only path to Palestinian statehood,” because after two decades of direct negotiations, Israel remains unwilling to accept the terms for Palestinian statehood deemed reasonable by the overwhelming international consensus.

As the International Crisis Group notes,

“It is hard to understand how negotiations can help get the parties out of their fix when (failed) negotiations are what led them there in the first place. If there is one thing on which U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials concur, it is that it is virtually impossible in the present context for Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu to make substantial progress, let alone reach an agreement. Reasons abound: deep substantive gaps between the two parties; decreasing U.S. authority and enhanced domestic constraints in the run-up to a presidential election; Palestinian divisions; and the weight of the Israeli Right. Restarting talks now to prevent a so-called train wreck in September could well provoke a more dangerous crash when negotiations collapse.”

Abbas’ real problem is that going to the U.N., in and of itself, can’t change the reality of occupation any more than talking to Netanyahu can — a point of which Palestinians on the ground seem acutely aware, reflected in widespread ambivalence over what the effort will yield.

Obviously, the “if they recognize it, it will come” approach at the Security Council is bound to fail at the first hurdle of a U.S. veto. The General Assembly, while it can’t recognize Palestine as a full member state, could nonetheless substantially improve Palestinian leverage at the negotiating table by codifying the international consensus parameters for a two-state solution. (The Israelis make no secret of the fact that they still hope to get Abbas to settle for less.)

Abbas knows he’s going to back to negotiating table, of course, regardless of what happens at the U.N. But as things stand, he’s choosing the route of deferral via the Security Council and refraining from taking the opportunity to boost Palestinian leverage in what will likely remain a protracted political and diplomatic battle.

Moreover, the Palestinian knows he’s returning to business-as-usual next week, when the U.N. General Assembly session is over. That’s why, with Israel’s okay, his security forces have been acquiring new riot-control gear. Indeed, while Israel’s exuberant partisans on Capitol Hill and the ultra-nationalists in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition are threatening to choke off funding to the PA if the U.N. bid goes ahead, cooler heads in Jerusalem and among pro-Israel activists in Washington are warning against any moves that weaken Abbas’ ability to maintain order. After all, Israel relies on the Palestinian security forces as its first line of defense against both Hamas militants and unarmed Palestinian protestors.

Having held its last election five years ago — and having overturned the results of that one — the PA’s legitimacy today resides substantially on its ability to pay the salaries on which up to one third of the West Bank population depends. Donor funds are already falling short of pledges as a result of global recession — the PA was unable to pay full salaries in July, and while it did so in August, its finances are under mounting pressure.

Even more urgent, though, was the warning issued in Washington in 2009 by Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton, who at the time was the U.S. officer in charge of training Palestinian security forces. Dayton noted that the premise on which those forces had been built, and had withstood charges from within their own community that they were simply an indigenous gendarmerie for the occupation, was not simply a paycheck; it was the belief among the men of the Palestinian security forces that they were the nucleus of the army of a future Palestinian state. And their loyalty could not, therefore, be taken for granted if the peace process remained stalled: “There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you’re creating a state, when you’re not,” he told the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy. That, of course, was two years ago.

If the U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood is a moment of truth, what it will reveal is that the promise on which the Palestinian Authority itself has been built — that it is the administrative and security infrastructure of a state that will establish Palestinian sovereignty on the lands conquered by Israel in 1967, and will end the occupation — is unlikely to be fulfilled either by a largely symbolic U.N. vote or by ongoing talks with the Israelis under U.S. auspices. The dangerous epiphany predicted by Dayton will likely coincide with a growing discontent on the ground as a result of economic pressure, an escalation of aggressive provocations by Israeli settlers, and a recognition
that security forces suppressing protest actions are preserving a status quo
that does not, in fact, lead to an end of the occupation.

Abbas has called for popular demonstrations to back his U.N. representations, in the way that U.S. politicians bring flag-waving crowds to campaign stops as a visual backdrop for their speeches. The Palestinian leader expects them to express support for his U.N. mission; no more. But Palestinians are far less interested in the status of their delegation at the U.N. than they are about the occupation. And if, inspired by the examples of the Arab Spring, they decide to use the opportunity to wage peaceful protests against the occupation, the prospects for the PA itself to survive will dim.

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