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The crisis of the Palestinian political elite

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on 12 October 2018 [Thaer Ganaim/Apaimages]
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on 12 October 2018 [Thaer Ganaim/Apaimages]

A political elite is usually defined by those who have the real authority in the state. Its circle may be broadened to include influential people, those who influence decision-making, and those who have religious, economic, military, ethnic and tribal authority and dominance. However, what makes the Palestinian political elite distinct, is that it is the elite of a liberation movement and not of a state. Its members are dispersed geographically, with a high percentage of them under occupation or siege, and the political environment outside Palestine affects the elite living there; members are obliged to take into consideration each country’s political framework and red lines.

The current crisis of the Palestinian political elite lies in the fact that its large dominant sector behaves as a state but is without a state; coordinates with the occupation authorities; and manages this elite status according to the occupation’s conditions and within its own context. The Palestinian political elite suffers crises in vision, tracks, leadership, symbols, leadership rotation and institutional structure.

There are many studies concerning the Palestinian political elite, among the most prominent are The Characteristics of the Palestinian Political Elite Before and After the Establishment of the Palestinian National Authority, by Samar Jawdat Al-Barghouthi, and The Approaches of the Palestinian Political Elite Towards the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Both are PhD dissertations and both were published by Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations. They provide studies of the elite echelon of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) from different perspectives; both are worth reading and benefitting from. This article is not a review of either study, but it benefits from some of the information they provide.

The PLO was established in 1964 led by Ahmad Al-Shuqairy, and in 1968, the Palestinian factions dominated the PLO and restructured the leadership in the Palestinian National Council (PNC) and its executive committee, whereby the Fatah movement has dominated the political elite of the PLO. In 1994, when the PA was established, Fatah led its founding and management, having a clear impact on its elite. However, the landslide victory of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections provided a powerful entrance into the PA political elite. Hamas formed the tenth and eleventh governments, and has dominated the Gaza Strip after the schism with Fatah, which dominates the PA in the West Bank.

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The PLO crises have had an impact on the Palestinian political elite, which paid a hefty price for trying to work freely in the Arab environment surrounding Palestine. This happened at a time when the Arab countries did not tolerate the “burdensome guest” of Palestinian refugees and the ensuing dues of hosting a liberation movement facing the Israeli enemy which is backed by the great powers; they tried to introduce their own elite and cancel out opposing elites. This was accompanied by the absence of a free environment for Palestinian political action, with neither a healthy Palestinian leadership rotation, nor genuine “democratic” procedures to form leadership and legislative councils. Consequently, the leadership selection within the Palestinian elite was driven by Fatah’s domination over the PLO and factional calculations.

Since the 1980s, active and influential forces began to appear in the Palestinian arena — Hamas and Islamic Jihad — despite not having any representation in the PLO. Their leaders and symbols were not counted among the “official” Palestinian political elite. It is a phenomenon that has expanded as those forces have grown — Hamas in particular — with the latter winning the 2006 PLC elections.

Furthermore, the political elite of the PLO has shown symptoms of weakness, frailty and inefficiency along with the deterioration of the PLO’s organisations. We have also seen the suspension of PNC meetings for 27 years from 1991 to 2018, except for some limited formal meetings to pass some prior decisions or to “legitimise” the work of the PA leadership, notably in 1996, 2009 and 2018. This led the PNC political elite to be “inert” and with a median age of 70+ while that of the students’ representative was more than 60 years; dozens of representatives died in the meeting-free interim. The PLO is facing a “chronic” elite which is reproducing itself and its problems, and whose ability to produce new generations has been an abject failure.

As for the PA, its establishment has ended the existence of a political system beyond Palestine, while producing a new problem by being under Israeli occupation and hegemony. Along with that came the complexities of moving the political elite living abroad to the occupied Palestinian territories; Israel’s control of the borders and crossings, and the movement of individuals and goods; and the state’s imposition of political, security and economic conditions on the PA. The Israeli occupation has become the authority issuing VIP cards to PA elites, with the possibility of arresting any of them if they cross Israel’s red lines.

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What’s more, with the peace process severely hampered, and the chances of the PA ever becoming a state with full sovereignty on its national territory diminishing daily, a deformed political system has emerged, located in an occupation-dominated environment and subject to its terms. The political elite has “adapted itself” to the requirements of the “the agreement” and the requirements of the “Authority” and changed from being the elite of a “liberation movement” to become that of an authority acting as a state but under occupation. Its members are forced to respond to the agenda of the occupation in its pursuit of the resistance movements as part of the PA’s “security coordination” with Israel, while suffering from frail structures as well as financial and administrative corruption. Despite this, elite members live in relative luxury; the “revolutionary” liberation aspect has diminished almost completely, apart from empty slogans, historical boasting or tactical usage.

With time, as the 1996 and 2006 PLC elections were held, several ministries were formed and a new class of political, economic and security people emerged with influence within the PA, its political elite was able to introduce new faces who are better educated, younger and more integrated into the social environment of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

However, the PLO and PA mentality — that is, the thinking of the Fatah leadership — of dominance and a monopoly of decision-making, has prevented them from ever accepting the results of the 2006 democratic elections. As a result, the new political elite of Hamas, which imposed itself through the resistance programme and popular legitimacy, were not welcome. Consequently, a crisis emerged when the PLO and PA leadership attempted to “monopolise the elite” or when they tried to install an influential and effective elite outside the “legitimacy” and “official” frameworks.

A second crisis emerged due to the dominance of one faction over the PA and PLO, insisting on certain political tracks (notably “the peace process”), and unwilling to forge any partnerships that would have a negative effect on its dominance. This led to the obstruction of the natural sorting of the elite and the peaceful rotation of authority, with no healthy environment for leadership change. With the pathway for younger leaders closed, there is a huge gap between the old elite and emerging generations.

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The shift of the Palestinian leadership into the Palestinian territories, and the decline of their own and the PLO’s roles abroad, have led them to neglect the diaspora, more than half of all Palestinians who possess potential, skill and energy. This leadership concentrates on Ramallah, which is surrounded by the paraphernalia of Israel’s occupation. It is worth noting here that the Palestinian elite within the Palestinian territories occupied since 1948 — now the state of Israel — has not been able to take up its well-deserved place in the Palestinian national project.

The study conducted by ‘Azzam Sha‘th on 50 figures from the Palestinian political elite reflects their confusion and lack of a coherent vision. Most of them — 72 per cent — support ending the Oslo Accords; 80 per cent recognise that the negotiations after Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital are of no use; more than half of them admit that the current regional and international balance of power does not allow the development of a new political initiative to resolve the conflict; and 72 per cent support the liberation of all of Palestine using all means and struggle available. However, 76 percent support having an international conference on the basis of international legitimacy. What’s more, when choosing between the most viable tools to confront the enemy, 28.2 per cent opted for popular resistance and 17 per cent chose armed resistance. The rest opted for other means in varying small degrees. There is clear division and a lack of vision of what can be done in case the PA is dissolved.

This overlap of inconsistent thinking indicates that the current political elite suffers a crisis of vision and tracks, which may be consistent with the limited horizon, frustration and divisions in the Palestinian arena. In general, though, the crisis of the political elite in Palestine is deep and touches the core of the political system, its leadership structure and its elite selection. It is affected by the level of Palestinian dispersion, the environment of the Israeli occupation and Arab and international influences.

This article was originally published in Arabic on TRT Arabic on 8 May 2019.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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