As Middle East envoy of “the Quartet,” Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, has been charged with helping to “build up” Palestinian institutions. It is a cruel irony that one of the handmaidens of the destruction of those very institutions is now being dispatched with the portfolio of resurrecting them. Yet, this should not come as a surprise. In spite of Blair’s passionate rhetoric to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict during his decade of rule, he joined Washington in actively subverting Palestinian institutions and their hopes for self-determination. In reality, the Quartet that Blair represents as envoy, comprised of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations, is a hollow organ designed to provide international legitimacy to the staunchly pro-Israel policies of the Bush administration. Blair’s task now, as it was for the invasion of Iraq, is to provide Washington with an erudite spokesman for its Middle East policies. By delaying his political retirement to serve as envoy, Blair perhaps hopes to atone for his sins in Iraq through a pilgrimage of “peace” to the Holy Land. Palestinians are right to be skeptical of his intentions and question whether he will bring peace or further entrench and enshrine the Israeli occupation by formalizing institutions which have long since lost their legitimacy. “What rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem,” indeed.
Blair will be joined by the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers, Abdul Ilah al-Khatib and Ahmed Aboul Gheit, traveling to Israel under the flag of the Arab League for the first time. The revolving door of Middle East envoys represents the “peace process” component of the “Palestine Industry,” whose main product has been the endless volumes of vacuous political and economic solutions and programs. Historically peace missions and summits have occurred as the last gasp of American “lame duck” presidents for relevancy. Invariably, these attempts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict have occurred when American presidents are at their weakest point domestically, beset by either political scandals or unpopular wars, or in the case of George W. Bush, both. While the United States and its European allies have consistently armed and underwritten Israel’s occupation, they have simultaneously served as the mediators and facilitators of the peace process. Rather than achieving peace, this has enabled Israel to further entrench its system of occupation and apartheid, while undermining the Palestinian people’s quest for independence and self-rule. That this has continued for forty-one years, in opposition to numerous UN resolutions confirming the Palestinians’ inalienable right to self-determination, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, and the illegality of the Israeli occupation over the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, reduces the breathless drama surrounding these negotiations to farce.
Over the past three decades Palestinians have struggled to develop governance structures under extreme conditions of exile, occupation, and sanctions. While conservative Arab regimes exist as thinly veiled police-states and faux constitutional monarchies, the Palestinians have held several elections all monitored by international observers and deemed to be fair, in spite of Israeli and American attempts to interfere. Despite these efforts, the international community has served to impede, rather than promote, Palestinian self-rule. If there is to be a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict resulting in a viable Palestinian state, as Bush has declared is his goal, it can only be achieved through institutions which are representative and effective. As the international community has abdicated its responsibility in supporting a nascent democracy in Palestine, Palestinians must reform their institutions themselves.
Building viable and effective governing bodies is a difficult and challenging process under the best circumstances, an environment that has hardly existed in the “post-independence” Middle East. Yet, in the past four decades the Palestinians have managed to build two separate but related para-state institutions, both designed to serve as a nucleus for a future Palestinian state: the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA). At its height, the PLO developed robust health, education, and welfare services in the Palestinian refugee camps, while also maintaining an active diplomatic presence internationally. Although these services were curtailed sharply in Lebanon after the 1982 Israeli invasion, in the rest of the Arab world and abroad they continued until the 1993 Oslo Accords. Even though it is still recognized internationally as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” the PLO is now a mere shell of its former self.
In contrast, the PA has been wholly dependent upon foreign assistance and controls since its inception. Now headquartered in Ramallah, the PA was initially tasked under the Oslo Accords with overseeing civil administration and security coordination with Israel for the Palestinian territories until final status negotiations were completed. In addition, the PA appropriated many of the PLO agencies and sources of funding, including the foreign missions in nearly 100 countries. However, the PA was never responsible for the Palestinian refugees living in neighboring Arab states, who witnessed a dramatic deterioration in their political and humanitarian standing after 1993. Moreover, with the PLO starved of funding and personnel, Palestinian refugees lost the main representative to their host governments and the international community. Meanwhile, Israel’s continued colonization of Palestinian land, coupled with the overt corruption and ineptitude of the PA and declining living standards of the population, led to an increasing frustration among Palestinians. The second Palestinian intifada in 2000 followed by Israel’s reinvasion and reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza witnessed the destruction of much of Palestinian civil society. In the past month, Hamas’ defeat of Fatah in Gaza and the declaration by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of a “national emergency cabinet,” has resulted in the fragmentation of the Palestinian territories, and the creation of two parallel governments, neither with a mandate to represent all Palestinians. As the Palestinian economy lies in shambles, the Israeli economy, largely unburdened by the expense of its outsourced occupation, is booming. Now, more than ever, the PA represents a fiscally and politically bankrupt junior partner to the Israeli occupation.
Rebuilding Palestinian institutions will require the full effort and expertise of Palestinians living under occupation and in the Diaspora. More importantly it is dependent on a belief in, and a program of, national unity and self-reliance. This will entail separation from non-governmental organizations and think-tanks associated with or sponsored by the governments of the United States and the European Union. While individuals in solidarity with the Palestinians from these countries can and should assist, this must be a Palestinian-led effort. For this endeavor to be successful the PA must be abandoned and the PLO revitalized with Hamas as a member. Only under the umbrella of a new national unity PLO can institutions be developed to both successfully confront the Israeli occupation and represent the needs of the Palestinian refugee communities. An immediate benefit of this strategy will be a respite for Palestinians from the paternalistic pseudo-experts who have descended upon the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon like CV-building locusts since the Oslo Accords were signed. Comprised of international development, humanitarian assistance, and conflict resolution “consultants,” this aspect of the Palestine Industry has done little more than institutionalize dependence and divert leadership roles and funds from qualified local professionals.
The only solution to the fragmentation of the Palestinian body politic is revitalization of Palestinian institutions by Palestinians. These are certainly not the bodies Tony Blair or the Arab League will work to assist. It is imperative that the Palestinians resist these efforts to vitiate and co-opt the institutions which will form the core of a revitalized national movement and an independent state. While the obstacles to Palestinian self-rule are formidable and historically rooted, they are not determinant and can be overcome. Talking about a revolution may be emotionally palliative, but without the hard work of building and renewing institutions it will not occur. What is needed now is an organized and sustained effort by Palestinians to achieve this goal.
Osamah Khalil is a Palestinian-American doctoral candidate in US and Middle East History at the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on US Foreign Policy in the Middle East. He can be reached at: okhalil A T berkeley D O T edu.