Palestinian National Council Reconvenes in Ramallah: We’ve seen this movie before!

The Palestinian National Council (PNC), the legislative arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), held its 23rd full session in Ramallah, Palestine on April 30, 2018, after a 22-year hiatus. The meeting, symbolically dubbed as the session on “Jerusalem and safeguarding Palestinian legitimacy,” lasted for four days and focused on critical issues including current and future political challenges confronting the Palestinians, the fate of past agreements with Israel, the rumored US proposal by President Donald Trump known as the “Deal of the Century,” internal Palestinian reconciliation, and political relations with neighboring Arab countries. The PNC was expected to debate and adopt a new strategy and elect an Executive Committee to guide the PLO in its current existential fight for relevance.

The PNC session took place at a very difficult juncture in Palestinian politics where domestic, regional, and international factors have converged to present the most serious threat to the Palestine cause since the creation of Israel and the subsequent Nakba in 1948. These complicated factors, which will undoubtedly impact the outcome of the PNC deliberations, include:

  1. The internal ideological and political division between Fatah and Hamas over governance and the future vision for the organization, which led to the current seemingly irreconcilable conflict between the two major Palestinian camps.
  2. The collapse of the Oslo Process between the PLO and Israel and the subsequent demise of the two-state solution.
  3. The institutionalization of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the siege of Gaza, which leave the Palestinians with no hope for a feasible negotiated end to this political state of limbo prevailing since 1967.
  4. The collective resignation from the Arab-Israeli conflict of most Arab countries, which no longer consider this conflict a national priority.
  5. The ongoing crisis in Palestinian-US relations emanating from the Trump Administration’s policy shift on Jerusalem and attempts to impose a new Pax Americana deal on the region which most Palestinians view with extreme suspicion.

Key Factions Absent from the Council

The PNC was not devoid of controversy, as evidenced by the intra-Palestinian tensions of the past few months. The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) objected to the agenda, format, timing, and venue of the assembly and was subsequently joined by Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and other opposition groups in boycotting the event, which they perceived as illegitimate and factional. According to albawaba.com, more than 100 members of the 740-member body were absent, “including dozens allied to Hamas, who have signed a letter opposing the meeting.”

The opposition to the Ramallah gathering stemmed from internal Palestinian differences over the membership of the PNC, its structure, mission, and governance. Hamas, which has never been admitted as a member of the council, expressed reservations about its representative nature, particularly the undue control by Fatah over the institution. Its spokesman, Salah Bardawil, minced no words by stating, “The Ramallah meeting absolutely does not represent the Palestinian people, not on a legal nor on a political level.” Although Hamas was joined by the PFLP in boycotting the 23rd PNC session, a PFLP statement stressed the importance of the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” and opposed any attempt “to dismantle it or create alternatives to it.”

Fatah Rationale for Convening the PNC

Under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah dismissed criticism by Hamas and other political opposition groups, with Abbas emphasizing the need to pursue “a united front against Israel and the United States” to face current and future challenges faced by the PLO. They insisted that the PNC session represents a turning point in Palestinian politics, one that will open the door to reconsidering Palestinian recognition of Israel, changing the aging leadership of the PLO, and transforming the institutional functions of the Palestinian Authority.

PLO Executive Committee member Saeb Erekat emphasized that the PNC meeting “is a turning point for the Palestinians in this critical junction” to confront Israeli opposition to “two states—Israel and Palestine living side by side.” Current observer member of the PLO Executive Committee Wasel Abu Yousef argued that, “This meeting is vital to continue the Palestinian efforts to end divisions and fragmentation between Palestinian factions…[The PNC] will elect new executive bodies that will push forward, in support of Palestinian national rights.”

President Mahmoud Abbas described his rationale for convening the PNC session in unusually arbitrary, conspiratorial, and stark terms. In his keynote speech to the 23rd PNC session, he stated, “We live conspiracies of the past, because there are those who do not want this council to meet, which means an end to the PLO and then it will be the end of the Palestinian dream.” He concluded, “If this session did not convene, the national dream would have been in danger.”

Abbas’s Farewell Speech

In a rambling two-hour speech before the delegates at the PNC session, Abbas summarized his strategy for leading the Palestinian people in this manner:

  • He urged the Council to adopt the initiative he presented at the United Nations Security Council on February 20, 2018.
  • He hinted at adopting some “difficult steps” relevant to Palestinian relations with Israel and the United States but refrained from identifying these steps.
  • He reiterated his commitment to end the divisions between Fatah and Hamas while insisting that “No country that respects itself will accept two authorities.” He emphasized that there will be no state in Gaza, and no state without Gaza.
  • Abbas reaffirmed that the Palestinians “will not accept the US as the mediator by itself and will not accept anything it offers.” President Trump’s purported deal, he asserted, aims at preventing peace because it excludes from the negotiations such issues as Jerusalem, refugees, and settlements.
  • He specified that, “If the US wants to offer a deal, then it should be a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as its capital. We will not accept anything else.” He specifically rejected a state with temporary borders.
  • Abbas recommitted the PA to the two-state solution and a minor swap of land that is equal in size and value. He said he would not accept Jerusalem as a capital for two states. He stressed that there will be no peace without Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Palestine.
  • The Palestinian president emphasized his government’s commitment to pursue a political solution through negotiations, nonviolent popular resistance, fighting terrorism in all its forms, and the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries on a reciprocal basis.
  • Abbas endorsed the right of Palestinians to peaceful and nonviolent resistance but urged Gazans to “keep the children away from the fence.”
  • In reference to the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Abbas referred to Israel as “a colonial project intended to plant an odd body in the region.” But he quickly explained that “Israel exists and all I want is a state so that we can live together in peace.”
  • The Palestinian president also affirmed that his government will “continue to seek full membership and international protection.”

(A full copy, in Arabic, of President Abbas’s speech before the PNC is available.)

Conclusions

The success of PNC sessions since 1964 is always a subjective enterprise. This is a function of Palestinian statelessness, geographic dispersion, and political diversity. The 23rd PNC session just concluded in Ramallah is not an exception to this historical pattern. As far as President Abbas and the majority of his Fatah movement are concerned, the mere convening of the PNC under the aforementioned difficult conditions and challenges is a significant success. The opposition, led by Hamas, rejects this assessment and argues that none of the objective criteria for success set by the PLO leadership has been achieved.

It is undeniable that the convening of the 23rd session of the PNC for the first time in 22 years is a significant, though mostly symbolic, achievement. The body did meet for four days of political deliberations in Ramallah, Palestine; they did approve 103 new members without revealing the criteria for their choice; and again, they unanimously elected Mahmoud Abbas as head of the State of Palestine and chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO. On May 4, 2018, President Abbas announced the newly elected PLO Executive Committee.

The fact remains, however, that the selection process for these positions within the PNC was not quite democratic or transparent. The Palestinian leadership promised its constituents meaningful change in leadership based on “new blood” and diverse political backgrounds. Some change did occur, but the list of selected PLO Executive Committee members, for example, represents very little meaningful change in terms of age, gender, or experience.

More importantly, however, because the 23rd PNC session was dubbed the “Jerusalem and safeguarding Palestinian legitimacy” session, its primary task was to debate and adopt a new strategy to deal with current challenges to Palestinian legitimacy. Debate indeed occurred, but no detectable strategy emerged. Regurgitating undigested and partially digested ideas submitted to the UN Security Council in February 2018 does not constitute a new strategy by any stretch of the imagination. In other words, the Ramallah PNC session did not rise to the Palestinian national challenge in 2018. In that sense, it was a movie we’ve seen 22 times before!

Khalil E. Jahshan is the Executive Director of Arab Center Washington DC.