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The Palestinians and the Arab Awakening

As popular upheaval and dramatic political changes continue to unfold in countries like Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, it may be easy to overlook some of the more subtle impact of the Arab awakening elsewhere in the region. This is particularly true of the Palestinians, whose unique circumstances make them different from other Arab societies in transition.

As I discuss in my chapter “The Palestinians: Between National Liberation and Political Legitimacy” in The Arab Awakening: America and the Transformation of the Middle East, the dramatic changes taking place around the region are propelling political developments in Palestine in ways that are unique to the Palestinian experience—changes that may not be immediately obvious. Unlike other countries where popular grievances are almost exclusively domestic in nature, the Palestinians face a more complicated, multi-layered set of grievances relating to both internal governance issues and external pressures.

Although largely overshadowed by events elsewhere in the region and around the world, December has been an especially big month on the Palestinian scene. On December 13, Palestine became the newest member “state” of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural organization (UNESCO) following a formal flag raising ceremony outside the organization’s headquarters in Paris. The UNESCO move is a part of a broader strategy to gain full membership in the United Nations, thereby conferring indirect recognition of a Palestinian state.

One week later, representatives of Hamas and Fatah met in Cairo to hammer out details of the reconciliation agreement signed by the two factions last May. Even more significantly, Hamas officials used this opportunity to announce that the group—formally designated by the United States, European Union and Israel as a terrorist organization—was giving up armed struggle in favor of nonviolent resistance.

As the chapter on the Palestinians in The Arab Awakening explains, both the Palestinian unity deal and the UN strategy were outgrowths of the Arab awakening. The Arab uprisings led to major changes in the regional balance of power and significantly raised the price of continuing to ignore Palestinian public opinion, thus forcing Palestinian leaders to reassess their diplomatic strategies and domestic priorities.

In March 2011, just weeks after popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt brought down long-standing dictators in both countries, young Palestinians took to the streets to demand an end to one of the darkest chapters in Palestinian history: the humiliating four-year split between the Fateh-dominated West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt and the ongoing rebellion in Syria deprived both factions of their chief Arab allies and political patrons, accelerating their reconciliation on May 4, 2011.

At the same time, renewed emphasis on popular legitimacy also significantly narrowed Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s options at the diplomatic level. Having bore the brunt of repeated failures in the U.S.-led peace process, the Palestinian leader could no longer afford to engage in a process that most Palestinians viewed as having not only failed to produce benefits, but in fact had yielded mostly losses. In the absence of a viable negotiations process, Abbas has chosen to internationalize the process. His hope is that it will help him regain some badly needed political leverage vis-à-vis Israel and the U.S. in future negotiations, while shoring up his leadership’s sagging legitimacy in the interim.

Hamas’s recent decision to turn away from armed struggle may have been inspired by the successes of nonviolent resistance in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab states. Or it may simply be an attempt to improve its own international standing. Either way, it will undoubtedly facilitate the national reconciliation the Palestinian people have been calling for, which is essential for any Palestinian leadership to function.

As the chapter points out, the Palestinians are rather unique in this regard. Unlike most governments whose legitimacy is usually tied to areas like economic and physical security or respect for human rights, the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership is based on more than the performance of its governance. Just as crucial to the Palestinian leadership’s legitimacy is the extent to which that is seen to be broadly representative of the Palestinian people —whether politically or demographically—as well as its ability to resolve the long-standing conflict with Israel. Given the failure of either Fatah or Hamas to achieve these on their own, the two Palestinian factions are now attempting to do so together. Whether the United States and Israel will allow them to succeed, however, is another matter.