Today marks 72 years since the 1948 war between the fledgling Jewish state and its Arab neighbors. But the most pressing issue for Palestinians today is not the existence of Israel. It is the absence of Palestinian leadership.
A concerning report released last week from The Washington Institute highlights the current fragility of the state of Palestinian leadership. At 84 years old and in poor health, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (whose official term expired in 2009) will likely not remain in power for much longer, and there is no obvious successor. Because the constitutionally mandated succession process was suspended in 2018, there is no clear legislation that exists on exactly how to elect a new Palestinian president, and there have been no efforts at streamlining the succession process. The potential ramifications of these issues could be destabilizing and may catapult the Palestinians into a protracted presidential transition. Even worse, it could produce a weak leader, which could have disastrous consequences for the Palestinians’ future.
On this day, Nakba Day, it is worth briefly revisiting the events that led to the imminent crisis the Palestinians face today.
On the night of May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion read Israel’s Declaration of Independence—formally declaring the establishment of the Jewish state upon termination of the British Mandate, which was set to expire at midnight. But there was not much time for celebration as Jewish leaders were preparing for what they anticipated to be a mass Arab invasion. As expected, Syria, Transjordan, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon attacked the following day. For the Jews, the outcome of the war, their “War of Independence,” would determine whether the Jewish state would live or die. For Arabs, the war, now referred to by them as the “Nakba” [catastrophe], would determine whether or not the indigenous Palestinian population would remain and who would ultimately control the territory.
In an amazing feat, the Israel Defense Forces were successful in pushing back Arab troops. Prominent Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat later even labeled the war an Arab “betrayal,” accusing the Arab armies of not putting up a serious enough fight.
Following the war, the Jewish people finally had a safe haven in the ancestral homeland to which they had longed to return for millennia. The Palestinians, however, were devastated. An estimated 700,000 fled or were forced out of their homes and villages. Today the number of Palestinian refugees has grown to more than 5.6 million because even seven decades later, the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, and their descendants, still have no state to which they can come home.
Since the war of 1948, there have been key moments in Israeli-Palestinian history that offered hope for peace between the two peoples and a sovereign state for the Palestinians. In the 1990s, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the official representative of the Palestinian people, recognized Israel’s right to exist and established an interim self-government to begin the path toward autonomy over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed on a framework for a future permanent peace agreement, but the agreement was never actually achieved.
Today, prospects for peace are dim as Israeli and Palestinian leaders are seemingly moving further away from cooperation and reconciliation. But this is not the only challenge facing Palestinians, and arguably not even the most urgent. Consumed with discussions of peace plans and borders, the international community has neglected to focus on the absence of Palestinian leadership and the impending potential collapse of key Palestinian political institutions. The success of a future peace agreement or viable Palestinian state hinges on Palestinians producing a strong leader, through a smooth transitional system, who enforces the rules of government by strengthening important Palestinian political institutions.
Since 2005, President Abbas has been so set on maintaining power and eliminating dissent that he has successfully sidelined any rising leaders perceived as a threat—such as Mohammad Dahlan, who was expelled from the Fatah party in 2011. Abbas is quickly eroding vital Palestinian institutions and processes needed for a smooth transition of power when that time should come. The lack of clear, strong political figures who would become obvious successors is a major threat to the stability of the future Palestinian leadership and could likely result in weak governance. Poor leadership and an unstable political system are bad for the Palestinian people, and it is a potential obstacle to meaningful future negotiations with the Israelis. The history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has taught us that steps toward peace require strong, fearless leaders who can make decisions strategically—particularly when it means negotiating with “the other.”
Mahmoud Abbas used to be that leader. In the late 1970s while the PLO was focused on fighting and conducting terrorist attacks against the Jewish state, Abbas had already begun suggesting a diplomatic approach to the conflict. By 1977, he came to an agreement with a former Israeli general, Mati Peled, that laid out a mutual acceptance of principles for the establishment of a Palestinian state existing alongside and recognizing a “Zionist State of Israel.” While this presented a unique opportunity to mark a turning point in the conflict, it was ultimately a dead end, and Abbas was met with widespread criticism from his colleagues.
Undaunted, Abbas continued to promote the diplomatic approach and eventually became one of the most outspoken advocates of the “compromise” group—insofar as people began referring to him as a “traitor” and a “Zionist agent.” It should be noted that Abbas did this at great personal risk; one of his colleagues, also advocating compromise, was murdered in 1983 by a Palestinian extremist group. Abbas knew this could happen to him, but he continued to advocate for this approach and later became one of the architects of the most historic peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians: the Oslo Accords.
However, since becoming president, Abbas has turned down every offer for Palestinian statehood. While he has made serious efforts at negotiations with Israelis, he has still not managed to secure a state for the Palestinian people—the majority of whom want him to resign.
The future of the Palestinians depends on a lot of factors, not least of which is leadership. A strong leader who is highly respected by the Palestinian public and trusted by the international community could be decisive in charting a constructive path forward. The US and Israel can work with Arab allies such as Jordan and Egypt to help facilitate the process of rebuilding and securing a strong Palestinian presidential succession, although it will ultimately depend on internal Palestinian decisions.
History cannot be reversed, and the Nakba will always be commemorated as one of the darkest moments in Palestinian history. But the future of the Palestinians is yet to be written. Although peace may seem like an illusion, there are important steps that could be taken to start building the foundations for a better future for Palestinians. Re-instituting important political processes should remain a top priority, as should the search and selection of a promising Palestinian leader who is ready to take the mantle and lead Palestinians into a prosperous and promising future.