2015 ended with a number of unanswered pressing questions hanging over the future of the Palestinian leadership, the continuing viability of its fragile government structures and how and if the political unrest which began in October will come to an end. However, in the absence of simple answers, neither the Palestinian Authority nor its external backers are likely to push for any major change to the fragile status quo in 2016.
The possible departure of Abbas
Rumours of his imminent departure have remained constant following Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ announcement in August 2015 that he was to step down from his position as Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). While some initially read the move as a sign that Abbas was carrying out his threat to retire from the political scene in protest at Israeli intransigence, most analysts later discarded the announcement as a political manoeuvre aimed at shoring up support for the President inside the PLO’s Executive Committee. Under internal and external pressure, the planned session of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) was eventually postponed, but the events exposed Abbas’ fear that close associates are scheming behind his back and the steps he is willing to take to ensure internal obedience.
Furthermore, in the words of one analyst, it was “the best proof that the long-awaited transition of power in the Palestinian leadership is finally upon us”. But the ensuing speculation on a post-Abbas Palestine has also uncovered the absence of any clear successor should a new President be needed. Dismissing the imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who Israel is in no rush to release from jail, no popular front-runner stands out. This problem is particularly acute for Fatah who have no acting politician that can compete for popular support against Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh – both in Gaza and the West Bank. The fact remains that Abbas’ support among the general population continues to fall with around two thirds of the public wanting him to step down. Coupled with internal Fatah divisions and growing distrust, it’s hard to be optimistic about Abbas’ future. Neither is time on his hands. He will be turning 81 this year and there are reports that his health is ailing. Speculation on post-Abbas Palestinian politics in 2016 will further fuel grand theories of the return of Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s former strongman in Gaza who remains locked in a bitter feud with Abbas and his allies. Indeed, his name is never far from any discussion on potential successors.
The slow demise of the PA
One of the main difficulties in naming a potential successor is finding someone who has broad support among the Palestinian population and the backing of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) main backers: the EU, the US and Israel. Dahlan might be the closest, albeit rather poor fit at this moment in time – he enjoys moderate popularity inside Palestine and is seen favourably by Israel and the US – but it is hard to know how realistic such a scenario is. First, without his acquiescence, Dahlan either has to wait for Abbas to resign or for him to be removed from power. Second, in order to gain popular Palestinian support, he would need to re-enter the Palestinian political arena as a courageous, free leader not shackled by the demands of Israel and its strongest ally. Third, and here is perhaps the crux, only new, free elections could ensure such legitimacy. But no one is in a rush to call elections. As 2006 demonstrated, the influence of external actors to determine the results of elections is far from certain.
Ignoring Abbas’ rather empty calls to pull the plug on the Oslo Accords – and thereby calling the very existence of the PA into question – it may be the lack of any clear popular (and internationally acceptable) leader that will induce the demise of the PA. The Israeli government is clearly taking the possibility seriously, probably because there is good chance that a political vacuum will succeed Abbas. With Israel and the West unwilling to support elections and rerun the last 10 years should the wrong person win, and the Hamas-Fatah unity government already a relic of the past, the post-Abbas vacuum could seriously destabilise the already fragile status quo. There will be serious attempts to delay this vacuum as long as possible.
Continuing political unrest
The uncertainty surrounding the President and the PA only confirms the widespread belief among large parts of the Palestinian electorate, especially the youth, that real change requires direct action outside the framework of opaque political structures and a non-existent electoral system. Since October 2015, frustration, desperation and hopelessness have driven large numbers of mainly young Palestinian men to carry out futile, primitive (and at times deadly) attacks against Israeli citizens, settlers, soldiers and security forces in the full knowledge that they will almost certainly be shot dead on the scene in what critics argue amounts to extrajudicial execution. Coupled with large demonstrations close to Israeli settlements, check points and sections of the separation wall, these actions have captured the zeitgeist of the post-Oslo generation, who have watched as Israeli settlements have grown and expanded on the land that was promised to a future Palestinian state in 1993.
Unfortunately for Israel, the West and the PA, however, these young people have generated more international interest in the conflict than the previous twelve months of uneventful Palestinian diplomacy. For the situation to return to the status quo ante, i.e., for the protests, demonstrations and attacks to end, is simply fantasy without genuine prospects for positive change in the near future. While new presidential and parliamentary elections would be an optimal first step, both internal and external forces are paralysed by uncertainty. With the winter months coming to an end, the current ‘intifada’ of individuals may surge to a larger uprising. The PA’s return to full security cooperation with Israel will remain highly controversial and unpopular; indeed the protestors’ scorn could even turn against the Palestinian security forces.
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Israel biding its time
The leader of the opposition, Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog, recently claimed that the two-state solution is impossible under current conditions, and proposed instead that Israel concentrates on completing the separation wall around settlement blocks in the West Bank. The current Israeli coalition government contains several ministers who propose even more radical steps, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has long called for the complete annexation of Area C (roughly 60% of the West Bank). Taken together, these positions highlight the quite dramatic state of play inside Israel, where no mainstream voice can meet even the bare minimum of Palestinian demands.
In place of peace offerings, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have chosen to bide his time, already feeling vindicated for his pessimistic reaction to the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. The current Israeli government is hoping that the world (i.e., Europe) “will come to its senses” and realise that a strong Israeli state can, in the classic Huntingtonian sense, protect the ‘occident from the orient’ by offering invaluable security insights in an age of global terrorism, an argument that is resonating with some European governments and right-wing parties. EU statements and guidelines have the potential to confirm the worst fears of Israel’s intellectual, liberal left, i.e., that Israel is becoming increasingly isolated from the Western world, but it’s difficult to see how successful they will be stimulating strong, internal opposition to the government’s lack of forward-looking policy on the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP). All the while, the slow but incremental annexation of Palestinian land continues, with Israel announcing plans to seize around 380 acres of land in the Jordan Valley in January 2016, the biggest such seizure of land since 2014.
Continuing US lethargy and EU breaking point
The recent statement of US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro in Tel Aviv, where he voiced sharp criticism of Israel’s dual legal system in the West Bank, was likely a signal from the US State Department that 2016 will not necessarily be the free-ride the Israeli leadership presumed it would be. Nevertheless, the run up to the presidential elections will be dominating American politics in 2016 and the eventual Democrat candidate will be less than pleased should Obama be perceived to be exerting pressure on Israel. A renewed US involvement pushing for a restart of peace negotiations similarly looks unlikely. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to the region in November 2015 was a failure by most counts, with Netanyahu backtracking from earlier promises to engage in confidence-building measures. In fact, Palestinians were sighing with relief that Kerry didn’t yield to Netanyahu’s request to recognise major Israeli settlement blocks, keeping intact one of the US’ only remaining positions supportive of Palestinian demands.
Against this backdrop, pleas for a more-pronounced EU involvement will only increase. Hardly a week passes without the call for the EU to become a ‘player, not just a payer’, a call that has been heard inside EU institutions at least since the establishment of the EU’s Foreign Service, the EEAS. Needless to say, the EU has been lagging behind the US in determining the major events of the Palestinian-Israeli and wider Arab-Israeli conflict. But being a ‘payer’ is surely a prerequisite to being a ‘player’ – US payments of nearly $3 billion a year to Israel are hardly a minor issue – and the EU’s involvement is not as meagre as its most ardent critics claim, arguably setting the agenda on the concept of Palestinian statehood and the illegality of Israeli settlements. One only has to listen to the statements of Israeli politicians on both sides of the Knesset to realise how deep-rooted the perception is that the EU is an over-meddling, biased player. Certainly, on a theoretical level, the EU could do a lot more, e.g., impose sanctions, ban settlement products altogether, but in practice, it remains shackled in the realm of foreign policy, which to a large extent is still an area of national competency.
It is little comfort to Palestinians suffering from the on-going Israeli occupation of their land, but the EU’s policy towards the MEPP is unique for its relative harmony and success, comparable probably only to the EU’s reaction to the Russian annexation of Crimea. While member states were divided over whether Palestine should become a non-member observer of the UN, they managed to agree on publishing EU guidelines on the labelling of settlement produce (although their final enforcement does remain the responsibility of member states). Even if little more than internal technical necessities, reluctant member states such as Germany or the Czech Republic will resist expanding the EU policy of differentiation to its logical conclusion; in fact breaking point may not be far away. EU policy is only as strong as its weakest link.
People not policy driving the agenda
In 2016, internal Palestinian paralysis and uncertainty will be preventing the PA leadership from taking any risks. Israel will be hoping that international preoccupations and regional chaos will boost its advantageous position, while EU and US measures will be limited by internal constraints. These factors do not bode well for all those interested in real progress in the Palestine/Israel conflict. The political unrest on the streets, however, should serve as a stark reminder that Palestinian society will only accept the façade of diplomatic gains for so long. Without witnessing any real improvement in their lives, calls from the international community to engage in political dialogue ring hollow. With the Palestinian leadership and its backers hesitant to move, a growing number of activists, in Palestine and elsewhere, will continue to believe that any future solution must come from the ground up, be it through campaigns, calls for boycott, protest or civil disobedience.