The Palestinians' Crisis of Leadership

By Aaron David Miller
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

More than 50 years after its creation, the Palestinian national movement -- in both its secular and Islamic guises -- lacks a coherent strategy and the means to realize Palestinian national aspirations. No matter what the outcome of tomorrow's elections, this will remain the central challenge confronting Palestinians and their politics.

At some point in the history of any national movement, its leaders (and followers) must be judged by their ability to carry out the goals they set for themselves. It is true that these goals can evolve over time, in some cases tailored by circumstances, in a more pragmatic direction. In the 1960s the Palestine Liberation Organization preached the destruction of Israel. In the 1970s it endorsed a secular democratic state for Arabs and Jews. In the 1980s and 1990s, Palestinians shifted -- under pressure, to be sure -- to a two-state solution.

Most Palestinians have grudgingly come to back a Palestinian state alongside Israel, provided it is based on 1967 borders, has its capital in East Jerusalem and offers a resolution to the refugee problem that includes some kind of right of return.

Sadly, however, history has no rewind button, and if such a solution was ever possible, it certainly seems unlikely now. Ariel Sharon had the power to move toward a conflict-ending solution, but he had no incentive to do so -- nor will his successors. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has the incentive but lacks the power. In any case, unilateral action, not bilateral negotiations, seems to rule the day and will probably be the course chosen by Sharon's successor.

The Palestinians deserve a large share of the responsibility for their tragic predicament. Simply put, their leaders have failed to outline a coherent strategy, to devise effective tactics or to condition their public for compromise. Instead, a political culture of grievance and avoidance of responsibility has been the Palestinians' operating software.

The hardware has also failed. Armed struggle as a tactic has been a disaster. And while Hamas boasts (with some justification) that it was the gun that forced the Israelis out of the Gaza Strip, the gun has also wreaked havoc on the Palestinian society and image. Suicide terrorism has not only alienated Israel and America but also pushed them closer together. And without Israel and America, a Palestinian state will be stillborn.

Gaza may be free, but it is also uncontrollable, and sooner or later Israel may reenter to stop the Qassam rocket attacks. As Palestinians look east toward the West Bank, they see settlements and roads crisscrossing Palestinian land, with Jerusalem more tightly under Israeli control than ever. Hamas, or even the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, may toy with the Hezbollah precedent and believe that the gun can liberate Qalqilyah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. But it will prove a fool's game that even Hamas may be clever enough not to play.

With Gaza a mess and their internal affairs in disarray, the Palestinians confront perhaps the deepest crisis and largest question for their nationalist hopes: how to maintain a monopoly on force. From its inception, the Palestinian national movement has never had its "Night of the Long Knives." Such a reckoning would have allowed Fatah -- its dominant faction -- to impose control and articulate a coherent national strategy. But Fatah, highly decentralized and ministering to its dispirited, dispossessed refugee constituency, chose to accommodate rather than confront. Indeed, it allowed smaller groups of varying political persuasions to undertake terrorism and violence that put the entire national movement in the dock.

Today that situation is worse than ever. Yasser Arafat's real transgression was not his unwillingness to accept what Ehud Barak offered at Camp David (no Palestinian leader could have done that and survived), it was his willingness to allow his monopoly over the forces of violence in Palestinian society to dissipate and to acquiesce in, if not encourage, terrorist attacks by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Hamas. Abbas's effort to create "one authority, one gun" has morphed into no authority and many guns.

Israel and the United States may deserve much of the responsibility for not seizing the opportunity to empower Abbas in the wake of Arafat's demise, but the crisis facing Palestinians is largely one brought about by their own hand, and they must resolve it.

Perhaps this week's elections will bring the beginning of real politics and a parliament that will press for real reform, pragmatism and peacemaking. Given the cacophony of Palestinian voices and the inevitable competition between Fatah and Hamas, whatever change occurs is likely to be excruciatingly slow. And in the interim, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will grind on, inexorably eroding the possibility of a conflict-ending solution. But such is the fate reserved for peoples whose leaders, whether they be Palestinian, Israeli or American, bungle or pass up the rare moments of opportunity that history provides them.

The writer has been an adviser to six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations. He is now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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