The PA and PLO are flirting with irrelevancy

Statehood for Palestine is only one of many steps the PA/PLO must take to achieve true independence.

Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah
In the unlikely event that the UN Security Council grants Palestine statehood, Palestine will remain a de facto territory of Israel unless further steps are taken [EPA]

Palestinian leadership may achieve recognition, but can it achieve independence?

Middle Eastern analysts concerned with the Palestinian statehood bid have rightly highlighted the benefits conferred by such status. They assume, however, that the current Palestinian leadership is willing to take the necessary steps to lead Palestinians from statehood on paper to independence in practise.

In the early 1990s, the Palestinian leadership supplanted its struggle for self-determination with a state-building project. In its narrow pursuit of a mandate to govern, it placed undue faith in the US’ willingness, and arguably its ability, to pressure Israel to end its prolonged occupation, thus shunning a resistance platform. In its bid for statehood, the Palestinian leadership must resume its self-determination struggle. Doing so requires that it abandon any faith that US benevolence will deliver independence.

Consequently, such a resumption means resisting the US’ unequivocal support for Israel as well as a willingness to take the lead from Palestinian civil society, which has successfully led a global boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign aimed at pressuring Israel to comply with international law and human rights norms.

From statehood to independence

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) has held observer status in the United Nations since 1974. To achieve recognition as a state, the PLO needs to garner the vote of two-thirds of the 192 member states. To be admitted as a member state in the UN, the UN Security Council must first make a recommendation to the General Assembly. According to the International Court of Justice, admission into the United Nations as a member state is impossible without a Security Council recommendation. The 1950 Advisory Opinion on Article 4, paragraph 2 of the UN Charter holds that “recommendation of the Security Council is the condition precedent to the decision of the Assembly by which the admission is effected”. It is clear that the United States, a permanent member of the Security Council, will veto such a recommendation.

In all likelihood, the majority of UN member states will recognise Palestine within the General Assembly, thereby granting Palestine statehood but not UN membership. In the unlikely scenario that the US does not block a Security Council recommendation and Palestine also achieves membership, Israel will still prevent Palestinians from exercising control over their natural resources, ports of entry, movement, security, education, and economy.

Therefore, with or without statehood, Palestinians will still need to wage a robust, multi-dimensional, and global campaign to achieve self-determination. Such a scenario is not unique as demonstrated by the Namibian precedent, which achieved UN recognition in 1962 but did not achieve independence from South Africa until 1988. 

Therefore, while analysts sympathetic to Palestinian self-determination are debating the benefits of statehood and how to best achieve it, the better question to ask is whether such a bid is part of a broader reorientation in goals and strategies on the part of the current Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian Authority (PA), no longer distinct from the PLO, which I will refer to as the PA/PLO, is marred by a dismal track record in the past two decades, making such a reorientation highly unlikely, but not impossible.

Protect Palestinians, not the occupation

Within the current status quo, Palestinians neither benefit from their status as a dispossessed nation entitled to self-determination nor as citizens of a sovereign state adorned with all the duties and responsibilities of a sovereign entity. Instead, the US-brokered peace process has made the Palestinian people appear to be equal counterparts to the Israeli state, while their lived realities reflect no such parity. Worse, in its futile attempt to demonstrate its capacity to govern and maintain order, the PA/PLO has arguably relieved Israel of at least a portion of its military burden as an occupying power.

In the West Bank, the PA/PLO has not demanded a peacekeeping force to protect Palestinian civilians from Israeli military forces patrolling their lives and homes. Instead the PA/PLO has steadily built a security apparatus popularly known as the Dayton Forces to police Palestinians. Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton, in his description of his forces’ role in the West Bank during Israel’s twenty-two-day offensive against Gaza, clearly articulates the seemingly seamless alliance with the PA/PLO:

The IDF also felt – after the first week or so – that the Palestinians were there and they could trust them. As a matter of fact, a good portion of the Israeli army went off to Gaza from the West Bank – think about that for a minute – and the commander was absent for eight straight days. That shows the kind of trust they were putting in these people now.

As Palestinian security forces earned the trust of the Israeli military, Palestinian civilians continued to be subject to the violent brunt of Israel’s military occupation. A short survey of this ongoing violence would include the forced population transfer of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, the rise in Israeli settler violence against Palestinians, and the incarceration of Palestinian children in Israeli military prisons.

Resistance, not compliance

For the length of Oslo’s two decades, the PA/PLO has appeased the US in the delusional hope that Israel’s staunchest ally would deliver some palatable version of freedom to appease their constituencies and serve their interests. Palestinian statehood may be in the US’ best interest; however, rather than broker peace, the US has served as Israel’s advocate by shielding it from accountability, and served as its benefactor by subsidising its colonial expansionist enterprise.

The US has insisted that the only resolution to the conflict will be through political negotiations. In doing so, they continue an all-too-familiar pattern of the disavowal of Israel as an occupying power, the bald disregard for human rights and international law, the circumvention of the illegality of settlements, and the denial of the refugees’ individual and collective rights.

This pattern has been central to the Oslo process. Rather than establish peace on a rights-based framework, as has been the case in Ireland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and South Africa, the US treats the case of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as if there are no terms of reference. Each new peace process cycle resumes from a new point of departure that deems Israel’s creeping annexation of the West Bank as the new basis for pragmatism.

For example, drafters of the Oslo Accords deliberately omitted reference to Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of an occupying power’s population into the territory it occupies, and relegated the settlements to final status negotiations.

Consequently, today Palestinian negotiators must contend with nearly 500,000 settlers, whereas only 250,000 colonised the West Bank at the advent of the peace process in 1991. The US accepts these developments, which constitute the basis of ongoing conflict, without contest. President Barack Obama said so himself when he explained, “The basis for negotiations will involve looking at the 1967 border, recognising that conditions on the ground have changed, and there are going to need to be swaps to accommodate the interests of both sides.”

Rather than resist the US’ unequivocal support for Israel, the PA/PLO has fully complied with its prerogatives. The Palestinian leadership should have either demanded clear terms of reference or walked away from the counter-productive peace process long ago. Instead, it pursued neither option, as the Palestine Papers illustrated with devastating clarity.

The statehood bid is the PA/PLO’s first direct confrontation of the Israeli occupation and US support for it since the peace process. However, unless the PA/PLO considers the bid the first step on a new strategic course, the diplomatic manoeuvre is little more than a bluff, a slight diversion before resuming the status quo of US-brokered bilateral negotiations.

Charting a new course

In a lucid policy memo, legal scholar Victor Kattan lists the many benefits of statehood. These include immunity from suit for acts of terrorism in US courts, jurisdiction in the International Criminal Court, and status for Palestinian militants as soldiers entitled to protections of the Second Geneva Conventions, as opposed to their current status as “terrorists”. However, reading Kattan’s memo one would think that but for the lack of statehood, the PA/PLO would have made significant strides in protecting Palestinian rights.

Yet as demonstrated by the missed opportunities of the 2009 Goldstone Report and the 2004 International Court of Justice (ICJ) Advisory Opinion, that is not the case. Instead, failure to further the cause for Palestinian self-determination reflects a strategic choice on the part of current Palestinian leadership and not a lack of capacity.

The PA/PLO did not use the Goldstone Report to hold Israel to account for its alleged war crimes during Operation Cast Lead. Instead, the PA/PLO delayed its review by the Human Rights Council for the sake of attaining the US’ offer of a better negotiating position. While the Palestinian leadership waited for the US to deliver on its empty promises, international civil society worked furiously to sue alleged Israeli war criminals in European courts under universal jurisdiction.

While no trials have ensued, their efforts have deterred Israelis from travelling to Europe. Moreover, Israel has now developed a legal fund to challenge such attempts, which counter the Zionist narrative of a courageous David facing the menacing Arab Goliath.

Similarly, the 2004 ICJ Advisory Opinion held the route of Israel’s separation barrier illegal for being built inside the occupied West Bank as opposed to on the 1949 Armistice Line and affirmed the illegality of Israel’s settlements. Accordingly, the world’s highest judicial tribunal recommended that all state parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention cease to, or refrain from, aiding in Israel’s expansion of the wall. The PA/PLO had the perfect opportunity to run a diplomatic marathon and encourage the signatories of the Geneva Conventions to either impose sanctions on Israel for its ongoing constructions, cease the sale of any materials intended for the development of the wall, or to refuse to purchase Israeli goods produced in the illegal settlements.

The PA/PLO did nothing of the sort, and exactly one year later, a broad swath of Palestinian civil society organisations launched the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel. To date, the scarcely funded international BDS movement has made tremendous strides in fulfilling the ICJ’s recommendations. Most notably, it has encouraged several European banks to sell their holdings in Veolia, a French multinational company set to build Jerusalem’s light rail system to connect illegal Israeli settlements. Their gains have been so effective that last week, the Israeli Knesset passed a new law prohibiting Israeli individuals and organisations from boycotting settlement products and Israeli enterprises.

Statehood may afford the PA/PLO with more meaningful means to challenge Israel’s occupation and apartheid. However, the lack of such status was not the sole obstacle containing the PA/PLO’s resistance to injustice. In the meantime, Palestinian and global civil society have made strident gains. The missing link is not statehood, it is a commitment to resist rather than appease Israeli occupation and US prerogatives. 

The statehood bid will be yet another test of  this commitment. Both houses of the US Congress have overwhelmingly voted to cut aid to Palestinians if the PA/PLO pursues its statehood ambitions. In a striking resemblance to its choice for a better negotiation position in lieu of accountability for war crimes committed during Operation Cast Lead, the PA/PLO ambassador to the US responded by proclaiming the indeterminacy of the statehood bid “if negotiations resume“.

Failure to pass this threshold will signal the irrelevance of the PA/PLO altogether.

But ultimately, statehood is not the panacea for independence. It is but one step of many that the Palestinian leadership has failed to take for the past two decades. These missed, but still necessary, steps must focus on applying pressure upon Israel to abandon its colonial practises, dismantle its apartheid system, and come into compliance with international law and human rights norms. The PA/PLO need not look very far for useful strategies as its own Palestinian grassroots leaders, organizers, and activists have steadily and successfully stayed the course towards meaningful self-determination.

For the statehood bid to be significant for Israel, for the United states, and for the Palestinian people, it must be part of a much larger reorientation in strategy and aims. At the centre of such a shift, the PA/PLO must be ready to take its lead from the bottom.

Noura Erakat is a Palestinian human rights attorney and activist. She is currently an adjunct professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in Georgetown University. She is also a co-editor of

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.