x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Palestinians fear their ageing leaders lack any credibility

Mahmoud Abbas is 76, his top aides 73 and 67, and critics say the plan to gain full UN membership is an attempt to demonstrate their relevance and revive their waning popularity among ordinary Palestinians.

Palestinian school girls in the West Bank city of Ramallah wave flags during a rally against President Barack Obama's address at the UN General Assembly yesterday. Mohamad Torokman / Reuters
Palestinian school girls in the West Bank city of Ramallah wave flags during a rally against President Barack Obama's address at the UN General Assembly yesterday. Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

JERUSALEM // The ages of the Palestinian leaders in the West Bank speak volumes about the significance of their bid for full Palestinian membership in the United Nations.

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, is 76. His top aides are close behind - Nabil Shaath is 73 and Yasser Abd Rabbo is 67.

Along with Saeb Erekat, who clocks in at a relatively spry 56, they tied their political fortunes to Yasser Arafat and the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

These ageing political figures reaped the success - and mostly failure - of that peace process. With their plan to gain full UN membership, they are keen to demonstrate their relevance and revive their waning popularity among ordinary Palestinians.

The attempt may be ill-conceived, even desperate, Palestinians say. "It's one of their last cards," said Majid Shihade, a professor of international relations at Birzeit University's Abu-Lughod Institute for International Studies.

"They have exhausted their credibility and it's a way to show that the leadership is still speaking on behalf of all Palestinians."

This alleged lack of credibility stems from two decades of fruitless negotiations that most Palestinians now cynically regard as mere cover for Israeli governments to flood the West Bank and East Jerusalem with Jewish settlers.

With Mr Abbas and other Palestinian leaders angry at US President Barack Obama for failing to offer a credible alternative to the embarrassing collapse of direct talks that he started with Israel's staunchly pro-settler government last September, the UN move is seen as creating some political breathing room.

But few Palestinians expect it to bring tangible change. Mr Abbas himself has cautioned that elevated UN membership is not about punishing Israel but, rather, hastening a return to peace negotiations.

Mkhaimar Abusada, a political-science professor at Gaza's Al Azhar University, described the UN bid as an attempt by Mr Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which he chairs, at ensuring a legacy.

"It seems to me Abu Mazen has begun laying the groundwork for his successors and delineating what are the new Palestinian red lines that should not be compromised on," he said, using Mr Abbas' nickname.

Those red lines largely consist of a future Palestinian state based on the borders existing before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war with East Jerusalem as the capital, he explained.

"If Abu Mazen - who is considered a moderate Palestinian who has been criticised by Hamas and Al Jazeera as a traitor - is remembered as standing firm and carving out these as the red lines, it doesn't seem that any future Palestinian leadership can make compromise beyond them," Mr Abusada said.

Grappling with Mr Abbas' legacy may happen sooner than expected. For years, he has been rumoured to be on the verge of retiring, and many suspect he may now be setting the stage for his exit.

After his departure, however, young Palestinians may not be able - or willing - to pick up where he leaves off.

Analysts say that there is a fundamental shift in Palestinian public opinion away from the current leadership's preoccupation with negotiations. With their UN bid, Mr Abbas and his entourage appear to have finally recognised these changing political winds, but the realisation may have come far too late to alter their place in history in any substantial way.

"What the people are interested in is justice, freedom and equality, not negotiations and what the Americans and the Europeans think," said Mr Shihade of Birzeit University.

People will increasingly judge the leadership on whether it ends Israel's occupation and "whether they can legitimately represent a population that's no longer interested in the old ways, such as negotiations," he said.

For Palestinians such as Shirin Abu Fanouneh, 25, of Ramallah, the problem is one of priorities.

She and young Palestinians want an end to the division between the PA-ruled West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. They also demand elections, which have been repeatedly delayed by Mr Abbas since Hamas won parliamentary balloting in 2006 and defeated his Fatah party in a series of military clashes in the Strip a year later.

Some do not even oppose living under Israeli rule, as long as they receive equal rights. They believe non-violent tactics can make Israel's occupation too costly to sustain

"They've gone to the UN, but instead of consulting us, they are only consulting with America and the Europe," Ms Fanouneh said.

This attitude shift has largely resulted from the "old guard" Palestinian leadership that has clung to power for decades and failed to cultivate younger leaders, said Diana Buttu, a fellow at Harvard University's John F Kennedy School of Government and a former PLO legal adviser.

"A real problem for Fatah is that they haven't managed to get a younger support base," she said. "And even if they have managed that, they've never managed to rise up and take on midlevel and senior level positions within Fatah."

Fatah's central committee, which Mr Abbas chairs, is populated by men in their sixties and seventies. The youngest, 49-year-old Mohammed Dahlan, was expelled earlier this year.

All this may create an even more gridlocked peace process long after the UN initiative because, Ms Buttu said, the US and Israel will have to face "a much more hard-line [Palestinian] populace than they have in the past".

"That's why there is this fear in Israel that on the one hand, time is running out," she said. "But on the other, Israel is using the current leadership to extract as much as it can" in terms of concessions.