Crises at several levels

The recent statement attributed to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in which he declared his intention to resign at the end of this year if the current negotiations do not succeed in reaching agreement came as a surprise neither to the Palestinian people nor observers.

In fact, the Palestinian leadership has been one of the main victims of the Annapolis process. This is because this process was designed to suit the political needs of the American and Israeli sides at the expense of the interests of the Palestinian leadership.

US President George W. Bush–who proved in his recent speeches at the Israeli parliament and in Sharm al-Sheikh that he comes from a rather religious fundamentalist background–needed a political process to give the impression that he is trying to make peace in the Middle East. At the same time, however, it is clear that he is not actually interested in making peace, since that would require the kind of political pressure on Israel that he is simply not prepared to exert.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, needed a process to fend off domestic critics of his leadership. His government, however, is too weak even to engage in substantive negotiations.

With no serious intention to make peace on the part of these two parties, the weakening of the Palestinian leadership–which constitutes the peace camp and the secular segment of Palestinian society–was inevitable.

But to compound its troubles, the Palestinian leadership is facing a crisis of legitimacy on several levels. At the level of the PLO, the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people, there is an urgent need for fresh blood in the Executive Committee. The number of Executive Committee members now only just constitutes a quorum. Should another member pass away or be otherwise incapacitated, the PLO will be institutionally paralyzed. If the PLO fails to convene the National Council before this quorum is lost, it will lose legitimacy.

Fateh, the dominant party in the PLO, is in no better health. For years, younger members have asked that the party’s national congress be convened to elect new leaders within the party. If the congress is not held this summer, as scheduled, the current leadership of the party will lose legitimacy in the eyes of its own members, as well as the public at large, as indicated by several of the so-called young guard within the movement including the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti.

In addition, if there is no breakthrough either in the internal Palestinian dialogue between Fateh and Hamas or in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority will face a crisis of legitimacy come the new year when Abbas’ term comes to an end. Since the Palestinian Legislative Council is unable to convene due first to the imprisonment of many of its members by Israel and second because of the Hamas-Fateh split, the PA could also face paralysis. Israel has indicated that it will not allow new presidential elections, especially if Hamas should run, and the PA could end up with neither functioning parliament nor elected president.

The collapse of the Palestinian leadership and its legitimacy is catastrophic to Palestinians. It will also have very detrimental effects on the potential for peace with Israel and stability wherever there are Palestinians in the region.

But the potential for peace with Israel is in any case very remote. The Israeli leadership is very far from being ready to make peace. The current government, which until recently was prevented by its own coalition members as well as the opposition from even negotiating final status issues, is now further paralyzed by the new corruption scandal surrounding Olmert that may leave the whole political process in the air.

Indeed, negotiations for peace have several times in the past brought about crises of leadership in Israel. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and his successor Shimon Peres subsequently ousted in general elections in favor of the anti-peace process Binyamin Netanyahu. Ehud Barak, when prime minister, lost one part of his ruling coalition on his way to the Camp David talks in 2000 and another on his way home. If these past experiences are anything to go by, Olmert doesn’t stand a chance.