Convening the PLO's Central Council: A "bullet-less gun" pointing at Israel, and "no message" vis-à-vis the Palestinian public
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | February, 2022
|Photo: Kremlin.ru | CC BY 4.0|
The PLO's Central Council convened earlier this month, and made several dramatic announcements at the end of its conference. Such an event would usually have resonated in both Israel and the Palestinian system; and, indeed, the decisions taken during it were staggering, and may very well impact the PA's relationship with Israel, as well as the future of Palestinian leadership.
On the one hand, the council threatened to recant its recognition of Israel in light of the ongoing political stagnation (an ultimatum was set whereby negotiations are to be promoted until September 2022, or else the Palestinians would deliver on their threat and declare the establishment of an independent state within the 1967 borders). On the other hand, some of Abu Mazen's loyalists were appointed to positions in the PLO leadership, namely Hussein Al-Sheikh, Minister of Civil Affairs, who took a seat at the PLO's Executive Committee, and may also be given the responsibility for peace negotiations of which Sa`eb Erekat was in charge until his demise.
In practice, all the resolutions and announcements were received with indifference on the Israeli side and mockery on the Palestinian. The "stick" waved by Abu Mazen was described by many Palestinians as an empty threat, one of many that the Ramallah government has presented in recent years, although everyone knows he lacks the ability and desire to deliver on it as he fears losing personal and political assets. In this context, it is noteworthy that the council had decided in early 2015 to stop coordinating with Israel, and, of course, never did, attesting to the gap between the leadership's declarations and actions on the ground, as well as the PLO's lacking influence on the strategic decision-making process in the Palestinian system.
The "new-old" individuals' appointment was to inject "new blood" into the PLO's top echelon, and fortify Abu Mazen's close associates' status, inter alia in preparation for the "day after" Abu Mazen. In effect, however, it seems that this series of nominations (that included the replacement of elderly Palestinian National Council (PNC) Chairman Salim Za`noun with another representative of the older generation - Rawhi Fattouh) has only deepened the public's alienation toward the Palestinian leadership.
The appointments strengthened the image of the Palestinian administration as one that is detached and obsolete, honing the collective notion among Palestinians that the PLO is in its twilight years, struggling to establish relevance and the status of national leadership as it once did, and no longer serves as a promising stamp of legitimacy for future leaders in the Palestinian system.
Discourse has developed in this context in the media and public, centering on Hussein Al-Sheikh, who was painted as having allegedly improved his standing in the future race for presidency. Thus, "reminders" have emerged about his many years of involvement in affairs of corruption and nepotism, as well as the fact that he derives his power from his closeness to Abu Mazen (and Israel), while receiving little actual support from the public or his colleagues in Fatah. The heated discussion has led Al-Sheikh to declare in a series of "defensive" interviews given in recent days that he is not gearing himself up to be Abu Mazen's successor, and that the people alone shall choose the next Palestinian leader, not any nomination, Israeli pressure, or decision reached by regional or international forces.
The sarcastic attitude toward the PLO convention in particular, and the conduct of the Ramallah leadership in general, is constantly being fueled by Hamas. The organization is portraying the conference itself, as well as the decisions reached during it, as illegitimate, and a reflection of the Ramallah government's attempt to impose a national strategy and future leadership makeup on the Palestinians, instead of allowing the greater public to participate in the decision making, primarily by holding general elections (a step that Abu Mazen is disinclined to take because he realizes that he is weak in the eyes of both the public and Fatah).
The conference and decisions made in it have strategic implications for Israel that the latter must learn and internalize. First, many engaged in making assessments in Israel attribute too much weight to "formal procedures" in the Palestinian system, including such appointments, various kinds of establishment-issued resolutions and laws, describing them as determinants of dynamics in future scenarios, particularly on the "morning after" Abu Mazen.
The low status of the PLO and Palestinian public's profound alienation toward the leadership seated in Ramallah should prompt the idea that the public at large, and especially the younger generation, may refuse to accept those decisions that are reached through organized, institutionalized channels, leaving the future to be determined by the yearnings on the street, instead of the choices of a small group of senior leaders who have not even been formally elected.
Second, Israel's current strategy is based on preserving security calm by improving the economic reality – a policy that is being promoted both in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. There is a partner in the Palestinian Authority that also abides by improving civil reality as means of maintaining its control in the field, and avoids initiating dramatic crises with Israel despite the ongoing political stagnation between the two parties. Both Hussein Al-Sheikh and Majed Faraj, Head of the General Intelligence Services, are policy leaders on the Palestinian side that are perceived by Israel as "convenient partners" with shared strategic interests that could be lasting. However, we must also be aware of the shadows that accompany this leadership, namely its negative public image, and the fact that it has not been elected.
This top Palestinian echelon could therefore face difficult internal challenges that could go as far as to destabilize its status (particularly on the "day after" Abu Mazen), and make it hard for it to promote strategic political moves supported by the public, if and when the conditions for such developments should ripen.
In the same context, many in Israel tend to contend that, by preserving the economic reality in the Palestinian system, Abu Mazen's status and the strategy he represents are strengthened, while support of Hamas declines. This approach derives from a "western" thought pattern that has already failed in the Middle East in recent decades, as manifest in the American attempts to create a "new order" in various hubs in the region.
The Palestinian public, especially in the West Bank, is obviously pleased with the ongoing stability, and therefore avoids the pursuit of extensive confrontations with Israel that could risk its fabric of life (a goal that Hamas is interested in reaching but has thus far failed to achieve). However, at the same time, its attitude toward the Ramallah leadership is negative, and the points it seems to be scoring do not turn into admiration for the senior Ramallah officials (as reflected in the opinion polls that have been conducted for about a decade, indicating that 70–80 percent of the Palestinians hope to see Abu Mazen resign, and report having a low image of the Palestinian Authority).
And most importantly – the "bullet-less gun" held by the PA should not be a source of satisfaction for Israel. The Palestinian Authority's ability to take actions that would pose a threat to Israel is indeed limited, and the Palestinian public in the West Bank would prefer its fabric of life over engaging in another broad conflict with Israel, which, the past has shown, does not end in strategic accomplishments.
What Israel could wind up facing is therefore not scenarios whereby the PA "collapses", "throws in the towel" or erupts in a "third Intifada", but instead remains quiet while the two societies merge more and more, and the Palestinians devote themselves to the one-state idea. All the while, of course, Israel would lack the intention, awareness or foresight, and may find itself in a future reality that would threaten its ability to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.
 Interview for Al-Sharq TV, 14 February, 2022.
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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