The Palestinians are at a crucial moment in their history. While most coverage of the Palestinians tends to focus on the ups and downs of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” the Palestinians now face an unprecedented array of challenges that are reshaping Palestinian society, economics and politics. How the Palestinians and their leaders respond to these challenges in the coming months and years will have a profound impact on the future of the Palestinian National Movement as a whole.
Decline of Political Institutions
First and foremost, Palestinian political institutions are in a state of decline. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—which last month marked its 50th anniversary—is today a mere shadow of its former self. While still widely accepted as the legal and political address of the Palestinian people and the center, the PLO’s main political institutions have laid dormant for years while its legitimacy is being challenged by Palestinians both inside Palestine and in the diaspora.
Government and Economy in a State of Crisis
The Palestinian Authority (PA) is also in crisis. Instead of the “state-in-waiting” envisioned at the time of its creation two decades ago, today’s PA is financially bankrupt, has no functioning parliament and is only now beginning to undo the damage of the debilitating, seven-year split between Fatah and Hamas. Meanwhile, the Palestinian economy remains crippled by restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation, recurring budget shortfalls, growing unemployment and an over-dependency on international donor aid.
Collapse of Peace Negotiations
Adding to the uncertainty, the recent collapse of peace negotiations with Israel has put Palestinian aspirations for statehood on indefinite hold, even as Israeli occupation and colonization continue to erode the possibility of a Palestinian state. The failure of the peace process has also led growing numbers of Palestinians – particularly among the younger generation – to turn away from a two-state solution altogether and to redefine their struggle as one of equal rights in a single state “from the river to the sea.”
To make matters worse, all of these are occurring at time when the Arab world, the Palestinians’ traditional base of support, is in a state of unprecedented turmoil and transformation, leaving the Palestinians to fend for themselves. Indeed, the generational divide that has shaken much of the Arab world during the last three years is also being felt by the Palestinians.
Like their counterparts in neighboring Arab states, young Palestinians have grown increasingly disaffected with their leaders, whether secular or Islamist, and are increasingly drawn to “revolutionary” solutions. The growing popularity of BDS for example—boycott, divestment and sanctions—poses as much of a challenge to the Palestinian leadership as it does to Israel.
In sum, as the basic assumptions that have held the Palestinian national movement together for decades begin to fray, the Palestinians will be forced to forge a new national consensus on fundamental questions like who should lead, what the goal should be, and how best to achieve that goal. These questions will be the heart of the the discussion at this year's U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha during the panel "Defining the Future: Palestinian Voices."