This week, the news that all the Palestinian factions were meeting might have been a hopeful sign, since Zogby Research Service (ZRS) polling shows that what Palestinians most want from their leaders are unity and a strategy that will move them toward realization of their rights.
It was, therefore, somewhat disappointing to read reports of the speeches delivered at the gathering, since they appeared to be long on denunciation and short on strategy or vision.
By focusing their wrath on the recent UAE-Israel accord, the Palestinian leaders missed the mark. The UAE’s move to normalize in order to stop annexation is not the cause of Palestinian woes; it is a symptom of the state of affairs that has for too long plagued the noble cause of justice for the long-oppressed Palestinian people.
While a few observations are in order, first I must relate a story I have never before told. It was in the early 1990s and I was in Tunisia to meet with Palestinian leaders. I had been asked by the White House to inform them of our Builders for Peace project – an effort launched by then Vice-President Al Gore to help grow the Palestinian private sector.
At one point in our conversation, a senior leader began speaking of the importance of communications and power in serving the Palestinian cause. Mahmoud Darwish, a famous poet, intervened saying that vision was also needed. The leader waved his hand dismissively saying "No, it's not important."
I’ve often thought about this exchange because that moment was like a metaphor for what had gone wrong with the Palestinian cause and its then-visionless leadership. They had lost their spark and their way after repeated costly setbacks: Black September in Jordan, their use of horrific acts of terror against innocents, their expulsion from Beirut in 1982, and their foolish embrace of Saddam in 1990. Some of these were massive blunders on their part, while others were not exclusively of their making. In any case, the spark was gone, no longer lighting up the way forward.
I have written before of how I first fell in love with Palestine in the early 1970s. I caught the spark in 1971 during my time in Lebanon’s and Jordan’s refugee camps, where I was deeply moved by the stories of the 1948 expulsion, witnessed the resilience of the people whom I met, and was captivated by their longing to return to their homes. I was further inspired by the visionary art of Ismail Shamout and Kamal Boullata, the compelling characters of Ghassan Kanafani’s novels, and the fierce poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al Qassem, and Tawfiq Zayed.
The vision of the Palestine of the future was filled in by conversations with and the political writings of Safiq al Hout, Nabil Shaath, and Edward Said. An entire generation of Arabs, Arab Americans, and so many others world-wide had also embraced this vision.
When Yasser Arafat took center stage at the meeting of the non-aligned nations or at the General Assembly of the United Nations for that historic speech in 1974, he spoke for not only his Palestinian people but for those who supported justice for the oppressed across the world. There was a spark and a vision. And Palestinians and their supporters were inspired.
That was then. Today, it is with sadness that we must acknowledge that the Palestinian movement is without a clear vision or a strategy to move forward. For all intents and purposes, the Palestine Liberation Organization has become a hollowed-out shell of its former self. Palestinian refugees are without hope and support. The Palestinian Authority has become a dependency relying on international support to pay for its bloated bureaucracy and security forces. Denied by a repressive Israel the opportunity to develop an independent economy, as in pre-Oslo times, over 100,000 Palestinians are forced to rely on day-labor employment in Israel or Israeli settlements.
Meanwhile, in destitute Gaza, Hamas’ only strategy is survival – not for the suffering people of that impoverished strip, but for their own misrule. They, too, have miserably failed to provide a vision. Instead, they have repeatedly engaged in counterproductive violence, once using terror attacks and now relying on pointless rockets and other devices that cause little damage while provoking brutal disproportionate violence from Israel. Israel has used these provocations to justify their cruel collective punishment of Gaza’s entire civilian population.
What ZRS’ polling
tells us is that Palestinians have lost hope. They cling to their desire for independence but don’t see how their current leaders will get them there. This has had a spillover effect in the broader Arab World. Arabs still care deeply about Palestinians, but they too see no way forward and have lost respect for the Palestinian leadership.
As a result, when, in 2019, ZRS asked Arabs across the region whether they thought normalization without peace was desirable, majorities said they did. When ZRS asked why, they expressed hope it might help end the killing, might give Arabs some leverage to support Palestinians, and might result in greater prosperity and peace in the Middle East.
Most Arabs continue to support the Arab Peace Initiative, but acknowledge that it has borne no fruit. Neither has the Arab boycott. If these efforts had moved the needle toward realization of Palestinian rights, it might have been a different story. Alas, they did not. Majorities across the region tell ZRS they want Arab leaders to try another approach.
Earlier this year, a significant crisis occurred following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that he would formally annex significant areas of Palestinian land. Israelis were not moved by the PA’s hollow threats to “end cooperation” or Hamas’ display of rocket fire into the sea. These gestures were dismissed as being borne more of impotence, than displays of power. Our 2020 polling, however, did show that significant numbers of Israelis were moved to oppose annexation by the UAE’s initiative and by Jordanian King Abdullah’s dire warnings of the consequences of Netanyahu’s threat.
Palestinians now fear that the UAE move may open the door to other Arab states normalizing relations with Israel. But what if these states propose conditions of their own for normalization: stopping settlements, granting more rights to Palestinians to grow their economy and gain additional freedoms? While not an end to the occupation, might these not prove advantageous?
I have heard some commentators lament that the move toward normalization represents the “obliteration” of the Palestinian cause. That is nonsense. As long as the majority of people between the river and the sea are Palestinian Arabs; as long as this majority is denied their rights to live as full human beings with equality and justice; and as long as Palestinians are dispersed throughout the world and denied their inalienable rights to their ancestral homes and inheritance – the Palestinian issue cannot and will not die.
What is needed is to rekindle the dream of Palestine, a Palestinian vision for the future, and a strategy that can inspire Palestinians, Arabs, and those who support justice. If the factions’ leadership can’t move beyond rhetoric and measures to maintain their own survival, then it’s time to turn to Palestinian civil society – the poets, artists, and intellectuals, the entrepreneurs and educators, and the community-based organizers – to reignite the vision of a Palestine that can unite and inspire this generation. This is what is needed – now more than ever.
*The writer is the President of the Arab American Institute