A New Season of Palestinian Protest Challenges Both Israel and Abbas

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Karim Kadim / AP

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the Arab League summit in Baghdad, Iraq, March, 29, 2012.

The Arab League is talking about Syria; Israel and the U.S. are talking about Iran. Nobody in the corridors of power, these days, is talking about the Palestinians. In part, that reflects the shifting geopolitical sands and the effectiveness of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in changing the subject — when he came to Washington to meet with newly elected President Barack Obama in 2009, Netanyahu wanted to talk about Iran, but Obama insisted he talk about settlements and the Palestinians; when Netanyahu met Obama in Washington three weeks ago, Iran dominated the agenda. But the Palestinians have also fallen off the geopolitcal radar because their leaders have followed a strategy that allows them to be ignored— they simply aren’t presenting Israel, the U.S. or the Arab states with a problem of sufficient magnitude to require attention. But that may be about to change — and at the expense of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel is bracing for trouble, Friday, as Palestinians plan to mark their annual Land Day commemoration with mass peaceful protests that will include marches on Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank, and demonstrations by Palestinian communities inside Israel and by refugees on Israel’s borders in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. These protests are not being organized by Abbas and his Fatah movement, nor by their rivals in Hamas, but instead by grassroots activist groups that have long given up waiting for the strategies of the rival national organizations to bear fruit.

“In light of the total failure of the peace talks, and given the Israeli destruction of the last potential two-state solution through settlement activities, we realize nothing will change unless we change the balance of power,” explained Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, and independent member of the Palestinian legislature engaged in grassroots activist work, in a recent interview with NBC. Barghouti is equally critical of the strategies of violence pursued during the previous intifada, which set back rather than advancing the Palestinian cause. The way to shift the balance of power, he stressed, was through this “non-violent peaceful resistance.”

Israel has warned the Palestinian Authority (PA) — as well as neighboring governments — against allowing demonstrators to approach Israeli border fences or checkpoints. The PA’s security forces have long functioned to protect Israel not only from terror attacks emanating from the territory under their control, but also from demonstrations. But if, as expected, they block demonstrators from reaching Israeli positions, that will simply underscore the political crisis in which Abbas and the PA find themselves.

Indeed, any new wave of Palestinian protest is effectively also a revolt against Abbas and the status quo he personifies. Abbas’ path is even being vocally challenged from within his own Fatah movement. Writing from the Israeli prison where he is serving five life terms on a terrorism conviction, Marwan Barghouti — Fatah’s most popular leader, and the presumptive heir to Abbas’ position at the head of the movement once he leaves the scene — has essentially called time on Abbas’ strategy. Bargouti (no immediate relation of Mustafa) bluntly demanded that Abbas’ PA end its security cooperation and economic coordination with Israel. “Stop marketing the illusion that there is a possibility of ending the occupation and achieving a state through negotiations after this vision has failed miserably,” he wrote, in an unmistakable challenge to Abbas. And unlike his namesake, Marwan Barghouti does not abjure violence, stressing that the Palestinians have an “absolute right to use all methods and means to resist occupation.”

Abbas’ problem is that he has very little by way of a political alternative to offer these challengers. He knows that the Netanyahu government has no intention of conceding anything close to a deal that a Palestinian leader could accept and survive politically, and his longstanding expectation that Palestinian good behavior and institution-building would prompt the U.S. to press Israel into an acceptable deal has been dashed by the Obama Administration’s retreat in the face of Netanyahu’s ability to marshal bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

And while Israel is content to maintain the status quo, it is becoming increasingly untenable for Abbas. In his desperation, Abbas had been threatening  to write Netanyahu what some Palestinian officials (apparently oblivious to the perils of self-parody) have dubbed “the mother of all letters.” In it, he would set out his preconditions for resuming talks (which terms have been been rejected by Israel until now) and effectively threatening that failure to heed them would prompt the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority. That’s a scenario that would effectively force Israel to resume responsibility over territories in which it remains the occupying power despite the limited self-government exercised by the PA. But the AP reported Thursday that Abbas, under heavy pressure from President Obama, had withdrawn the threat to dismantle the PA from his letter.

The “mother of all letters” then, appears to have been simply another attempt at a dramatic gesture — along the lines of the U.N. statehood bid, which was also blocked and then dialed down under pressure from Washington, using the leverage of the PA’s dependence on donor aid to rein in challenges to the diplomatic status quo of a “peace process” that exists in name only. Its purpose appears to have been largely to try and scare the U.S. into pressing Israel for more concessions, rather than part of a strategy to mobilize Palestinians on the ground to build their own leverage.  And it appears to have been just as easily batted away by the Obama Administration.

Rather than any alternative strategy he’s able to offer, Abbas’ best hopes for heading off a grassroots challenge to his authority relies on exhaustion, lethargy and a passivity born of the dependence of much of the West Bank population on PA salaries. The problem, of course, is that PA donor revenues are shrinking, laying bare the myth of a West Bank economic miracle and creating the sort of economic conditions — declining living standards, growing unemployment — that set the tinder for rebellion across the Arab world last year. And the failure of the peace process has left the PA more vulnerable than ever.

The Authority had been established in early 1994 to serve as an interim administrative structure of Palestinian self-governance, on the assumption that the Oslo Process would within six years create a Palestinian state. Two decades later, Palestinian statehood remains as elusive as ever, which makes the PA an institution of the status quo — it offers a form of (authoritarian) self-governance, largely funded by Western and Arab powers, whose day-to-day functioning is designed to maintain Israel’s security, while Israel’s sovereign control of the West Bank continues. The primary function of the U.S.-trained PA security forces is not to protect Palestinians from increasingly belligerent Israeli settlers or from Israel’s security forces. On the contrary, PA security forces maintains intimate cooperation with their Israeli peers in order to protect Israel from Palestinian militants. Absent any movement towards Palestinian statehood, in other words, the PA can’t avoid becoming seen as an extension of the occupation.

So, whether or not Friday’s demonstrations attract the tens of thousands of protesters being predicted by organizers, they’re a sign of a rumbling discontent that’s only likely to grow in the face of the diplomatic cul-de-sac and economic decline in which the West Bank finds itself. And if that discontent erupts into a new rebellion, don’t bet on the PA surviving it.

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