Lost in Ramallah


Who can fail to weep for the long-suffering people of Gaza, who again find themselves under Israeli attack? Over 100 have already been killed, at least half civilians and many children. Spare a thought, too, for Israelis with legitimate concerns they might be among the extremely unfortunate few to be struck by an unguided rocket from Gaza not intercepted by “Iron Dome.”

But surely among the most politically forlorn figures in the world are the Palestinian leaders in Ramallah. They seem less defeated than lost. They don’t appear to have any strategy other than quixotic diplomatic efforts at the United Nations that are almost entirely symbolic and carry an enormous price. And they don’t seem to know what, if anything, to do next.

In September 2011, President Mahmoud Abbas made a huge splash by formally requesting full UN membership for Palestine from the Security Council, and delivering a fairly impressive speech in which he laid out the unimpeachable Palestinian case for freedom and independence. The initiative failed spectacularly, as everyone knew it would. It did not even garner enough council votes to necessitate the promised American veto. But it least it got the world’s attention.

Unfortunately, the 2011 effort was also bound to poison relations between the Palestinian Authority and its main donor base, the United States and the European Union. It took some time for the full impact of this to take effect, but during the second half of this year, as the external Western funding dried up, the PA became unable to meet public employee salary payroll.

The institution-building program led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad—which had already made significant practical progress on the ground toward statehood and held such promise for so much more—was effectively paralyzed by diplomatic miscalculations.

Earlier this fall, public anger erupted. The grievances were mainly economic: In an effort to offset Western economic punishment against the PA, the government had raised taxes and certain commodity prices, and was tardy in paying salaries. Unions were enraged. Small businesses closed. And without funding, the economic hope Fayyad’s institution-building program had instilled in Palestinian-ruled areas of the occupied West Bank evaporated, leaving people helpless, hopeless and without any sense of agency.

All of this is exacerbated by the fact that Palestinians have not had national elections since 2006. This is mainly the fault of Hamas, which even boycotted the West Bank municipal elections this year. And though they were only opposed by independents, Fatah still fared poorly. But given their own dreadful record, Hamas has been justifiably terrified of Palestinian voters. Nonetheless, lack of elections means political legitimacy among Palestinians remains unresolved.

With the American election over, the Palestine Liberation Organization has decided to pursue a November 29 request to the UN General Assembly for a Palestinian mission upgrade to “non-member observer state status.” The change itself wouldn’t do much to alter the prerogatives of the mission. It might allow Palestine to join the Assembly of Parties at the International Criminal Court. But even then, prospects for an investigation, let alone an indictment, of Israeli officials by the ICC are extremely remote.

So this year’s effort is much less ambitious, impressive or spectacular than last year’s, even though it will certainly succeed if such a resolution is presented to the UNGA. Its primary effect will be to further infuriate the Western donor base and impoverish the PA. At the September meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee of donors, PA Finance Minister Nabil Kassis bluntly told the group that without desperately needed funds, both the peace process and the future of the PA were in grave peril. He apparently returned to Ramallah empty-handed.

The PLO strategy seems to be to achieve a symbolic victory at the UN in November, and then try to undo the damage this will probably cause with Western donors by offering immediate negotiations with Israel without preconditions. This means, in effect, dropping the demand for a settlement freeze.

It’s going to take a great deal more than a vague offer of renewed negotiations for Abbas and the PLO leadership to repair relations with Washington and the West, though this is certainly their primary challenge. The West, too, must give Ramallah real options. Otherwise the US and its allies will be deliberately and consciously choosing to empower and then deal with Hamas or other Islamists.

In a vainglorious assertion of authority, Hamas has cynically dragged the people of Gaza into another disastrous conflict. In its refusal to compromise, Israel’s government appears ideologically determined to drag its own society into an unmanageable future of endless occupation and conflict.

The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, by contrast, is simply limping along, aimless, friendless, penniless, seemingly without any real strategy or new ideas. It looks, in every sense of the word, lost.