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Past Event

Rethinking the Palestinian National Project: Challenges, Opportunities, and a New Way Forward

The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) and the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) co-hosted a workshop to explore new ways forward for the Palestinian national project on July 18-19, 2019 at LSE’s campus. The event convened leading Palestinian scholars based in Palestine, Israel, and the diaspora, as well as other key participants. The objective of the workshop was to reflect critically and imaginatively on alternatives to the failed Oslo Accords and the processes required to pursue them.

The first session focused on diagnosing current problems afflicting Palestinian internal politics. Participants agreed on the primacy of resolving internal issues first. These include the crisis of leadership, problems of representation, institutional weakness, and confusion over national goals. To resolve these challenges, some participants advocated holding elections at all levels, even within political factions. Others argued that the power-sharing arrangements currently in place in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were sufficient for a national liberation movement, as long as there was a mechanism for leadership turnover.

Much of the discussion centered on the need for reassessing national goals and creating a forum to better include the various Palestinian communities. There was disagreement over the utility of focusing on a one state or two states solution. Some participants placed value on resolving this question early on while others argued for focusing on more pressing issues, such as ending the occupation and countering Israeli policies of land confiscation, settlement building, and the blockade of Gaza. Still, others argued that Palestinians need to clearly define what they want in terms of rights, principles, and values. The need for reform within the Palestinian Authority (PA) and PLO, as well as reconciliation between Palestinian political factions, were both highlighted

The second session centered around external challenges, such as shifting dynamics in the Arab world, in the United States, and, more generally, in the global arena. There was consensus that the United States remains the key external player; that the European Union is unable to fundamentally challenge U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine; but also, that there needs to be more of a public diplomacy focus on the Arab world. There was also significant discussion on GCC-Israel relations and their impact on Palestinians. The concern was raised that some Arab states interested in strengthening ties to Israel are mounting a campaign to erode the centrality of the Palestinian issue.

The changing priorities of the United States, Israel, and some Arab states in regard to Iranian regional policies and balance of power politics has posed a significant external challenge. As a result of this, and the larger context of regional instability, the Palestinian question has been overshadowed. Some participants pointed to the post-9/11 environment, increasing anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments, and the growing popularity of far-right political movements as negatively impacting the Palestinian cause. Indeed, the global rise of populist movements attuned to ethnic conceptions of nationalism could also undermine support for Palestinian rights, as many of these movements share a strong relationship to the Israeli rightwing and will be less likely to hold Israel accountable for violations of international norms and laws.

Furthermore, the rift in Palestinian politics has transformed international support for Palestinians to international support for either Fatah or Hamas. This divides the Palestinian polity and alienates regional and international allies. Consequently, to better deal with external challenges, many agreed on the necessity of addressing internal limitations. This can be done by repairing the divide between the West Bank and Gaza; promoting democratic reforms to ensure support from democratic countries; and focusing on fiscal responsibility and sustainable development at the local level to ensure good relations with external donors.

The third session moved away from the direct challenges facing Palestinians and looked toward the future of the Palestinian national project. This encompassed a discussion of alternative solutions to the current framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and built upon the debates in the previous two sessions. It began with an analysis of three potential frameworks: the two-state solution, the one-state solution, and a confederation model.

Altogether, each of the three proposed frameworks pose clear problems and drawbacks. Major questions were raised about the feasibility of each scenario, especially whether the two-state option could still be implemented given the rapid expansion of settlements in the West Bank and changes to internal and external political dynamics. There was criticism that the confederation model was problematic because it would legitimize Israel’s illegal settlements. However, one proponent of the confederate model contended that the two-state option, as proposed in the peace process, already accepted settlements by agreeing to the principle of land swaps in order to allow Israel to retain settlements blocs, and had accepted settler colonialism by recognizing Israel itself. The confederate model was simply a means of resolving an intractable issue, and that it didn’t need to accept the legitimacy of settlements, de jure. The main critique against one state was that Israel would never agree to it. The discussion proceeded to address some criteria for choosing a specific framework, such as evaluating the extent to which each model ensures self-determination and self-expression for both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the extent to which each model is realistic and sustainable.

Many important questions were raised: how should Palestinians deal with Zionism as a political concept?  Can the Palestinian national project coexist with certain versions of Zionism? Would it be possible for both communities to live together in a single state or confederation? Furthermore, which framework would mitigate the massive power asymmetry between the two sides? Participants came down across the spectrum on these issues, offering compelling arguments and critiques for all three frameworks.

The final session of the workshop addressed prospects for mobilizing the international community to support Palestinian political goals. Participants agreed that Palestinian sources of agency and power are rooted in soft power mechanisms such as international solidarity movements and civil society, as well as international law. This means that as Israel continues to violate Palestinian rights, it continues to violate a rules-based international order, and that Palestinians can use their upgraded status in international institutions to press their claims. Thus, international law was debated as one potential tool for Palestinians.

The issue with the mechanism of international law is the question of implementation and varying opinions on its legitimacy and effectiveness. The contrasting views espoused by the European Union and the current U.S. administration demonstrate this.  The strengths and weaknesses of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement were also raised. The movement maintains a set of core principles promoting Palestinian rights and self-determination, but they are most known for promoting the tools of boycotting, divestment, and sanctions as mechanisms to fight the Israeli occupation. However, BDS cannot stand alone. A sustained political strategy from Palestinian leadership is needed to improve the efficacy of tools like BDS. There was also consensus that more should be done to support BDS, including establishing an effective coordinating body between civil society, advocacy groups, and political leadership.

Various participants underlined the disconnect between the approaches pursued by the Palestinian leadership and civil society actors. Altogether two key challenges were discussed in terms of cultivating greater international mobilization: 1.) mixed messages from the leadership and civil society and 2.) internal divisions between Fatah and Hamas. There was consensus over the need for more coordinating mechanisms between advocacy groups and the leadership, as well as the necessity of repairing the divide between Hamas and Fatah. Altogether, it was clear that mobilization and international engagement was greatly hindered by the lack of a coherent and unified vision.

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