Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the British government’s promise of support for a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
And 2017 could turn out to be similarly fateful for Palestinians.
An unknown quantity is waiting to move into the White House, a tweet-from-the-hip president-elect to whom Israeli politicians are already turning to clear the way for further settlement building in the West Bank and to end talk of a Palestinian state.
Palestinians are uniquely unprepared for this moment, mostly as a result of a lack of direction and leadership.
But where Fatah’s leadership succession is causing a host of problems for the party of the late Yasser Arafat, at least Hamas seems on track for a smooth process to replace Khaled Meshaal.
Meshaal announced in September that he would be stepping down as head of Hamas’ political bureau. A new leader is likely to take charge in early 2017.
He – undoubtedly a he – will take over a movement that remains structurally coherent but is short of ideas, dramatically weakened and holding a smaller regional hinterland than in the past.
Fatah’s leadership issues, meanwhile, are growing more acute with every passing day. The issue of succession to the 81-year-old Abbas is likely to be a top priority – whether openly or in effect – at a Fatah conference scheduled for the end of November. It will continue to rumble whether or not that conference actually takes place.
Absence of ideas
Neither side has any discernible strategy for moving forward. Hamas has spent a decade cementing its rule over Gaza while trying to maintain its role as leader of the resistance. Combining governance and armed resistance are roles that, as Fatah has found, are not necessarily compatible.
While the Islamist movement has survived three devastating Israeli military assaults since 2008, the violence unleashed on Gaza and a near-decade old Israeli-imposed siege has left the impoverished coastal strip on the brink of collapse.
That is not a happy record and these are the realities any new leader will need to address. Meshaal actually paved part of the way for a successor (most likely Ismail Haniyeh, the deputy leader, though Musa Abu Marzouq, a senior member of Hamas’ political bureau, has also been mentioned) by offering some parting criticism.
After announcing his resignation, Meshaal publicly suggested Hamas had made a strategic mistake in taking over Gaza, even if it came in response to a Fatah insurrection.
“We were mistaken when we thought that the era of Fatah has gone and that Hamas’ time has come,” he said in September, implying that Hamas had overestimated the consequence of its general election victory in 2006, and had not anticipated the extent of the backlash the movement would suffer in the West Bank at the hands of Palestinian Authority security forces under the control of Abbas.
Regional turmoil has also played its part in weakening Hamas. The ouster of Egypt’s first elected president Muhammad Morsi, in a military coup in 2013, has put Hamas at loggerheads with a new Egyptian administration that has outlawed the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
The fighting in Syria meanwhile, saw Meshaal relocate Hamas’ political bureau out of Damascus and to the Qatari capital Doha in 2012, damaging relations with allies in Syria and, further afield, Iran.
This all leaves any new leader of Hamas with major strategic considerations: does the movement need to choose between governing Gaza and engaging in armed resistance against Israel?
How and from whom can it ensure support, financial and material, in a regional situation that is unpredictably fluid? What steps is it prepared to take to forge unity with Fatah – despite Fatah’s continued security coordination with Israel?
And how will it respond to Israel, should an already warlike, far-right Israeli government feel even less restrained by Washington than it does at the moment?
But at least Hamas should be able to boast of an orderly succession, unlike Fatah which has descended into unruly disorder in the West Bank.
Fatah’s violent ruptures
The issue of succession to Abbas is now becoming a serious distraction, perhaps inevitably so since nothing else is happening in the West Bank apart from more Israeli settlement building and a clampdown on dissent by both PA and Israeli forces.
Certainly, Abbas’ stubborn adherence to a peace process that has long since run its course and for which he is receiving little to no support from international actors – the crucial linchpin of that strategy – has resulted in stagnation.
This crumbling strategy is plain for most to see. And it is causing ruptures within Fatah, even if few have spelled out any viable alternative.
These ruptures have turned violent. Nablus is at a boiling point, with Fatah-linked armed groups fighting Fatah-controlled security forces on an almost weekly basis in the northern West Bank city.
Abbas’ fear that erstwhile Gaza security chief Muhammad Dahlan, now living in the United Arab Emirates, is after his job has played into this discontent and is fast becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Abbas is purging Fatah of people seen as close to Dahlan, as he ousted Dahlan himself from Fatah in 2011 under corruption charges that were then dropped in 2015. But he is not offering anything to counter widespread discontent in the movement except promoting the same old faces.
The upcoming seventh Fatah conference – should it take place, since it has been postponed numerous times in the past and the last conference was in 2009, the year in which Abbas’ term as president officially expired – is therefore likely to be notable for its absences.
But whoever is there and whatever is discussed, the issue of succession will be uppermost in everyone’s minds. Abbas cannot continue forever. Not resolving the issue of succession could just exacerbate tensions within Fatah.
Last month, Dahlan, who is supported by the so-called Arab quartet – the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – denied he would run to become the next PA president. Instead, he threw his support behind Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned Fatah leader who has consistently polled in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as the most popular Palestinian political leader over the years since Arafat died in 2005.
Barghouti’s leadership, however, would be largely symbolic. He has been serving several life sentences in an Israeli prison since 2002, and while comparisons with Nelson Mandela are tempting, it is unclear how he could unify Palestinians from a prison cell.
“We have a crisis of leadership among Palestinians,” veteran observer Abdel Bari Atwan, the London-based editor of Rai al-Youm and former editor of al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, told The Electronic Intifada. “The problem is that neither Hamas nor Fatah have prepared the ground for a new leadership that can mobilize and unify the people behind them.”
It leaves a huge vacuum at a crucial time.
Whatever Donald Trump turns out to be when it comes to Palestine – no one knows yet, probably least of all himself – Washington has long been part of the problem rather than any solution.
And with more pressing global and regional issues, Palestinians are also likely far down the list of US foreign policy priorities, even as they find themselves more and more isolated, regionally and globally.
This may explain a renewed interest in finding unity after nearly a decade of division.
And Dahlan, who was unceremoniously ousted from Gaza in 2007, has previously argued to include Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the PLO, one of the key sticking points.
Unity alone is no strategy. But unity would seem a necessary precondition for articulating a strategy that a skeptical public can rally behind.
Political unity between Palestinian factions would also be necessary to revive a PLO that long ago stopped being an effective actor even as it remains the official representative body of Palestinians globally.
A renewed role for the PLO is vital to include Palestinians in the diaspora, who, after all, make up a majority of all Palestinians yet have found themselves with almost no say in Palestinian decision-making.
It could also see Palestinian political leaders take advantage of and lend their weight to global initiatives like the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, BDS, that are gaining in momentum.
Something certainly needs to change. Traditional political factions already face being consigned to irrelevancy.
“There is a huge number of Palestinians who are now independent, a bigger proportion than those who support Hamas and Fatah,” Atwan said. “Whoever wins those independents can unify Palestinians.”
“As long as things stay the same – Hamas is losing a lot of support in Gaza, Abbas is hated in the West Bank – we are in a deep crisis.”
Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.