It’s not the economy, stupid, that’s shaking the foundations of the Palestinian Authority. On the contrary: For the new, angry, disillusioned young generation of Palestinians, the economy is a tool Israel uses to perpetuate PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s tottering regime.
They see Israel periodically injecting funds into the ailing authority’s empty veins in an effort to keep it alive. They also see the PA pegged down at bare subsistence levels, without state authority or geographical contiguity, an undeveloped economy totally dependent on Israel and foreign donors, and a Palestinian elite accorded VIP status in reward for its collaboration in maintaining the status quo.
No, for the New Palestinians it’s the politics that aren’t working. They see America’s abdication from the flagging political process, the EU laboring under acute domestic troubles and its leaders filled with despair over the Middle East. Like a priest who continues to preach every Sunday long after he has lost his faith, they hear the Quartet continuing to declaim the political process mantra, while behind closed doors senior European diplomats admit they haven’t got a clue what to do next.
And why should they? It is devilishly difficult to jettison a political paradigm on which all Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts have been based for the past three decades. In essence it goes like this: As the sole representative of the Palestinian people, the PLO is Israel’s logical partner for peace talks that will lead to a bilateral agreement transforming the situation on the ground and ending the occupation.
After almost 30 years during which this has been universally axiomatic, it is time to take stock: Today there is no longer a sole Palestinian representative – Hamas is in the game too. Moreover, the talks singularly failed to produce a permanent settlement or end the occupation. On the contrary, the reality on the ground has changed for the worse, to the extent that among the New Palestinians belief in the in the two-state solution is rapidly dwindling.
The young generation sees Abbas and his people at a loose end, with no practical program or longer term vision. In their view, Abbas is simply playing for time, hoping against hope that, perhaps, after the elections in the US and Israel, the international community will force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. Because Abbas takes very seriously an American threat to cut all funding to the PA if it seeks UN recognition as a non-member state, he is still dithering over whether to go for it. The young people also hear him talking about non-violent resistance to the occupation, while doing virtually nothing to promote it.
For their part, it is hard for the Palestinian leadership to admit that the plan to build a well-functioning state-in-the-making has failed. And not just because of Israel. The parliament is paralyzed and the president has been ruling by decree since his term expired nearly three years ago. The police and security services are inclined to use exaggerated force, violating basic human rights and curbing free speech.
But the New Palestinians are already on a different wavelength. They see the Arab peoples around them rising up against failed, anti-democratic and corrupt leaders, and ask what about us? PA employees at the bottom of the pay scale compare their miserable salaries, which don’t come on time, with the ostentatious highliving of PA officials in Ramallah. Increasingly, young, frustrated and often unemployed people are reaching the conclusion that they need to step up and lead the fight for a better future themselves.
These angry, young men and women are proposing a radical new paradigm: Instead of a discourse on statehood, a discourse on rights. In other words, not to focus on the establishment of state institutions, but on individual and collective rights – and, if necessary, to demand them of Israel, the ruling power.
It is hard to say what the Arab Spring will bring or who will lead it when it erupts among the Palestinians, except that it probably won’t be Abbas. In contrast to the two previous intifadas, which were aimed exclusively against Israel, the “Palestinian Spring” seems almost certain to start out as a protest against the PA and its leaders.