[Originally published in Foreign Policy, 6 November 2009]
The announcement that Mahmoud Abbas has decided not to stand for re-election as head of the Palestinian Authority should come as a relief to all Palestinians. In fact, Abbas’s departure will open a much-needed opportunity to take stock of where things stand and assess the future course of the Palestinian struggle.
Never an appealing or charismatic figure, Abbas has been losing popular support since his first day in office five years ago (his term technically expired in January 2009). Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, in which he played a prominent role, the official Palestinian leadership has been pursuing a formula for peace — the two-state solution — that has yielded nothing more than the intensification of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Those 16 years have been characterized by the further immobilization and immiseration of the Palestinian people, and an ever-growing list of civilian casualties, most recently in Gaza.
We are left with no other conclusion than this: that the so-called peace process with which Abbas has been indelibly associated, albeit as the Israelis’ junior assistant, was calculated to produce exactly these results. The very first step of the Oslo process, undertaken with Abbas’s assent in 1993, was to fragment and separate the occupied territories into shards of land, disconnected from each other and from the outside world, under total, institutionalized Israeli domination. Take one look at a map and you can’t miss the separation of Gaza from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the further internal splintering of the West Bank, all of which is the direct result of Oslo.
Today, the Palestinian Authority (PA) over which Abbas presides is seen as a puppet. It has become the manager of the day-to-day burdens of military occupation, responsible for the hassle and expense of administering a restless population. All this is done on behalf of the Israelis, who have meanwhile gone on expropriating Palestinian land, bulldozing Palestinian homes, and building exclusively Jewish settlements in violation of international law (doubling the population of settlers since peace talks began). To all Palestinians other than the tiny clique who benefit from this arrangement, the sight of Abbas’s U.S.-trained and Israeli-armed PA militiamen cooperating with Israeli forces — if not taking direct orders from them — is nothing short of grotesque. And when Abbas recently succumbed to Israeli and U.S. pressure and dropped his support for the Goldstone report, a U.N. Human Rights Council-mandated investigation into last year’s Gaza incursion, many Palestinians saw it as the last straw both for Abbas — and for the PA itself.
What, then, are the alternatives?
Hamas stands for nothing other than, at best, defiance for the sake of defiance. It has no blueprint, no formula, no vision capable of unifying Palestinians and moving them closer to the achievement of their goals. Moreover, its religious rhetoric repels those Christian and secular Palestinians who have always been in the vanguard of the national movement and has little to offer to Muslim Palestinians either.
But to get bogged down in a discussion of other alternative candidates for the PA presidency, whether from Fatah or other parties, is to miss the point: The PA is irrelevant to the future of the Palestinian people as a whole.
To really grasp this, we have to remember something that the language packaging the peace process since the early 1990s has taught us to forget: Only a minority of Palestinians live under occupation. It is that minority on whom the world’s imagination has been focused since Oslo.
The single largest component of the Palestinian people consists of those who were driven from their homes during the 1948 creation of Israel and their descendants. They were never, even theoretically, addressed or represented by the PA. Nor were the 1.5 million Palestinians who live as second-class citizens in Israel and who suffer from systematic and institutionalized discrimination because they are non-Jews inhabiting a state that wants to be Jewish.
As PA president, Abbas never represented the majority of Palestinians — he never even claimed to, and no successor would either. Nor does the current, PA-pursued two-state solution offer anything to the majority of Palestinians (and to the minority it offers only an illusory “autonomy”). The vast majority of the Palestinians, who do not live in occupied territories, would not be eligible to vote if and when Israel allowed elections to be held.
Peace will only come when the rights and needs of all Palestinians (not only the minority who suffer under occupation) and all Israeli Jews are fully addressed. The demise of Abbas, and with him, hopefully, the PA and the illusion of the two-state solution, opens up the possibility that Palestinians will once again embrace the one-state solution and demand the creation of a single, democratic, and secular state in which Israeli Jews and Palestinians live as equals. That is the only way to a just and lasting peace. Abbas’s departure is a start.