The Trump administration continues to promise, but not deliver on, a novel plan for Palestinian-Israeli peace. However, its diplomacy is plainly shifting away from the two-state solution, at least as it has been understood and embraced by U.S. officials from the time of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Just as portentously, the Palestinian leadership’s approach toward Palestinian state-building has been subtly shifting. The leadership very much clings to the goal of a Palestinian state, even while on a popular level statehood has long seemed to be receding as the centerpiece of nationalist thinking and action. However, the centrality of institution-building to the leadership’s strategy has declined, aggravating serious political decay in the West Bank and Gaza.
Recent U.S. moves and language have taken the focus off of statehood and suggest a rejection of Palestinian positions on all “final-status” issues. They include stressing the humanitarian situation in Gaza while placing all the blame on Hamas; claiming to have taken Jerusalem “off the table” of negotiations; threatening to bypass the Palestinian leadership by offering economic benefits to Palestinians or conducting diplomacy with Arab governments; cutting assistance to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the body tasked with caring for Palestinian refugees, amid hints the refugees should be defined out of existence.
For much of the past century, the Palestinian national movement has focused its energies on the establishment of a Palestinian state. But both the form of the potential state and the strategy used to achieve it have been an object of sharp contestation in Palestinian politics. The senior leadership has shifted, sometimes dramatically, on both questions.
In 1988, this leadership—present in Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) institutions—largely embraced the idea of a two-state solution. Without repudiating past nationalist visions as illegitimate, the PLO then entered into a diplomatic process that led to negotiations with Israel and, starting in 1993, a series of agreements known as the Oslo Accords. The PLO goal was clear: to build a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem as its capital.
The Oslo process led to the founding of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA)—what Palestinians saw as the institutional basis for statehood—that built structures to administer Palestinian affairs in the West Bank and Gaza. The PNA ran everything from education, healthcare, and traffic, to the licensing of nongovernmental organizations, even as it created the institutions of an eventual state, from police forces to a parliament.
From the Palestinian perspective the Oslo process fell into crisis as of 1999. Oslo’s five-year horizon had expired without full implementation of its provisions, while serious negotiations had not even begun on a permanent replacement, presumably involving statehood. A second severe crisis took place in 2006, when elections returned a Hamas majority to the PNA’s parliament. This eventually led to a geographical and political split in Palestinian ranks, with Hamas controlling Gaza even as Fatah continued to dominate institutions in the West Bank.
These crises had odd effects. Key international actors stepped up their verbal commitment to a two-state solution. The PNA not only soldiered on, but its leaders claimed to be working to make it more efficient, transparent, and capable. In that sense, PNA institution-building, now largely restricted to the West Bank, became the centerpiece of efforts by Palestinian leaders and their international backers to achieve statehood.
However, today, a quarter of a century since the first Oslo agreement made the PNA possible, the authority has not developed into anything more than limited self-government in heavily-populated Palestinian areas of the West Bank. That explains why few Palestinians who are younger than Oslo see any state-building happening, so that their energies and attentions are wandering elsewhere.
At the leadership level, too, the idea that ameliorating the PNA is critical to statehood seems to have been accepted as chimerical. The authority provides jobs, vital social services, official platforms, and control, and thus its leaders reject any talk of abandoning it. They complain that Palestinians were institutionally ready for statehood years ago. However, improved governance now seems to be regarded as yesterday’s false road to statehood.
In the worldview of the generation of leaders now slowly leaving the scene, the turn away from institution-building is understandable. The Palestinian leadership seems to see itself as having forged a national movement and steered it through various stages of struggle and sacrifice, while still preserving its own ability to represent Palestinians and achieve a level of international recognition despite disasters and setbacks. The failure of the Oslo process is one more setback, and the most appropriate response to current difficulties is to preserve the leadership’s freedom of maneuver against internal and external challenges—to hold fast to the PLO but use the PNA only as a means of maintaining order and control.
So while top leaders have not abandoned the search for statehood, they no longer behave as if domestic institution-building is a critical part of that effort. Publicly, this is reflected in the greater emphasis on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas personally, with his photo prominently displayed throughout PNA-controlled areas. Official rhetoric stresses the PLO, the Palestinian National Council, Fatah, and the Palestinian “revolution” more than the PNA—so leaders derive their authority from Palestinian history and sacrifices rather than formal procedures.
West Bank structures, though they may now largely refer to themselves as parts not only of the PNA but of the “State of Palestine,” actually serve as administrative afterthoughts that are no longer viewed as kernels of a statehood effort. The effects on the PNA are clear. Leading Palestinian institutions are sometimes bent, their top positions are reshuffled, and hidden pressure is exerted to serve the interests of senior officials, avoid tying their hands, or manage their conflicts and repress opposition. Security institutions remain strong and the PA still provides basic social services—these are, after all, part of daily life. But creeping authoritarianism, the personalization of authority, and disregard for legal and professional norms are all unmistakable signs of a leadership that has lost interest in good governance as it was understood in the period after Oslo.
If building the PNA is no longer part of the leadership’s strategy for statehood, then what has replaced it? The problem for all Palestinians is that nothing has. The top leadership wants an international strategy, but cannot devise one. For now, controlling voices reject violence as being self-defeating. But senior leaders have nothing else to offer Palestinians except a vision of statehood that is uninspiring and the memory of a historical struggle that is beginning to fade.