Open Letter to Chairman of the PLO and President of the State of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas
Domestically, we are in a dire situation.
It would be inaccurate to see them, wildly misguided as they may be, as amateurs: Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, the real architect of the entire fiasco known in the media as the “Deal of the Century.” These are powerful actors with a despicable strategy who have access to massive state resources and, more importantly, they have the world’s superpower wrapped around their pinky finger.
Reflecting on the entire Trump presidency as it relates to Palestine, particularly the recent Peace to Prosperity Economic Workshop spectacle in Bahrain, I find myself obliged to address the Palestinian political agency, represented today by Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Mahmoud Abbas. Hence this open letter.
Dear Chairman and President Abbas,
I write to you in my private capacity: as a Palestinian, a lifetime activist for Palestine, born into the Palestinian diaspora; although born in America, I relocated to Palestine after the Oslo Accords were announced and have been active in economic development here for the past 25 years, as a Palestinian resident of Al-Bireh living in my ancestral home. Here my wife and I raised two daughters, both products of the Palestinian education system, one recently graduated from MIT and another currently a sophomore at Harvard. I was one of your appointees to the General Assembly of the Palestine Investment Fund, before resigning last year after ten years of volunteer service. More recently, together with a group of other professionals, I co-founded NAZAHA, the Palestinian Academy for Integrity — because, although NGOs are closing, we remain committed to building a future generation that is free from the corruption that has dominated our past. I will be glad to tell you more about my activities some other time, but this letter is not about me, it’s about us, all of us.
During my volunteer efforts over the past several weeks to publicly address the U.S.’s Peace to Prosperity Economic Workshop held in Bahrain in June, many important issues emerged. The workshop was a circus and its clowns were many. The only thing missing in Bahrain was the circus elephant called the Israeli military occupation, because the U.S. insisted on keeping it in Palestine, with its foot on the neck of Palestinians.
Among the many opinion pieces and reports I authored recently was an Open Letter to Jared Kushner in response to his economic plan. The satirical tone of my letter seemed the most fitting match for Kushner’s comical approach to economic development under military occupation. After the grandstanding of the economic workshop, I decided to write this open letter to you. This time, my letter is not intended as satire. It is dead serious, for all our sakes.
Now that the workshop has ended in what anyone with a shred of savvy can recognize as an embarrassing fiasco of international proportions, we are all settling back into our daily routines. Appearances aside, however, we cannot say it is back to business as usual. The Trump administration will not let this latest high-profile failure deflect them from the path they have followed for nearly two years now, designed to pulverize the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence.
You, sir, have spent the past 25 years, ever since the Oslo Peace Accords were signed and your return to Palestine, not to mention all your efforts on this track before Oslo, attempting to balance between liberation from Israeli military occupation and mobilizing on the global stage for state recognition. You found yourself drowning in the quagmire of bilateral negotiations with a negotiating partner intent on not reaching a deal and unable to fathom the idea of a Palestinian state emerging on the ground. Instead of recalibrating our national liberation movement strategy early on after Oslo’s five-year deadline expired, you instead tipped the balance of your activities toward advancing the future state apparatus. This was in defiance of reality given Israel used every day to create more facts on the ground toward making its military occupation a permanent reality.
Now that the US — the non-neutral mediator that you bet on during the Oslo process — has shown its true colors under the Trump administration, the reality demands action, real action, not simply another principled position with its accompanying rhetoric.
Moving forward, we need to recalibrate our domestic priorities, more towards liberation and less toward state building in the areas physically under military occupation. Internationally, I would continue the state recognition strategy that you correctly and strategically undertook as Oslo collapsed. These efforts should be redoubled and more seriously attended to, by all relevant Palestinian agencies. Accepting mediocre performance on the international stage will drag us backwards as we are under attack, politically and economically.
Domestically, we are in a dire situation.
Chairman Abbas, you continue to hold the four top positions of our struggle’s institutions — Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) since 11 November 2004 (15 years), President of the Palestinian National Authority since 9 January 2005 (14 years), President of the State of Palestine since 8 May 2005 (14 years), and lastly Chairman of the largest PLO faction, Fatah, since 2009 (10 years).
A single individual holding all these positions leaves no one else to ultimately be held accountable for progress, or lack of it.
I’m not a politician or a diplomat, but I know my struggle well and I do my national homework diligently. Thus, I would like to suggest the following concrete steps you can take, in proposed order of importance, to proactively seize the opportunities offered by this ill-conceived U.S.-led attempt to make structural adjustments to our struggle, our rights, our discourse, and our future.
First and foremost, I urge you to immediately appoint a deputy in each of your positions and ensure that the organizational policies needed are in place to make sure that, God forbid you are incapacitated or die, the deputies (I use the plural purposely, since all these positions should be held by separate persons) are automatically installed until elections can be held for each position.
One may speculate why you have refused to take this action to date, including not wanting to expose a deputy to internal pressures (or for them not to be “politically burnt”). Your reasoning may have been noble in your personal calculations given the complicated internal reality we live in, but this can no longer be a valid rationale, if it ever was. Too much is at stake, especially since the U.S. plan is now in full implementation mode.
Why would you refuse to do this, especially now, knowing very well that your brave and principled stand against Israeli intransigence, the Trump administration, and their Bahrain workshop, might have personal consequences for your own well-being?
None of us has forgotten the murder of the late Yasser Arafat and how it passed almost unnoticed. Nothing stops them from repeating this crime today, but we are unprepared for the fallout, given that our political system is currently defunct.
Go to Gaza tomorrow morning. Start direct conversations with all the political leadership there and visit our people in Gaza who rightfully feel abandoned. Return every week, if needed, until a formula can be found to bring our political system into operation, with or without a historical reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Do not wait for this step to be completed to continue this list of actions.
In an urgent electoral context, immediately pass a PLO decision and issue a presidential decree to enact and activate a new and progressive Political Party Law to allow new political groupings to come together and legitimately enter the Palestinian political stage. We are deluding ourselves when we continue to speak of the traditional political parties as if they are all alive and well, or as if they even exist in any politically meaningful way today. If political thought is not permitted to legitimately reconfigure itself and become part of Palestinians’ political tapestry, one can only expect the excluded to tear the tapestry apart.
These renewed and emergent political parties could play a pivotal, albeit less-than-ideal, alternative to holding free and open elections. More on this below.
Immediately pass a PLO decision and issue a presidential decree to broaden the mandate of the Central Elections Commission (CEC) to allow them to begin the long and tedious process of registering Palestinians worldwide.
It is unacceptable that there has been no serious effort to create an official Population Registry of all Palestinians, and not only those under military occupation. This is needed now, to prepare for elections, which should be happening at all levels and continuously from now onward.
While this longer-term project is activated, the next step of holding elections should not wait for the CEC to complete this new mandate.
Elections must be immediately held, at all national levels. The current electoral system may not be comprehensive, but this is where we must allow for what the legal profession calls “legitimate exceptions.” Using the existing electoral apparatus, however partial and flawed, we should not allow 2019 to pass without renewing all levels of leadership.
You must first make clear that you are not intending to run for any national office — PLO, State of Palestine, or the Palestinian National Authority (if it still exists). As for continuing as chairman of Fatah, that is your party’s decision, not ours.
The dire need to hold elections is not a new suggestion. Many have made this request to you, including Atty. Haytham Zu’bi in the Al-Quds Newspaper on 20 July 2013 in an article titled, “Calm Constitutional Advice to the President” (Arabic).
We all agree that there are many complications in holding proper elections, the internal divisions, Israeli military occupation, geographic fragmentation, regional shifts, and so on, but none of these are acceptable reasons for a national liberation movement to become, and remain, internally paralyzed.
For nearly three decades before Oslo, the PLO’s governance system was underground: not ideal, but functional. We must make use of these past experiences and modalities to move forward in today’s stalemated domestic reality. Who says we must hold U.S. style open elections? We are not the U.S.; we are a people in struggle and under a fierce attack from multiple fronts. Waiting for the ideal election environment is not working. We must use what works for us now.
Those new PLO political parties that are going to be created and the old ones that are renewed can have weight and legitimacy — especially in Jerusalem and Gaza where open and free elections may be impractical, albeit for very different reasons. Alternatively, registered civil society organizations may also play a role here in terms of community representation, if need be. The point is that there are modalities that can play a crucial role in making sure we are all represented as fully as can be given our difficult conditions, assuming proper elections will not be feasible everywhere.
The supreme legislative body of the PLO, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), must be reconvened with a reversion to a more inclusive membership — because the most recent prior gathering on 30 April 2018 in Ramallah, after an interlude of 22 years, was merely political acrobatics.
The newly elected PNC leadership, once again as inclusive as possible, must then call for presidential elections. These elections should be open to all Palestinians, regardless of where they reside.
You have dismantled the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), but you did it without proper deliberations. This issue, like the PLO-mandated Palestinian National Authority (PNA), both products of the ill-fated Oslo Peace Accords, should be the first order of business placed on the new PNC agenda. The PNC should decide where these two entities fit into the bigger picture of Palestinian governance and take any necessary measures accordingly.
Assuming it remains operational, the newly elected PNC must decide on a revised mandate for the Palestinian National Authority government toward a liberation strategy. This must replace the dynamic of being driven by politically motivated donor funds to play the state building game, donors many of whom do not even recognize the State of Palestine.
Indeed, a good starting point would be to reject assistance from any country that does not recognize Palestine. If we are serious about statehood, and we are, then it must have operational meaning.
Many additional and immediate actions could be taken in this context, such as reducing the number of ministries for a more strategic approach, creating and upgrading professional civil servant-run entities not linked to partisan politics, first steps in building the much-needed professional capacity over time.
A new Palestinian agency should be created to lead our solidarity movement. This will not happen overnight, but it must seriously start before proceeding to the next step regarding the U.S. arena. That this global asset has been ignored for so long is embarrassing. If you check your presidential archives, you will find a letter I sent you on 13 January 2005, a few days after you were elected on 9 January 2005 to serve as President of the Palestinian National Authority. The subject line said: International Palestine Solidarity Movement. I requested a meeting, along with my Israeli colleague Jeff Halper, who at the time was the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. We wanted to discuss strategy for our solidarity movement based on an article Prof. Halper had published in the Journal of Palestine Studies titled, Paralysis over Palestine: Questions of Strategy.
I never heard back from your office and here we are today, still in need of such a movement based on strategic thinking.
It is past time that we take the U.S. seriously. As Israel’s strategic ally, the United States is far too central to our ongoing misery for our political agency to remain in wishful thinking mode — hoping that one U.S. administration or another will finally come to its senses and align with what is politically, morally and historically correct. That is not how the U.S. operates.
Many, including myself, have repeatedly made the case that the U.S. is not Washington, D.C. or the White House. America is 50 states with unique dynamics in every state. If we are serious about impacting America’s politics we must invest in the American political reality, which includes a structured approach to our friends in the U.S., with appropriate and thoughtful attention to our Diaspora, churches and mosques, minority communities, the women’s movement, progressives, Jewish millennials, and so many others.
In parallel, we must engage Congress directly. U.S. congressional representatives and senators are subject to the same pressures of Israeli military occupation that we are. The majority of them are blind to our history and to the damage that their policies are causing. We must educate them and maintain a presence in their political affairs.
Given that the Arab world’s major stakeholders have assented to engaging in the ratcheted-up U.S. regional strategy, we may have no alternative but to use their U.S. linkages to seek their assistance to open a communication channel with the U.S. administration, if this is not already happening. Here we can take a page out of Iran’s playbook and strategically figure out how to align our interests with third state interests, as Iran has done with Russia, the EU and China. Many will see this as taking a step back from your principled stance against the economic workshop, but that should not deter you. This is the cold hard game of raw interests that drive states, with which you are much more familiar than I am.
All indications are that the U.S. political system may well not be strong enough to spit out a despotical President Trump. On the contrary: however unbelievable it may seem, he may be heading to a second term. After all the destruction he has wrought, inside America and abroad, he clings to approval ratings in the 40-something-percent range. Voter suppression, electoral manipulation, social media warfare makes the outcome in 2020 very uncertain. Meanwhile, Trump’s arrogant racism is cheered on by supporters across America. This bolsters the case made by observers in the past — mainly to you, and previously, to President Arafat — that the U.S. is not the party to bet on, even if one must engage it.
There is little new in what I propose above, except that the timing for them to be acted upon is now.
I chose to issue this as an open letter, knowing very well that sent privately or publicly, the Israeli intelligence, which has infiltrated all aspects of our lives, will be fully aware of its contents either way. We have nothing to hide or fear. We are acting non-violently to achieve our freedom and independence.
If you are unable to act on such a stated program of real actions, then maybe now is the time to pass the baton to others while you will be present to provide any guidance that you can as we all deal with the fallout of the internal flaws of the past.
I trust you will read this open letter in the constructive and responsible manner it was intended. No one claims to have all the answers, but politics cannot wait for the perfect answers. Timing is key now to act, and we must act to the best of our abilities.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant from Ramallah/Al-Bireh in the West Bank. He serves as a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network and is co-editor of “Homeland: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians” (1994). He blogs at ePalestine.com. @SamBahour