Why a visionary Palestinian leadership is urgently needed

PA President Mahmoud Abbas casts a vote (Ahmad Gharabli - AP)

Azzam Tamimi

Middle East Eye  /  February 8, 2022

All Palestinian political factions now legitimize Israeli occupation. The Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad must find the courage to challenge this catastrophic new status quo.

Last week, Middle East Eye published an article by its editor-in-chief, David Hearst, in which he highlighted the significance of Amnesty International’s “Israeli Apartheid” report and discussed its likely ramifications.

The report condemned Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the region between the Mediterranean and the river Jordan, calling it apartheid. In doing so, Amnesty followed in the footsteps of Israel’s major human rights organization, B’Tselem, and of Human Rights Watch.

Hearst compared the struggle of the Palestinians against Zionist apartheid with that of the struggle of the people of South Africa against the apartheid regime that imposed itself upon them for decades, until it was dismantled through a struggle waged by the African National Congress under the leadership of the late Nelson Mandela. 

A painful, yet truthful, line in Hearst’s piece reads: “Unlike the ANC, Palestine lacks a visionary leader. Its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is a spent political force who dares not face his people in free elections.”

In recent history, there has rarely been an occupying power that did not seek to groom and empower local forces, putting them in leadership positions from which they make concessions in the name of the people, prolong the life of the colonial settler entity and undermine any form of resistance to the occupation. 

Palestine is no exception. Successive Israeli administrations have tried hard to create a collaborative leadership of the Palestinians, but to no avail. 

However, in 1988, the leadership of the biggest Palestinian national liberation movement, Fatah – which had already assumed total control of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) – decided that it could no longer pursue the struggle for the liberation of Palestine, and that recognizing the state of Israel in exchange for Israeli and international recognition of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people was the only way forward. 

The result was the transformation of the movement into a collaboration authority, a security arm for the occupation itself. Indeed, since the Palestinian Authority (PA) was created in 1994, its main business has been to secure the occupation, safeguard settlers and hunt down Palestinian activists who resisted the occupation or posed a threat to the status quo. 

Misled by Arafat

Hearst mentioned only Abbas by name, describing him as “a spent political force who dares not face his people in free elections”. Yet the majority of the Fatah and PLO leaders who participated in concluding the Oslo Accords, and were involved in the creation of the PA that was born out of them, bears responsibility for doing away with Palestinian national aspirations. 

Foremost among them was Yasser Arafat, who many Palestinians believe misled them by exploiting their trust and loyalty to convince them of the mirage of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. It is common knowledge that the Oslo Accords were sought by both Arafat and the Israelis because they were the only means of ending the Palestinian uprising (Intifada) and preventing the emergence of an alternative to a corrupt and failing PLO. 

The Oslo deal exposed the extent of the rot that plagued the national Palestinian movement. What people know is a lot less than what remains undisclosed – and about which historians will write volumes. 

This includes the reference made by the author of The Good Spy, Kai Bird, to an initiative attempted by Arafat in the late 1970s to obtain recognition from the US and consent to a Palestinian state in Jordan in exchange for recognizing Israel’s right to exist in Palestine. 

Some Palestinians, including elements within the Fatah movement like Marwan Ibrahim al-Kayyali, Mohammed Basim Mustafa Sultan al-Tamimi, and Mohammed Hassan al-Buhais realized the scale of the calamity and tried to do something about it. Some patriotic leaders within Fatah adopted a path of independent struggle while refraining from any association with the traitorous direction of Oslo, which soon became the official position of the PLO – and which had already been swallowed by Fatah.

Many such elements were eventually liquidated or excluded and marginalized. Away from the PLO, other liberation endeavours emerged, including Islamic Jihad in the early 1980s and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) several years after that. 

US President Bill Clinton (C) with PLO leader Yasser Arafat (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (L), as they shake hands after signing the Oslo Accords at the White House, 13 September 1993 (AFP)

For political, diplomatic and financial reasons, neither Islamic Jihad nor Hamas could provide a platform capable of being a true representative of the will, ambitions and hopes of the Palestinian people. 

Act of treason

Then, in early 2017, came the idea of creating what became known as the Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad.

This started as an umbrella organization, bringing together Palestinians who believed that the Oslo deal was a crime perpetrated against the Palestinian people and an act of treason against those who had always believed in the Palestinian cause, and that the PLO no longer represented them. Some of us hoped that this would be the beginning of a project for founding the long-awaited alternative. 

However, the people in charge of the conference could not free themselves from the same shackles and considerations, so they too were unable to take the daring step of unplugging the machine that pumped oxygen into the clinically dead body of the PLO. 

What Hearst observed applies to all Palestinian factions, without exception. They all lack visionary strong-willed leadership capable of challenging the status quo and of preserving the very same principle that Oslo sought to bury alive – as did all those peace treaties the Arabs concluded with Israel before or after Oslo.

Recognizing Israel’s illegitimate occupation of Palestine has had catastrophic implications for the Palestinian cause, bestowing legitimacy on an ugly racist ideology that is an echo of all previous colonial settlement projects justified in the name of some kind of alleged supremacy.  

On the eve of convening the Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad, I would urge its organizers to rethink the purpose of their nascent organization. If they are to be taken seriously, they need to be bold and uncompromising when it comes to the fundamentals. They need to come up with an initiative that restores confidence and gives hope to Palestinians and supporters of their cause worldwide.

The Palestinian people are in dire need of visionary leadership and this is your chance. Seize it. 

Azzam Tamimi is a British Palestinian academic and political activist