Palestinian leadership vacuum

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat
Foreign and Commonwealth Office / Wikimedia Commons

Saeb Erekat was the Palestinians’ chief peace negotiator with Israel since the 1990s. He was accusatory, confrontational and uncompromising in his public persona, but was reportedly more realistic and accommodating in private. When he died in an Israeli hospital last week of complications from COVID-19, the 65-year-old’s death symbolized the intertwining fate of the Palestinians and Israel, and his trust in the humanity of his people’s adversary.

Erekat belonged to the generation of Palestinian leadership that abandoned the ideology of armed struggle against Israel and sought nonviolent means to reach an agreement that would include a two-state solution. His role in the failure of that mission, thus far, is a reflection of his willingness to go along with, rather than oppose, the uncompromising demands of his movement’s political leadership.

But Erekat had his fans: “Any reckoning of Erekat’s legacy includes his consistent espousal of nonviolence, his consistent embrace of two states, and his consistent willingness to reject the anti-normalization movement and engage with Israelis of all stripes,” the Israel Policy Forum wrote last week. And according to the Washington Institute’s David Makovsky writing in the Forward, Erekat “definitely wanted peace with Israel [even though] he could be tenacious and his style could be very strident.”

Erekat and his fellow negotiators were limited by the famously indecisive and wholly uncreative Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who has not been able to move beyond the Palestinian National Movement’s initial blood oath against Israel. That intransigence has prompted repeated refusals to consider any deal that did not turn the clock back to 1948. And that failed approach has negatively impacted the daily lives of millions of Palestinians.

Will a new generation of Palestinian leadership accomplish what the ever-optimistic Erekat and ever-obdurate Abbas could not? Is there a new, credible Palestinian leader who can engage with Israel and test Israel’s repeatedly proclaimed willingness to come to terms? If so, who?

We hear the names Marwan Barghouti and Mohammed Dahlan as possible answers. Barghouti is in an Israeli jail, where he is serving five life sentences for terrorist murders. Dahlan — who served as Arafat’s security man in Gaza — is in exile in Abu Dhabi, following a falling out with Abbas. But Dahlan has surfaced as a player of sorts, spreading the largesse of his UAE host’s money over the West Bank and Gaza. Through those efforts — and his apparent political dexterity and alliance flexibility — he has managed to get on good terms with many senior Palestinians, except Abbas.

What’s frustrating for the Palestinian people, and for those eager to engage with them, is the dearth of alternative leadership possibilities in the Palestinian political ranks. Part of the problem is that none of the younger generation have been given meaningful opportunities to lead, and another is there hasn’t been a Palestinian Legislative Council election since 2006.

Without a next generation of leaders, the Palestinians are left with the dwindling remnants of their old, unsuccessful leadership, as Israel and the world await the emergence of a credible peace partner.

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