Middle East Insight: Re-legitimizing the Palestinian Leadership: Is it possible and if so, how?

This is the first in a series of occasional commentaries and analyses coming from the Middle East Institute.

By Michael C. Hudson

Pity the poor Palestinian leadership!  As if things weren’t already bad enough for them, mired in that swamp known as the ‘peace process,’ now Al Jazeera has pulled the plug on a trove of confidential documents that do not exactly attest to their negotiating skill.  A leak of documents leads to a leak of legitimacy.

In fairness, the Palestinians have been dealt a weak hand.  Israel is unified, prosperous, secure and unconditionally supported by the United States.  The Palestinians are beleaguered: under siege in Gaza and under occupation in the West Bank.  They are not well served by the Arab governments and not taken seriously by the U.S.  To be sure, their cause is just and they enjoy widespread international support, but as realist scholars remind us ‘might’ usually trumps ‘right.’   So we should not be expecting miracles from Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues.

Nevertheless, Palestinians have a right to expect their leaders not to trade away fundamental principles without consulting their followers or obtaining significant benefits.  But the Palestine Papers indicate that the Palestinian negotiators were ready to concede the fundamental right of return for Palestinian refugees and control of Arab East Jerusalem and even authority over the Muslim holy places to others for minor concessions such as a freeze on settlement building, when the very existence of settlements should be the issue.  Worse still, the evidence that the Fatah-dominated leadership of the Palestinian Authority colluded with the Israelis in attacking—and even assassinating—Hamas officials, and that their leaders criticized the Egyptians for insufficient diligence in their collaboration with Israel to seal the Egypt-Gaza border might lead ordinary Palestinians to wonder which side their leadership was actually on. 

No durable settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can come about without legitimate Palestinian leaders.  Only strong, wise and credible leaders can negotiate and ‘sell’ the compromises that may be necessary for a negotiated solution.  But can the PA-PLO leadership now restore its tattered legitimacy?   To ascertain the bases of legitimacy (and illegitimacy) it may be useful to look back at the history of the Palestinian national movement.   This is a complex story but two dynamics stand out clearly.  First, the most credible leaders have been legitimized from within the Palestinian community, but they have lost legitimacy the more they ingratiate themselves with external actors.  Second, the most effective legitimacy formula, if you will, combines resistance with what we might call an Islamic-inflected discourse of territorial nationalism.  

During the British mandate period the most effective leaders were those who stood up most firmly against the occupation: the Husseinis were more effective than the Nashashibis.  Later, when Hajj Amin al-Husseini aligned himself with Nazi Germany, his star faded.  The British vilified Shaykh Izzidine al-Qassam as a gang-leader and a terrorist during the violent events of 1936-39, but he enjoyed popular support as a resistance leader fighting for homeland and Islam.   In the 1960s when the Palestinian resistance movement began to take shape, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement gained traction both for ‘armed struggle,’ in contrast to most of the Arab regimes, and for a certain affinity with political Islam.  By comparison, the Palestine Liberation Organization, newly created by those Arab regimes to ‘manage’ the Palestine issue, was initially suspect, as was its first president, Ahmad Shukairy.  One of the reasons, perhaps, that the ‘progressive’ left wing of the Palestinian resistance failed to garner the broad base of support enjoyed by Arafat was its relatively secular Marxist discourse. 

 Arafat and his Fatah colleagues wove their way through the thickets of Arab and international politics, gradually paving the way and preparing the Palestinian people for their ‘historic compromise’ of a two-state solution, and the acceptance of only 22 percent of historic Palestine.   Finally, reluctantly buying into the ‘Oslo process,’ Arafat and Fatah began to lose their luster as their Israeli and international partners indefinitely delayed consideration of the key ‘final status’ issues (Jerusalem, refugees, borders, etc.) in favor of short-term compromises.  And at the end of the day Arafat, old and sick, was besieged in his Ramallah compound, deprived of political victory and tarnished by corruption and administrative mismanagement. 

But compared to the current leadership, Arafat is probably looking better these days.  For with all of his many flaws he resisted US-Israeli pressures at Camp David in 2000 to abandon the right of return for an ill-defined territorial settlement.   He never completely capitulated to external pressures and he would not cede the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem.   Compare that with the words of the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, as revealed in the Palestine Papers: “It is no secret that on our map we proposed we are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim in history.”

How will history evaluate these Palestinian leaders?  On a spectrum of ‘knaves’ to ‘fools’ they will probably be closer to the latter.  These are all honorable men, no doubt; and they must be sincerely frustrated both about their failure to advance their cause under enormously unfavorable conditions and also to be vilified as virtual traitors in light of the recent revelations.  Small comfort to them or to Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims in general that their Israeli adversaries were unyielding and their American ‘honest brokers’ were anything but honest.   Because they have become disconnected from the broad swath of Palestinian public opinion and are perceived as perhaps unwilling collaborators with their occupier, they are undermining their legitimacy.  Moreover, as has regularly happened in the past, alternative leaderships are emerging.  Hamas and other Islamist groups enjoy substantial though far from universal popular support, while younger elements in Fatah and the leftist-nationalist groups are disillusioned with the PA leaders whose main support now seems to lie in Washington, somewhere between the White House and the World Bank. 

The Palestinians are living through one of the worst moments in their history.  But if an effective leadership is to be constructed, history suggests that it must be rooted in popular support; that means that authentic Islamist currents must be represented along with other political tendencies.  And it must have the backbone and dignity to insist on principles while showing readiness to negotiate a just solution without violence. 

Professor Michael C. Hudson is the Director of the Middle East Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Table Talk with Michael Hudson: Peace remains elusive in Mid-East

Editor’s Choice

September 21, 2010
Peace remains elusive in Mid-East

By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Writer
Prof Hudson says there is a disjunction between the Arab world’s self-perpetuating political systems and the people who are underneath them, who don’t really like it but can’t do much about it. However, there are currents in civil society challenging this and the rise of new media has opened up the public space a lot. So things are not entirely static.
STUDYING political modernisation at Yale University in the 1960s, the young Michael Hudson was required to spend time in a country that was deeply divided ethnically. His options were Lebanon, Malaysia or Nigeria. He plumped for Lebanon, and struck academic gold because it proved to be ‘a place where all the political forces of the Middle East competed with one another, and so I got sucked into the Arab-Israeli conflict and inter-Arab politics’.
Today, Professor Hudson, 72, is a world authority on Lebanese politics as well as on other hot-button issues in the region. In 1975, he co-founded Georgetown University’s Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies in Washington, and steered it for 35 years. He left all that to become director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.
A widower with two daughters, he met me earlier this month to tell me why the latest round of peace talks between Israel and Palestine will go nowhere, and more:
 How do you plan to contribute to Singaporeans’ understanding of the Middle East?
My Singaporean colleagues made it very clear to me that they felt the Middle East has not figured very prominently in the educational systems here, and even specialised knowledge of that region was rather limited. So one of the points I made in discussions with them was that if you’re looking to develop a research institute that offers advice, that advice is best informed by academic scholarship.
Can academics in ivory towers offer better advice than observers on the ground?
To put it bluntly, many in the academic community who have studied the Middle East have long taken a very dismissive view of policy research in the region. They find such research often superficial, poorly informed and unreliable because it depends on the anecdotal ‘I was there’ experience, which can be valuable but might be misleading. Whereas policy researchers say: ‘These academics spend all their time engaging in complicated studies of unimportant things which mean nothing to us.’ I’m exaggerating the gap, but you really need the academics if you want to convey the complexities.
What can they see that others can’t?
Well, take Islam and terrorism: many American policy researchers tend not to understand the nature and depth of religious commitment and identity, and see Middle Eastern societies as monolithically religious and so vulnerable to manipulation by extremists… If you don’t understand how Islam plays out in their lives, it’s hard for you to gauge how extremists use Islamist discourse for particular ends.
Is that lack of understanding the result of ignorance or complacency?
If you are in the United States, where Middle East initiatives are highly politicised… there will be those driven by dark and simplistic partisan views to demonise Islam and paint all Muslims with the same brush. But you don’t want to leave that understanding to the terrorism experts or even theologians. You need sociologists, anthropologists, cultural historians and political scientists to look at how Islam actually functions in society.
I don’t think it’s the role of the researcher to be an apologist for Islam, but it’s pretty evident what the policy implications are of an imperfect understanding of Islam. For example, there’s a resurgence of Islamophobia in the US that’s opened a Pandora’s Box of prejudice… When this happens, you’re attacking someone’s very identity and culture, and that’s a big problem.
Some argue that Arab/Muslim communities in general tend to be insular, lack initiative and are slow to grow.
I don’t agree with that. The Muslim world in general is a very complicated place and there’s a lot of variety in it… There has been a very big debate among Middle East scholars over the last 25 years about how to study and characterise The Other, as opposed to non-Muslim Westerners. The late Edward Said’s book, Orientalism, changed the way the informed public think about Islam, saying that Westerners were really exporting their own prejudices and identifying The Other in a very superficial, incomplete and pejorative way. So most academic scholarship on Islam is now free of such prejudice. But public perceptions of early stereotypes still exist.
But do they exist for good reasons?
You’re raising a very important point. It’s true that Muslim communities are not doing so well in many ways, but in many other ways, they’re doing quite well indeed – such as in Lebanon and the Gulf states. There’s also a great deal of self-criticism going on now in the Muslim world. But it’s true that it could grow more, as shown in the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Reports, which were put together by Arab researchers.
Public opinion data also shows that Muslims in Arab countries value democracy, but their political systems have not been particularly good at delivering that. But to say that’s just because they are Muslims misses the larger point that in mainstream Islam one is enjoined to work hard, cooperate and treasure family, which is consistent with humanistic norms.
What’s the cost of its weak leadership?
There’s a disjunction between the region’s self-perpetuating political systems and the people who are underneath them, who don’t really like it but can’t do much about it because these governments have got the police and all that. So that’s a real concern. Still, there are currents in Middle Eastern civil society challenging this and the rise of new media has opened up the public space a lot. So things are not entirely static.
But it’s all static on its No. 1 problem, Israel and Palestine.
It’s certainly the most durable of the many conflicts in the region. It’s also the most important one because it fuels all sorts of extremism elsewhere in the region. So why don’t things move? Because Israel, with the almost unlimited backing of the US, does not feel inclined to make concessions. I’d be surprised if the latest effort to broker peace really brings about a breakthrough.
Has US President Barack Obama lost the plot on that?
Yes. At the beginning of his term, he was on the right track. He said this issue was important and tried to reach out to the Muslim world in his speech in Cairo over a year ago. He said the Israeli-Palestinian problem was part of the problem, and Israel had to stop building and reinforcing its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu simply stood up to him and said: ‘No, we won’t.’ And Mr Obama blinked and backed off on what had been a proper, balanced approach.
Should the Middle East enlist emerging powers to broker a breakthrough on this?
This is a good question that can be addressed by the realist theory of international politics, which holds that power is the name of the game. And the US can apply more military power than any other country in this situation. Can China or India project such power? The answer is no and they’ve no compelling interest to do so anyway.
So can the Israeli-Palestinian problem ever be solved?
At the moment, I don’t see diplomacy bringing a clear end to this… There’s been a debate that the proper solution is a two-state one, but a good many Palestinians now want a one-state solution because how can you have a proper state when it’s divided into little enclaves and surrounded by Israeli settlers and troops?
(The Straits Times, 21 September 2010)

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The frustrating realities of the Middle East peace process

Editor’s Choice

1 September 2010
The frustrating realities of the Middle East peace process
By David Ignatius
What’s the first item on the agenda for the long-awaited, face-to-face peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians that begin Thursday at the State Department? It’s just getting the parties to agree to a second meeting in several weeks.
And even achieving that modest goal is not a given: First, the two sides have to find their way past what one negotiator calls the “barrier reef” of Sept. 26. That’s the expiration date of Israel’s moratorium on building new settlements. If that issue can’t be resolved quickly, then this latest peace process is likely to collapse soon after it starts.

The Obama administration, which came to office with such brash optimism about achieving a breakthrough on the Palestinian problem, is reckoning this week with the frustrating realities that have obstructed a settlement for more than 40 years: Every little issue is linked to a bigger issue; agreement on the parts of a deal is impossible unless you can see the shape of the whole package.
The settlements freeze is a case in point: The administration demanded the moratorium early last year as a way to boost Arab confidence. But it has become a proxy for the larger question of what borders a future Palestinian state will have.
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu will probably agree to extend the moratorium past the Sept. 26 deadline only under a formula that allows Israel to keep building in the big settlement blocks that bound Jerusalem. Everyone (including the Palestinian negotiators) understands that these blocks, although outside the 1967 borders of Israel, will become part of the Jewish state in any final deal.
The demarcation of borders, in theory, is the easiest of the “final status” issues to resolve, so the Obama administration planned to start there. But hold on: The borders issue, in turn, is a proxy for the still larger question of how Israel will maintain security with a Palestinian state next door. Israel might agree to return 95 percent of the pre-1967 territory if it knew it could have a military presence in the Jordan River Valley, or airspace over the West Bank, or a demilitarized Palestine, or…. Pretty soon, this starting point begins to look like a dead end.
The Obama administration’s response has been an admirable persistence. “We’re trying to launch a process that has staying power,” says a senior administration official. “You can’t get there until you get there.”
“Getting there” begins Wednesday with a kickoff dinner at the White House with leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan. The next day, the Israelis and Palestinians sit down with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—and, hopefully, agree to meet again in about two weeks somewhere in the Middle East. Then, in theory, negotiators begin working on specific sub-issues, such as water, transportation, airspace and even Internet bandwidth.
When the parties reach an impasse, the Obama administration plans to step in with “bridging proposals.” As momentum accelerates and the key sticking points become clear, Obama plans to gather negotiators at a rural location near Washington for a final push.
But first they have to get past the impasse of Sept. 26, which has become at once the alpha and the omega.
What possible reason would Netanyahu have for making concessions that would boost the political standing of Obama, a man many Israelis still regard with deep suspicion?
“Israel’s interest is in having a strong America,” says Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington. And you can’t have a strong America with a weak president. This may be Obama’s secret weapon, the fact that he needs a win so badly right now. Another American failure would be scary — especially for Israel.


(By David Ignatius  |  August 31, 2010; 10:04 AM ET
The Washington Post   –   31 Aug 10)


The MEI does not necessarily endorse contents, or policies of the internet resources it extracts.