The Palestinian leadership crisis

(This post draws from a forthcoming article in The Washington Quarterly entitled, “Lost in the Chaos: The Palestinian Leadership Crisis.”)

Ongoing violence in Israel and the occupied territories, which has already claimed the lives of 140 Palestinians and 21 Israelis since late September, has once again raised the prospect of a “third Intifada.” Often overlooked, however, is what such recurring unrest means for the Palestinian political leadership, and vice versa. While the anger that fuels the violence is rooted mainly in Israel’s occupation and a moribund peace process, it also reflects deep-seated Palestinian frustration with their own leadership. 

A recent poll conducted just before the latest upsurge in violence, for example, found that nearly two-thirds of Palestinians want Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to resign. Moreover, the absence of a credible and coherent Palestinian leadership has major implications not only for the future of the Palestinian national movement, but for the prospects for Israeli–Palestinian peace and broader U.S. policy goals in the region.

From leadership crisis to crisis of legitimacy

After ten years in power, Abbas presides over a Palestinian polity that is more divided and dysfunctional than ever. In addition to the debilitating split between the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-dominated PA in the West Bank, the Palestinian polity continues to be plagued by institutional decline and growing authoritarianism. The Palestinian economy is crippled by recurring budget shortfalls, a massive internal debt, rising unemployment, and an over-dependency on international donor aid. Meanwhile, Abbas’s four-year term has long since expired and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) has not convened in more than eight years. At the same time, Abbas’s rule has become increasingly repressive and intolerant of dissent, while the absence of a functioning parliament—or even a viable political opposition—has eliminated any meaningful mechanisms of accountability. 

Abbas presides over a Palestinian polity that is more divided and dysfunctional than ever.

Nor is the problem limited to the PA. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), once the Palestinians’ preeminent political institution, has been in decline since at least the late 1980s, a process that only accelerated after the Oslo Accords. Moreover, the overlapping roles and conflicting mandates of the PA and the PLO has created a host of additional problems, particularly on questions of elections and succession. 

While many in the international community remain keenly aware of the numerous problems that plague the Palestinian leadership, few seem to understand the seriousness or implications of the much deeper crisis of legitimacy that undergirds all of them. Unlike with “normal” governments, the legitimacy of Palestinian leaders is not primarily a function of their governance performance. This is particularly true of the leadership of Abbas, who simultaneously heads the PA and its ostensible parent organization, the PLO, but applies equally to the Hamas government in Gaza. While issues like services delivery and corruption certainly matter to Palestinians, they are not the sole—or even the most important—determinants of Palestinian political legitimacy. As a stateless and geographically dispersed population, the vast majority of whom live either under occupation or as refugees in neighboring Arab countries, Palestinians tend to place equal (if not greater) weight on issues of representation and the prospects (or strategy) for national liberation. 

“Legitimacy by default”

Whereas the PLO once had a reasonable claim to all three criteria—national liberation, services delivery, and representation—the current leadership can barely lay claim to one. The repeated failures of the U.S.-sponsored peace process have thoroughly discredited Abbas’s negotiations strategy. Moreover, the PLO’s claim to speak for all Palestinians has become increasingly tenuous. Not only are major political groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Palestinian National Initiative not part of the PLO umbrella, the number of Palestinians constituencies the current leadership can claim to represent has been steadily shrinking. The refugees, who make up a majority of the Palestinian population, were effectively excluded by the Oslo process after 1993; since then, the current leadership has also lost access to Palestinians in East Jerusalem thanks to Israeli closures and to Gaza following Hamas’s takeover. 

Whereas the PLO once had a reasonable claim to all three criteria—national liberation, services delivery, and representation—the current leadership can barely lay claim to one.

In reality, however, the Palestinians have not one but two failed leaderships. Whereas Abbas’s single-minded focus on negotiations and security cooperation with Israel has failed to deliver a Palestinian state, the rival Hamas government in Gaza has proved equally feckless and short-sighted in its use of armed “resistance.” While Hamas rocket attacks, abductions of Israeli soldiers, and other armed attacks, remain popular among Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank, mainly for their ability to inflict pain on Israel, they have done little to end Israel’s crippling blockade of Gaza, much less liberate Palestine. Moreover, despite its 2006 election victory, which it won with a modest plurality, Hamas cannot claim the support of a majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, much less those in the diaspora. In the absence of viable alternatives, however, Abbas’s PLO/PA leadership maintains a sort of “legitimacy by default.”

Bad for Israel and the United States, too

The dysfunctional state of Palestinian politics is highly problematic not only for the Palestinians but for Israel and the United States as well—both of whom also share responsibility for the current state of affairs. Indeed, the failure of the U.S.-led peace process combined with the inability of Palestinian actors, whether secular or Islamist, to effectively challenge the occupation has fueled the growing popularity of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which currently enjoys overwhelming support among Palestinians. Moreover, even if it were possible to restart negotiations, Abbas’s beleaguered leadership has neither the mandate to negotiate a conflict-ending peace deal with Israel nor the ability to deliver on one. In the meantime, the absence of responsible Palestinian leadership structures has been highly destabilizing, leading to repeated wars in Gaza as well as a dramatic spike in ad hoc violence and “lone wolf” attacks on Israelis, particularly in Jerusalem. Finally, there remains the distinct possibility of the eventual collapse of the PA, which in addition to producing even greater violence and instability would all but destroy chances for a two-state solution. 

With no prospect of an independent state of their own, Palestinians would have no choice but to demand equal rights within an Israeli state, a goal supported by growing numbers of younger Palestinians. In short, the absence of a cohesive Palestinian polity puts Israel on a path toward either a binational state or something more akin to apartheid. 

Looking ahead

The current legitimacy crisis has led to calls for holding new elections as well as for greater clarity on the question of succession in the event of Abbas’s departure. However, such “quick fix” solutions are unlikely to resolve the leadership’s legitimacy problems—and could conceivably make them worse. As experiences in neighboring Arab countries have shown, focusing solely on procedural matters like elections or who holds which office, without a more fundamental agreement on the rules of the game, is more likely to deepen internal polarization than to resolve it. 

The potential for this problem to emerge is even greater in the Palestinian case, where elections and succession are further complicated by the duality of Palestinian political institutions. Should elections be held only for the PA, or for the PLO as well? Elections for the former would only lead to a repeat of past mistakes while elections for the latter are virtually impossible from a logistical and political standpoint. Likewise, succession consists of not one process but two: one for the PA and a different one for the PLO.

What Palestinians need even more urgently than institution-building is to engage in a process of consensus-building.

What Palestinians need even more urgently than institution-building is to engage in a process of consensus-building. As in much of the region, the basic assumptions that have held the Palestinian national movement together for the last several decades are now coming apart and must be rebuilt. This applies not only to who should lead, but also where to go and how to get there. There are several steps Palestinians can take to begin to address this problem. In the short term, they should move to consummate the existing reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas so as to allow for Gaza’s reconstruction and pave the way for the PA’s return. Over the long term, the task is more daunting: Palestinians will need to engage in a broader national dialogue aimed at forging a new national consensus on how to resolve the many outstanding issues within Palestinian politics, namely a long-term agreement for power-sharing among the factions, the reintegration of the Palestinian diaspora, and clarifying the relationship between the PLO and the PA. 

Although a reformed and reconstituted Palestinian polity will pose numerous challenges for the United States, Israel, and the broader international community, the emergence of credible Palestinian political institutions and nationalist self-expression can serve as bulwarks against religious extremism as well as the slow drift toward a binational reality. For now, since a coherent Palestinian leadership is also key to Israel’s long-term viability, Israel would do well to drop its opposition to Palestinian reconciliation as well as reopen Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem. Allowing a more legitimate and coherent Palestinian leadership to emerge does not need not be at the expense of a credible peace process or a two-state solution, but rather should be a prerequisite for both.