Mitvim representatives participated in meetings with a series of key Palestinian figures from Ramallah and Nablus. The meetings focused on the implications of the Palestinian UN statehood bid of September 2011. This paper summarizes the main points that were raised in the aforementioned meetings, and provide a glimpse into the state of mind of Palestinian officials from the West Bank.
Impressions from Meetings with Palestinian Officials from the West Bank, October 2011
At the beginning of October, prior to the Gilead Shalit prisoners swap deal, representatives of Mitvim participated in meetings with a series of key Palestinian figures from Ramallah and Nablus. The meetings were conducted in cooperation with Ronnie Shaked, from Yediot Aharonot and the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute, and focused on the implications of the Palestinian UN statehood bid of September 2011. This paper summarizes the main points that were raised in the aforementioned meetings. These points do not represent official positions and should not be attributed to all Palestinians; however, they do provide a glimpse into the current state of mind of Palestinian officials from the West Bank.
Abu Mazen returned victorious from the UN, despite the Israeli perception that the Palestinians had lost at the UN. The request for UN recognition of a Palestinian state, Abu Mazen’s speech, and his willingness to confront the United States, were all perceived at the time as major events within the Palestinian national struggle. They sparked a surge in Abu Mazen’s popularity on the ground. The Palestinian Authority held celebrations in parallel to the UN General Assembly, and Abu Mazen was portrayed as a national hero.
Abu Mazen is aware of his power. Despite the continued and repeated rumors regarding retirement from the political sphere, Abu Mazen has not appointed or trained any successors and has limited the power of the younger generation. He is focused on working towards the creation of his own legacy. Abu Mazen knows that he does not have a replacement at the moment, and that his only replacement could be Hamas, which remains unwanted by the United States, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Therefore, he allows himself to adopt a “take it or I leave” approach. Abu Mazen is aware that there is no desire for Hamas to take his place and therefore, various domestic and international actors will eventually accept the policies that he chooses to pursue.
Abu Mazen creates a new ethos, one that stands for non-violence. Abu Mazen has chosen a non-violent political struggle as his strategy and has taken steps to change the ethos of Arafat’s battle. This new policy emphasizes the Palestinian intentions to end the Occupation and acquire a state within the 1967 borders, without violent confrontation with Israel. The new approach is supported by most of Fateh’s figureheads and members. The level of support it enjoys among the Palestinian people, specifically the young generation, is unclear. The choice to follow the non-violent path contributes to a positive self-image among Palestinians, some of whom have compared themselves to India and Gandhi. This approach is perceived as a step that safeguards the Palestinian national interests and increases international support for the Palestinians and their struggle. It appears that in the meantime this is just a tactic, one which has not yet uprooted the ethos of the violent struggle. If they feel helpless or if they think there is a more beneficial path, it seems that the Palestinians will be ready to change course once again. .
The Palestinians feel that they are ready for and deserve a state. Abu Mazen rehabilitated the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) – the economy, the security, and the institutions. The Palestinians feel better about themselves than they have in the past. They are on the road to progress, taking initiative and promoting actions in the international arena. The Palestinians have achieved support (Turkey provided legal advice to the PNA prior to the UN bid) and highlight their readiness for their own state. Nablus, for example, was previously marked by instability and security chaos, whereas today the situation is totally different. The city has developed immensely: economic progress, stability, and civil order. Unemployment has dropped from 65% to 11%, tourism is beginning to pick up and more tourism plans are being created, there is commercial and real estate development, restaurants are opening up, a stock exchange is operating, and more. There is security cooperation with Israel, which everyone is aware of (also in regards to Joseph’s Tomb, which was refurbished by the PNA), and that has brought to the removal of checkpoints around the city and to increased freedom of movement.
First a state, then a permanent status agreement. It seems that today’s Palestinian discourse is focused on the establishment of a state and not on the achievement of a permanent status agreement, or a peace agreement with Israel. There is a lack of faith in the ability to negotiate with the Netanyahu Government. There is an operative plan for diplomatic progress towards statehood and a belief that it will be better (for Israel as well) to negotiate a permanent status agreement on a state-to-state level. It may then be easier for the Palestinians to make compromises on sensitive issues. At the same time, there is an understanding that the parameters of a future peace agreement, based on the 1967 lines, are already more or less known, that it will be possible to eventually reach an agreement on all core issues, and that should Israel adopt a pro-peace policy that a final status agreement can be achieved also before the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Following the UN General Assembly, the Palestinians are patient and realistic. The Palestinians do not expect that a state will be established tomorrow. They understand that there is a long road ahead, and they declare that they possess a great amount of patience. They point out that several states (including Israel) have turned to the UN multiple times until they were accepted as members, and the Palestinians plan to do the same. If America will use their veto, the Palestinians plan to submit another application, and so on and so forth, until they are accepted. They believe that this is an historical process that cannot be stopped and that September 2011 marked the beginning of a new era in the Palestinian political struggle. The Palestinians believe that momentum is on their side and they are not afraid of a political confrontation with Israel or the United Sates. They plan to maintain their tactic of turning to the international community and conducting a diplomatic struggle in parallel to non-violent protests. They feel that they have nothing to lose.
An international Intifada, not a Palestinian one. The Palestinians paid a heavy toll during the second Intifada and they are not searching for another round of violence. They believe that the UN bid will benefit them far more than another Intifada and that the Israelis are afraid of a third Intifada, regardless of the fact that Palestinian leaders have discounted this possibility. In fact, no significant violent confrontations broke out in September. Instead of Palestinians launching an Intifada against Israel, the World is doing it for them. Israel finds itself increasingly isolated by the international community and is losing support among the countries of the region (Turkey and Egypt) as well as among its allies in the West.
There is no point in negotiating with Netanyahu’s Government. Two years ago, Fateh’s convention concluded that there is no possibility of reaching an agreement with the current Israeli government and that the Palestinian struggle for statehood should thus be conducted in the international arena. The Palestinians do not have any faith in Netanyahu and they view his policy proposals as a right-wing political battle with Lieberman. The Palestinians feel that there is no reason to negotiate just for the sake of negotiations. They are waiting for the Israeli Government to say what it wants and to make clear where it is heading to. It hasn’t happened yet.
There are alternatives, and they are less desirable for Israel. If no progress is made in the Palestinian bid for statehood, and if there is no progress in negotiations, then the two-state solution will become less popular among Palestinians. They have warned that Abu Mazen may decide to dismantle the PNA and promote the call for one-state. If Israel will push the Palestinians into a corner, a violent confrontation is not unlikely. It may start with demonstrations similar to those of the Arab Spring – perhaps with organized marches on Fridays towards the fence. The Palestinians feel that Israel is trying to force them into an alliance with Iran, despite the fact that the Palestinians oppose Iranian and Shi’ite attempts to meddle in the politics of the region. However, some said that if all other doors close, then the Palestinians might even decide to “deal with the devil”.
The problem is Israel, and Israel is at a disadvantage. Israel does not understand the changes that are happening around it. These changes are serving Palestinian interests, and not the Israeli ones. Israel is losing friends in the region and is no longer a central figure in determining regional processes. The question is not how much patience the Palestinians have before they turn to violence, but how much time Israel will wait before promoting a solution to the conflict. The deterioration is within Israel. Israel is changing from a liberal society to a less democratic and zealous society. It finds itself increasingly isolated internationally. Today there is no Palestinian leader that can be labeled an obstacle to peace. There is no Palestinian terror. The problem is Israel. There is terrorism from the settlers, which Israel does not control. The settlers are the ones that will destroy Israel and cause a violent explosion. The Palestinians do not understand how it is possible that Israel has refrained from halting the settler violence. Israel does not need to be afraid of a Palestinian state. It should be concerned from Iran. The solution to the Palestinian problem will first and foremost serve Israel, and will improve its regional and global standing. The establishment of a Palestinian state is in Israel’s interest, and there is a belief that about half of the Israeli public understands it, in contrast to the Israeli government’s policies.
The road to Fateh-Hamas reconciliation is still long. Some believe that the Fateh-Hamas crisis is temporary, that the reconciliation agreement signed in Cairo will soon be implemented, that democratic elections are near, and that the division between the West Bank and Gaza is not really an obstacle to peace (based on claims that Khaled Mashal respects Abu Mazen’s non-violence policy, and declared that he will accept a final status agreement brought forth by Abu Mazen). Nevertheless, there is an understanding that without including Gaza it will not be possible to implement any Israeli-Palestinian agreement, and that the true Fateh-Hamas reconciliation is still far away. The Palestinian people want Palestinian unity and it is possible that they will take to the streets to promote this desire. Abu Mazen is working to maintain Fateh’s power in Gaza, and does so through paying salaries to approximately 60,000 Gaza residents every month without them actually working. A majority of Abu Mazen’s budget is transferred to the Gaza Strip. Fateh believes that it is currently more popular in Gaza than Hamas, and would have gained a majority there should elections take place today. During Abu Mazen’s speech at the UN, Hamas did not allow rallies in support of him. They also threatened to shoot anyone that would demonstrate. Fateh instructed their supporters in Gaza to stay home. They did not want to agitate the situation.
In contrast, Hamas is perceived as being strong in the West Bank. It is allowed to act there as a political organization as long as it operates according to PNA law. Fateh does not directly oppose Hamas (Abu Mazen even met Hamas leaders from Nablus), but it does work to erode Hamas’ power. For example, all of Hamas’ welfare institutions in the West Bank were transferred to the PNA, which currently provides the West Bank residents’ social needs. Fateh has a dilemma in the West Bank, which impacts their ability to gain popularity over Hamas. Fateh veterans that used to be among Israel’s “most wanted” and were responsible for many terror attacks, are now looked at by the younger generation as corrupt officials that drive luxury cars and enjoy VIP permits to enter Israel. The youth are not aware of the militant past of these people, and the Fateh veterans cannot boast about their past because it will not be accepted by the Israelis with whom they cooperate today.