The Palestinian Leadership…to Where?
An open letter to President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas Political Chief Khaled Meshal, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh
Dear President Abbas, Mr. Meshal, and Prime Minister Haniyeh,
I am writing this open letter to you because I believe that it's time for you to take a hard look at the dismal reality to which your people have been subjected for nearly seven decades, especially since 1967. It is time to reconsider your positions, muster the courage to change course, and give the Palestinians, young and old, the hope for a better and more promising future.
Since President Abbas has for 10 years subscribed to peaceful coexistence by renouncing violence and recognizing Israel, let me first address Mr. Meshal and Mr. Haniyeh:
Nearly all Palestinians want to live in peace with Israel because they know deep inside that they do not have another choice. Time and again they have lived through the terrifying consequences of violent confrontations with Israel, which are compounded with every new eruption of hostilities.
You speak on behalf of your people, but do you really hear their cry, do you feel their pain, do you experience their living conditions, do you have a real sense of their despair? If you did, you would not have allowed a single Palestinian to suffer helplessly for another day.
Sadly, you chose to preserve the status quo because it presumably legitimizes your grip on power while riding on the backs of ordinary Palestinians, whose simple dream is to live in peace and dignity that you deny because of your illusions and continued defiance of Israel.
You have cynically perpetuated the Palestinian refugee problem by using them as pawns, making them believe that the day of salvation is near and that they will all return to their homes, knowing full well that that day will never come.
You let them languish in refugee camps in the name of protecting their “right of return” while you enjoy the luxury and the comfort for which a multitude of Palestinians pay the price.
You are robbing a fourth generation of young men and women of a promising future and productive life. Instead, you are preparing them to die for an elusive cause–the inevitable demise of Israel—when only death lurks in the shadows of their shattered dreams.
It is time to abandon your pipe-dreams of destroying Israel and ponder over the plight of many thousands of Palestinian children who go to bed hungry and sick, only to wake up in the morning wondering why they must endure another day of hunger and destitution.
You never hear their cries; they need roofs that don't leak, schools that teach rather than preach, health clinics that heal the wounds, wholesome food to nurture their frail bodies, clean water to quench their thirst, and a new horizon to rescue their fading hopes.
You are under fire from your own constituents for failing to rebuild Gaza nearly two years since the last war with Israel in July 2014; schools and courts are often closed, medical facilities are shuttered, sewage runs through the streets, piles of garbage are everywhere, government employees are staying home, and political disagreements often lead to murder.
The recent civil servant strike was not against Israel, and no Israeli flag was set on fire. 50,000 workers in Gaza went on strike because they cannot make ends meet due to your failure to pay them their hard-earned salaries since 2014, but you blame Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to cover your squandering of funds.
In times of relative quiet, you indoctrinate, train, and prepare the young to fight another senseless war against Israel, and in times of war you use women and children as human shields, boasting about your heroism while you live in hiding to protect your skin.
You seem to relish ruling over dispirited and dispossessed people. They will recover once you have gone, leaving behind a legacy of delusional leaders who betrayed their people and vanished in disgrace.
Internal political discord:
You are duplicitous politicians, like the blind leading the blind; both of you have your own personal schemes, surrounding yourselves with morally tainted 'Yes men' who are vested in your warped ideology that has for decades been misleading every Palestinian.
You suffer from mutually maligning political discord between you and within your armed wings, and you refuse to reconcile with the PA, whose President (Abbas) remains the legitimate head of the Palestinian national movement and the de facto head of state.
With chaos among the leadership, you move from one crisis to another, leading by your whims while trying to outwit each other.
Abbas recognizes the urgent need to make peace with Israel to give the people a new horizon and the prospect of better days, but you steer against the public's powerful desire for peace in order to serve your bankrupt political agenda, sabotaging peace further and further each passing day.
By now, you should recognize that time is not on your side; you must reconcile with the reality of Israel and accept the centrality of peace with Israel based on a two-state solution.
Like your counterpart the PA, you must embrace the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which provides you with the political cover to negotiate peace without losing face. The API calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders (with some land swaps), which you, Mr. Meshal, have endorsed on a number of occasions.
Based on prior negotiations, there are several critical common denominators in the API that a majority of Palestinians and Israelis share, including a realistic solution to the refugee problem and the future status of Jerusalem, which the entire Arab and Muslim world supports.
The only prerequisite for you is to renounce the use of force, agree with the PA to conduct fair and free elections, and let the people be free to choose who represents their aspirations to lead them on the path to peace. You should remember what Gandhi once said: “Non-violence is a weapon of the strong.”
This step alone, if faithfully embraced, will persuade the Israelis to reevaluate their position as to whether or not you are ready to negotiate peace in good faith, and will certainly encourage Western powers to remove your name from the list of terrorist organizations.
Your policy toward Israel:
At the time Israel was created, a Palestinian state could have also been established. Since then, Israel has become a formidable global power and a leader in technology, medicine, renewable energy, land development, and military industry, while a multitude of Palestinians are still languishing in refugee camps.
If we do not judge the leadership by what they have accomplished for their people, how do you explain why seven decades later, so many Palestinians are still living in poverty and despair?
Given the opportunity and education, the Palestinian people could accomplish just as much as the Israelis; they are hardworking, creative, and resourceful, but unfortunately are led astray by poor and misguided leaders.
Leaders like you have been stifling their innate talents and teaching them how to hate and kill instead of schooling them on how to build a promising future and lead a productive life that every Palestinian deserves.
For you, Israel was always a convenient scapegoat—you blame Israel for the dilapidated classrooms, for lack of health clinics, for unpaved roads, for running sewage, for the continuing existence of refugee camps, for the lack of housing—indeed, for all your ills.
Yes, whether or not Israel bears some responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians, especially the refugees, Israel will be involved in the search for a mutually acceptable solution.
You still must face the inescapable requisite to reconcile with Israel's existence and begin the process of changing the Palestinians' perception by offering a new narrative about the inevitability of peaceful coexistence, however long that might take.
You never understood the Israelis' mindset about their national security, which is rooted in an unfathomably terrifying historical experience. It is deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of every Israeli that no enemy who poses an imminent danger to Israel's existence will live to see the day of its destruction.
No power can force Israel's hand as long as the country continues to have legitimate national security concerns—not so much with respect to secure borders, but about your intentions, which you foolishly reinforce through your acrimonious public discourse laden with hatred and repeated existential threats.
You can build hundreds of tunnels and acquire thousands more rockets. You can inflict on Israel some structural damage and perhaps scores of casualties and claim your usual 'hollow victory,' but you should know by now what would be the price.
Whether or not it is justified, no country or coalition of countries can compel Israel to lift the Gaza blockade as long as you deny its right to exist, which only plays into the hands of hardcore Israelis.
Instead, you refuse to give up the comfort of your illusions, which reminds me of the wise saying that “One sometimes weeps over one's illusions with as much bitterness as over a death.”
You need not recognize Israel first and accept prior agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as the Quartet demands, but you must renounce violence as a means by which to achieve the Palestinians' aspiration for a two-state solution.
Indeed, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed: “Nonviolence is power, but it is the right and good use of power.” And I might add, nonviolence is the only option by which the Palestinians can realize a state of their own side-by-side the state of Israel.
You should know that your extremism is weakening the hand of moderate Israelis who seek peace, and deepening the resolve of the right-of-center who oppose the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Polls have shown that a consistent majority of Israelis and Palestinians support the two-state solution, but you deny them even the dream of living in peace, because peace will render your ideology irrelevant.
In the current atmosphere of intense hatred and doubt, words and promises alone will not suffice unless you exhibit a stark departure from your past violent resistance and start by erecting the foundation of the Palestinian state.
Demonstrate that by taking concrete actions on the land under your control and build the pillars of an independent democratic state for all to see. Every day you live in denial of this Palestinian aspiration is another day of infamy because the public—women and children, the old and the sick—are paying the price.
Instead of building tunnels, construct housing units for the needy; Instead of buying rockets, procure agricultural equipment for farmers; Instead of purchasing weapons, invest in infrastructure and job creation; Instead of constructing more mosques, build schools and higher educational institutions; Instead of misusing funds on an inflated bureaucracy, build health clinics and hospitals; Instead of handouts, focus on sustainable economic development projects;And instead of enslaving the Palestinians, empower them and instill a sense of dignity.
You must either lead them to realize their destiny, or resign in shame for betraying their trust and victimizing yet another innocent generation.
To Mr. Abbas:
Unlike Haniyeh and Meshal, you have demonstrated moderation, patience, and a genuine intention to seek peace with Israel based on a two-state solution, and you have legitimate grievances resulting from the seemingly unending and debilitating occupation.
In a recent interview, you wisely condemned the so-called 'Knife Intifada,' as the random stabbing and killing of innocent Israelis severely undermines your cause and rallies all Israelis behind the government's iron-fisted response, regardless of what precipitated this rampage.
I agree that Palestinian frustration and hopelessness drives this kind of violence, which is largely attributed to the unending occupation. Still, the cold-blooded murder of Israelis only makes matters worse and overshadows the reason behind the “revolt” against the occupation.
Although the Palestinians are enjoying increased political and economic support from the international community, they offer only a symbolic recognition of Palestine, which is still far from being a functional, independent Palestinian state and an active member of the community of nations. I would avoid the following measures that you have contemplated at one time or another.
Going to the United Nations for recognition may succeed, but no viable state will rise unless it is fully negotiated with Israel, and all parties agree on a permanent peaceful solution.
Threatening to end security cooperation with Israel only reverses years of collaboration, which is essential during the peace process and even more so once peace is established, as it offers the best means by which to sustain peace and prevent radicals from sabotaging it.
Resigning from your office and dismantling the Palestinian Authority is no better option. Though Israel will be burdened by assuming the mammoth responsibility of de facto running another country, you may be playing into the hand of a huge Israeli constituency who seeks to annex much of the West Bank and prevent the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
What you have not given sufficient attention to, however, is civil disobedience, which is perhaps the most effective way to change the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no better time than now to embrace non-violence to make your case.
Civil disobedience—which requires immense courage, patience, discipline, and inner strength—will prove to be far more potent than any violent act, provided the Palestinians never preach or resort to violence regardless of intimidation, even if violence is used against them by Israeli forces.
Civil disobedience must take the form of collective peaceful non-cooperation while focusing on the Palestinians' state of affairs, which can only bestow a strong moral component to the cause.
As Dr. King put it: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
Civil disobedience includes tactics such as: engaging in silent protests in front of checkpoints and along the separation barrier, staging peaceful demonstrations (especially by Palestinian women) and large solidarity marches, and occupying strategic public places.
Additional tactics include chaining oneself to objects and to one another, defying curfews, filling Israeli jails by peacefully surrendering to Israeli security forces, and disobeying laws that ban the flying of the Palestinian flag while preventing the burning of Israeli flags.
I am prepared to go as far as suggesting, however farfetched it may seem, that the Palestinians should raise the Israeli flag side by side the Palestinians' to demonstrate to every Israeli the Palestinians' acceptance of peaceful coexistence under any circumstances.
Your best ally and supporter to end the occupation is in fact the Israeli public—you must persuade the Israelis of your good intentions and reinforce what you have recently stated, that you “want to see peace in [your] lifetime”, and you are ready to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu “at any time.”
Mr. Abbas, you have persevered this long, and if I were you, I would continue my peaceful fight and focus on reconciliation, first by demanding from your subordinates to tone down their acrimonious narrative against Israel. Second, you must insist on a reconciliation process through people-to-people projects on which to build a lasting solution.
After seven decades, all Palestinians, young and old, have the inherent right to live in peace:
Free of the shackles that have stemmed their growth;Free of the occupation that has robbed them of their freedom;Free of misguided leaders who have been using them as objects;Free of sinister and selfish politicians;Free to live a productive life with dignity;And free to live with Israel in peace and amity.
Whereas Israel has become a leading country in so many spheres of life, it has failed to confront its conflict with the Palestinians, without which all of its achievements will not enjoy a day of peace and secure future.
The Palestinian leadership chose to battle Israel on every front, depriving their people of the prospect of living in peace and denying the inescapable reality that Israel is here to stay. Both Israelis and Palestinians alike must accept that their destinies are and will remain intertwined and it takes leaders with courage, vision, and determination to guide them to their shared destiny.
***Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.