Papering Over the Problem in Palestine

Khaled Elgindy
Khaled Elgindy
Khaled Elgindy Former Brookings Expert, Senior Fellow - Middle East Institute

January 26, 2011

As the Palestinian leadership struggles to contain the damage caused by Al Jazeera’s release of leaked documents detailing years of their negotiations with Israel, there is one lesson that risks being buried in all of the current hype. The Palestine Papers, and much of the response to them, demonstrate the increasingly narrow line the Palestinian leadership must walk between satisfying its U.S. and Western benefactors, as well as Israel, and maintaining credibility in the eyes of its own people.

As someone who was involved in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations for many years, including in the development of many of the documents now in question, I have been particularly struck by the extent and tone of the outrage surrounding the leaked documents. For those Palestinians and other Arabs who actively oppose a two-state solution, I can understand and appreciate their outrage over some of the “unprecedented concessions” contained in these documents.

On the other hand, for those who understand the basic requirements of a two state-solution-an outcome most Palestinians and other Arabs still say they favor, even as they remain highly doubtful of the other side’s intentions and the ability of their own leaders to achieve it-there hardly seems cause for surprise, at least as relates to the concessions on permanent status issues – if not on other matters.

While one may oppose specific decisions or positions adopted by the Palestinian leadership-something my former colleagues and I did often, sometimes successfully and other times less so-the sort of shock and horror now circulating throughout much of the Arabic-language media and in the blogosphere, much of it engineered by over-hyped and highly sensationalized reporting, seems largely misplaced. Indeed, the very notion of a negotiated settlement based on two states, when undertaken in seriousness and in good faith, requires that both sides make “unprecedented concessions.” What is so shocking is that the record now shows everyone that only Palestinians were willing to do so.

The real problem presented by the current crisis may have less to do with the nature of Palestinian concessions that were on offer than with the chronic weakness and lack of legitimacy of those who undertook them. This weakness in the leadership both stems from and is exacerbated by the continued internal split within the Palestinian polity, which in turn severely limits both its flexibility and creativity inside the negotiations.

The latest furor over the leaked documents makes clear that any agreement negotiated exclusively by a Fatah-dominated PLO, with no input or even buy-in from Hamas-regardless of its content-is far more likely to be actively opposed, not just by Hamas but by large swaths of the Palestinian and Arab body politic as well, than one that is more inclusive.

Paradoxically, therefore, an “imperfect” agreement that has buy-in and input from all major Palestinian factions, including Hamas, is far more likely to garner broad popular support than a theoretically “perfect” agreement that does not. In other words, most Palestinians and others in the region would be more likely accept the terms of what Palestinian negotiators had offered during the Annapolis talks if they believed they were made in a legitimate political environment.

The problem, for both Israel and the United States, is that such an outcome is much less likely under the current circumstances, whereby the Palestinian leadership suffers from a serious lack of legitimacy in the eyes of many of its own people. While Mahmoud Abbas as chairman of the PLO may retain the legal authority to conduct negotiations, as a practical matter, he lacks a genuine domestic mandate to negotiate concessions of this magnitude on behalf of his people.

While it may seem advantageous in the short-term for Israel or the U.S. to avoid dealing with internal Palestinian politics, it is most certainly not in the long-term interests of either. Ironically, while Israeli and American politicians remain keenly attuned to their own and each other’s domestic political realities, they have remarkably little patience or appreciation for the internal political needs of Palestinians-who, after all, have already endured a civil war and a debilitating political schism.

The fact is that Palestinians, too, have very real domestic constituencies and political pressures of their own that must be taken into account, whether inside the occupied territory or in the diaspora, and which include both supporters and opponents of its policies. Just as we instinctively understand the inherent constraints imposed on the administration by Congress and powerful domestic lobbies, or remain preoccupied with the ever-present concerns of Israel’s coalition politics, so too should we begin to acknowledge and accommodate Palestinian politics.

Until we can come to terms with Palestinian politics and the Palestinian leadership’s need for popular legitimacy, we are unlikely to have a leadership that is capable, not of making concessions – we obviously have that – but influencing Israel to match these concessions and to make an agreement stick

No nation can afford to ignore its own internal politics and domestic constituencies, particularly one that is negotiating the terms of its very existence. Likewise, no nation should have to choose between international acceptability and domestic legitimacy. Indeed, any viable peace process must allow the Palestinians to have both.