There is no turning back now.
Whatever doubt people may have had about whether the Palestinian leadership would head to the Security Council during the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting were put to rest by a host of last-minute public declarations, including a speech by the Palestinian president and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and a blanketing of the West Bank in billboards and advertisements.
This has all been done to get a skeptical Palestinian populace behind their leadership in a show of unity as Abbas heads to New York, where he will deliver a speech to the UN and submit an application for membership to the international body.
Yet, more important than what happens at the United Nations – which is already known, given the United States’ loud proclamations to defeat the bid with a veto if necessary – will be what occurs in the days following.
Given what has been taking place on the ground, it is quite possible that popular grievances and the lack of national consensus among Palestinians could erupt into the open space that the United Nations initiative will inevitably create.
Despite backing from government supporters, many Palestinians are unsure where they stand in regards to the initiative, the discussion of which has been almost nonexistent between the political class and the average citizen.
Even in the highest political circles, harmony was far from ever being achieved. This has in turn caused many people within the occupied territories and in the Palestinian Diaspora to raise questions as to the potentially treacherous implications of this path, such as its effect on the status of Palestinian refugees, the PLO, and punitive responses from Israel and the United States.
Even more vocal are the calls for real representation in determining the strategy that lies ahead for Palestinians in their quest for national liberation –appeals which reached their high-water mark during the March 15th protests this year.
It is quite possible that if these grievances are not addressed soon, the leadership’s bid for statehood and the ensuing protests they are likely to generate could push a wide breadth of the Palestinian populace into a Tahrir-like movement for accountability.
These Palestinians feel they have been cut off from the decision-making process because the traditional vehicle for achieving consensus among Palestinians worldwide, the National Council of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PNC), is no longer a properly functioning body, suffering from an unelected and aging membership that is increasingly disconnected from its people. Both the Executive Committee and the Central Council of the PLO, which do continue to meet regularly and make decisions, are equally unrepresentative, having last been elected in 1996.
Updates were only made in 2009, when too many members of the Executive Committee were deceased to hold a quorum.
Moreover, the PLO as an umbrella organization for the major political factions does not include Hamas, the Islamist movement that has significant support among the Palestinian people and remains in control of the Gaza Strip. Nor does it include any of the newer political parties formed during the last several years.
Nevertheless, it is still this institution, which is globally recognized as the “sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” that is charged with leading the national movement and making the critical decisions that will determine its future.
For years now, the need for serious reforms, or even a restructuring of the PLO, has been widely stipulated, with no practical action having been taken. Yet the status quo, while having been sustainable for quite some time, may finally be reaching a head. In particular, the PLO may find whatever initiatives it takes on behalf of the Palestinian people to be moot, lacking in representational legitimacy.
Of critical importance to the current initiative, the PLO is still operating under the assumption that the Palestinian consensus remains with a negotiated two-state solution. This may very well still be true, but with 23 years having elapsed from the time that consensus was first reached and the situation on the ground far different than it was in the late 1980s, there is certainly a widespread belief that the two-state solution is no longer feasible, let alone desirable.
Even more problematic are the potential consequences of the U.N. bid. Indeed, renowned legal scholar Guy Goodwin-Gill created a major stir recently among Palestinians in the occupied territories and abroad when he released a detailed legal opinion stressing that a move to elevate the status of the Palestinians at the U.N. to that of a statehood member could prejudice the very ability of the PLO to represent Palestinians worldwide.
Goodwin-Gill, who was part of the legal team that argued on behalf of the illegality of Israel’s separation wall at the International Court of Justice in 2004, found that the “move to enhance the Palestinian presence in the U.N. through ‘statehood’ nevertheless carries the risk of fragmentation – where the state represents the people within the U.N. and the PLO represents the people outside the U.N.
Such a division of representation would run counter to the status quo and to the original intent of the international community in recognising the PLO,” he said, defending his position in the Guardian.
Yet the Palestinian leadership seems bent on adhering to this latest initiative and letting the chips fall where they may. Although there is good reason to pursue the U.N. strategy, the decision should ultimately come from the will of the people properly represented in the Palestinian National Council.
This requires the political will necessary to execute critical reform within the defunct PLO body so that a consensus can once again be achieved. If this fails to happen we could finally see the events of this fall push the Palestinian people into their own version of the Arab Spring.
Omar H. Rahman is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah, covering the socio-political issues of the Middle East. His work has been published in Foreign Policy, the Guardian and Alarabiya, among other publications. His website is www.orahman.com.