Where Does the PLO Leadership Go After Jerusalem?

That which is inevitable can still bring shock when it actually transpires. For Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, that shock came not on Dec. 6, when U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital, but weeks earlier – when Abbas was summoned to Riyadh for meetings with Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman.  The ramifications of those meetings for the Palestinian national movement are far-reaching, existential even. While the drama over the Lebanese Prime Minister’s (subsequently retracted) resignation filled the headlines, elsewhere in Riyadh Abbas listened with what must have been incredulity and trepidation to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia laying out what he said was the Trump administration’s peace plan.

According to accounts reported in the New York Times and other outlets by those briefed by Abbas, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader was told he would have to accept a version of Palestinian “statehood” based largely on the current geography of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, with no capital in East Jerusalem, no right of return of Palestinian refugees, no security control and no border control. In return for this “statehood” without sovereignty, the Palestinian government would receive generous stipends from Saudi Arabia. With the status quo thus codified as a conflict-ending agreement, Saudi Arabia and its allies would have political cover to more publicly normalize their alliance with Israel against Hezbollah and Iran. 

Some reports suggested that President Abbas was even offered a personal package to accept these terms. More ominously, it was suggested he was warned that his only alternative was to resign and be replaced by a more pliable Palestinian. Upon returning to Amman, President Abbas immediately began calling on world leaders and his colleagues in Fatah to seek help and support on pushing back on what he knew was a politically impossible plan, even by the weakened and compromised standards of the current Palestinian negotiating position. 

Those calls must have generated panic, and not just among Palestinians.  The reason Trump’s Jerusalem announcement was greeted with an immediate, unprecedented and uncharacteristically unanimous international rejection was an awareness of the perils posed by the plan of which it forms part. The idea of a U.S.-led peace process ending the occupation and resolving the conflict may have been a hollow sham for close on two decades now, but Western and Arab leaders had needed that illusion as cover for their own inaction. Trump’s plan calls time on any prospect of U.S. diplomacy achieving Palestinian rights.

What had been obvious to many Palestinians over the years, is now clear to everyone. Nobody – least of all those persisting with negotiations –  believed the U.S. was an “honest broker” between Palestinians and Israelis. The reason Palestinians had negotiated with the U.S. was a recognition that Washington is Israel’s indispensable enabler, the assumption being that the U.S. accepted that it was in Israel’s best interest to end the occupation.

What was missing from this analysis, which underwrote almost three decades of PLO policy, was a recognition that in Washington, Israel is a domestic political issue rather than a foreign policy one. For a variety of reasons – including the influence of donors on U.S. elections, and the power of Evangelical Christians whose eschatological beliefs prompt them to support the most hardline Israeli positions – the positions of successive U.S. governments have been grounded in the choices of the Israeli electorate.

Although some U.S. presidents occasionally squirmed at the idea of being shackled by Israel’s positions (President Jimmy Carter seemed genuinely concerned about the plight of Palestinians in the Camp David discussions, and President Barack Obama articulated an unprecedented defense of their rights in his Cairo speech), most ultimately embraced them.  President Bill Clinton seemed to genuinely believe that Israel’s problem was not the lack of freedom and equality for Palestinians but that there were simply too many Palestinians to digest – and therefore that Israel’s future lay in creating an ethnic Arab state to save Israel from being recognized as an apartheid state. In line, in other words, with the thinking of Israeli Labor Party leaders like Rabin, Peres and Barak. 

Trump, similarly, seems to genuinely believe (and has surrounded himself with advisers who definitely believe) that Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Territory are somehow Israel’s patrimony, international law be damned.  Recognizing that the plight of the Palestinians impedes an open embrace of Israel by Saudi Arabia, he and his team believe this impediment can be removed without altering the physical status quo on the ground. As does Netanyahu. Palestinians may have understood this for years at an intellectual level, but Trump’s Jerusalem announcement and Crown Prince Salman’s alleged conversation with Abbas have now forced it into the deepest emotional recesses, past any barrier of denial: The United States government is a hurdle, not an ally, in the pursuit of Palestinian equality and freedom.

Now comes the hard part. A long period of denial began after the 1988 Palestine National Council meeting in Algiers, when the PLO formally abandoned its commitment to a secular democratic state in all of historic Palestine and agreed, instead, to a two-state partition along the 1967 borders. Over a generation, the PLO leadership has developed an ideology, a set of assumptions, and a pattern of behavior (like muscle memory) that are predicated around partnering with the United States and Israel, and operating a Palestinian Authority that has been reduced to administrating and securing the status quo. 

Trump and the Crown Prince have now left the Palestinian leaderships across the West Bank and Gaza, inside Israel, in the refugee camps, and in the diaspora, no way to evade the agonizing but ultimately liberating process of disengaging from the existing paradigm, and evolving a new one. Freeing Palestinian minds from the unmistakable, disastrous failure of the Oslo era requires that Palestinian leaders immediately and simultaneously take three important steps.  These may sound naïve on their face, but even the process of discussing practical steps by which the PLO could reacquaint itself with the Palestinian people and their desires would result in many creative strategies that may not have been seriously considered thus far.

First, the Palestinian leadership, currently engaged through the Palestinian Authority in buttressing the occupation by administering major Palestinian cities and providing security services for the Israelis, must devise a divestment strategy.  Not even those leaders are free to leave their walled off domains without the permission of the Israeli (or, in the case of Gaza, Egyptian) military. Palestinian civil service salaries, accounting for the bulk of income in all the occupied territory, are provided by Arab states and the European Union, while Palestinian police in the past have been heavily subsidized by the United States. Palestinian leaders need a transition plan to maintain the economic security provided by civil service salaries while divesting themselves of administering the territories on behalf of Israel. This may require relocating the Palestinian political leadership outside of areas directly controlled by Israel, where they can have full freedom of movement.  

Second, on the diplomatic front, the PLO leadership needs to reorient itself to its natural allies.  It makes sense to talk to your enemies when you need to, but it does not make sense to ignore your allies, or worse, to confuse the two.  While Palestinian civil society in the United States and elsewhere in the diaspora in Europe have engaged directly with progressive forces and shared their fights and battles over shared principles such as anti-racism, anti-bigotry, and less economic inequality, the PLO leadership has concentrated with a laser like focus only on the U.S. government.  As a matter of principle in the fight against apartheid and colonialism, the overwhelming consensus across the Global South has for decades been supportive of the Palestinians. True, this did not bring Palestinian freedom, but it provided an international legitimacy and foundation for Palestinian national aspirations more deep-seated than invitations to the White House. The diplomatic focus of the PLO leadership on ingratiating itself with key Western powers has also failed to bring Palestinian freedom, but it has allowed Israel to make once unthinkable diplomatic gains in many parts of the Global South.  

Third, the Palestinians need to convene to discuss and articulate a new Palestinian Freedom Charter.  Just as the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa developed a set of core democratic principles that formed the basic political consensus of the liberation movement led by President Nelson Mandela, the Palestinians need to reorient themselves around a shared vision. It has long been forgotten that the two-state solution, itself, was a compromise by the Palestinians of their fundamental values and interests.  In the service of pragmatism, the PLO agreed to forgo the interests of Palestinians in the refugee camps, inside Israel, and in the Diaspora, in exchange for saving the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  Regardless of the historical circumstances that led the PLO to make that compromise, that compromise has been firmly rejected by Israel. The strategy has failed. 

Palestinians now need to redefine for themselves their own values and interests, seeking a consensus among Palestinians everywhere on a model consistent with international law and progressive values – a model that would capture the imagination and the spirit of Palestinians and their allies the world over.  Already, immediately following Trump’s Jerusalem statement, the PLO’s lead negotiator Saeb Erekat said it was time for Palestinians to switch from the two-state model to demanding full democratic equality in all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.  In the past, arguments for equality by PLO leaders were used as a threat to Israel, instead of a promise – give us our state on 22 percent of historic Palestine or we will ask for equality everywhere.  Now, leaders seem to be moving past the threat stage.

The most common argument I heard within the PLO leadership against an anti-apartheid civil rights struggle was that the Israeli leadership was simply too racist to accept living in equality with Palestinians, but would agree to having Palestinians in a separate state alongside them.  Other intellectuals argued that an anti-apartheid struggle would lead the Palestinians to forever be an underclass in a greater Israel. 

Those are fair points, but they assumed that a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders was a viable alternative. The option of a Palestinian struggle for equality that would include Jews who would prefer a citizen-state model to a religious ethno-state has not yet been sufficiently fleshed out, nor have various consociational models. These are urgent conversations that need to be held in a global Palestinian public square. Wherever that conversation leads, it must reawaken the spirit of Palestinians and reignite the global passion for Palestinian freedom worldwide that once made this an iconic national liberation struggle. 

Of all these steps, the first may be the hardest: extricating the PLO from the squalid, hopeless dependence to which it has succumbed will be extraordinarily challenging. Redirecting Palestinian diplomatic efforts towards institutions, nations and peoples who care equally for Palestinian rights as they do for those of Jews in Israel is simply a matter of will. And working together to define a Freedom Charter that is larger than just the PLO but includes all sectors of Palestinian society, including those who are citizens of Israel, would be a game changer.

Having the leader of the richest Arab state instruct the leader of the PLO to accept a plan of surrender to the occupation status quo in order to legitimize Arab cooperation with Israel against other Muslim powers will probably be noted by future historians as a low point in Palestinian and Arab history.  But if Palestinians respond with moral clarity and determination to claim their long-denied human rights and dignity, historians may also remember this moment as the wake-up call that prompted Palestinians to redirect themselves to claim a brighter future for themselves, and ultimately for all the citizens of Palestine and Israel.

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