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Why western plans for another Palestinian client regime will fail

In planning for a 'post-war' Gaza, the western powers want to follow the same failed strategy of installing a Palestinian leadership that serves Israel’s colonial interests
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his week-long trip amid Israel's war on Gaza, in the Muqata'a, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on 10 January 2024 (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas amid Israel's war on Gaza, in Ramallah on 10 January 2024 (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

The western enemies of the Palestinian people are clamouring over how to invent a new Palestinian leadership.

They imagine this leadership would continue all the services that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has provided to Israel and the West since 1993, only this time, it would maintain its legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

Crucially, these western conspirators fail to acknowledge that the PA’s function as Israel’s chief collaborator is precisely why it lost legitimacy among Palestinians. Rather, they blame its corruption and misrule in the West Bank, and before 2006, in Gaza, as if this misrule is not directly tied to its collaborationist role with Israel and its western allies.

The US has recently been market-testing proposals ventriloquised by some Arab states and the anti-Palestinian mainstream western press.

Some suggest a new Palestinian government that would include a demilitarised Hamas, purged of its commitment to armed struggle against Jewish supremacy and settler-colonialism. Others insist that while the PA must be reformed, there would be no place in it for Hamas.  

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The western enemies of the Palestinians do not seem to know, or even care, about the history of the many previous failed attempts to design a Palestinian leadership that fits Israel’s Jewish supremacist and colonial needs. Perhaps a review would help.

Failed attempts

Following the British occupation of Palestine in December 1917, British authorities and their Zionist minions set out to cultivate Palestinian leaders who would collaborate with the invading colonists and supplant the national leadership of the Palestinian Muslim-Christian Associations (MCA) and its struggle for independence.

In the 1920s, the British and the Zionists established two such collaborationist bodies, including the sectarian National Muslim Society, which sought to split the Palestinian leadership and undermine the MCA. Led by a prominent Jerusalemite family, the Agricultural Party was another group that collaborated with the Zionists to usurp the land of Palestinian peasants. These organisations were immediately recognised as “traitors” by Palestinians and never gained legitimacy.  

In 1938, Zionist colonial gangs and the British army created the “peace bands”, a Palestinian mercenary force whose members began to kill Palestinian revolutionaries in an effort to suppress the Great Palestinian Revolt of 1936-1939.

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In turn, Palestinian patriots assassinated many of the “peace band” leaders whose names went down in infamy.

After Israel was created, it recruited Palestinian village elders, or mukhtars, to collaborate with it. The mukhtars never found legitimacy among the captive Palestinian population, which Israel subjected to a military apartheid rule from 1948 until 1966.

Following the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964 and Israel’s conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel tried again to enlist more collaborators to delegitimise the popular coalition but failed. Israeli authorities in the occupied West Bank held mayoral elections in 1972 and 1976 and formed the Village Leagues in 1978 to install and foster Palestinian collaborator leaders. The mayors elected in 1972, however, were discredited and replaced by pro-PLO mayors in 1976, whom Israel would later remove from power as they refused to do its bidding.  

Meanwhile, the Non-Aligned Movement recognised the PLO (dominated by Fatah, which was the largest and best-funded Palestinian liberation group at the time) in 1973, as did the Arab League and the United Nations in 1974, as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”.

As for the Village Leagues, anyone who collaborated with them was branded a traitor immediately, not only by the PLO but also by the Jordanian government. The project was an ignominious failure.

Road to treachery

In the late 1980s, amid the first Palestinian uprising or intifada, the PLO’s resolve began to weaken, and it accepted a surreptitious deal. In exchange for its formal recognition from Israel and the West, the PLO would have to recognise Israel’s “right to exist” as a Jewish supremacist state.

Since 2007, Israel has waged multiple bombing campaigns to destroy Hamas, or at least to get Hamas to abandon armed resistance and rejoin the Fatah-controlled PA

After several hiccups, the deal was sealed in 1993 with the Oslo Accords. It allowed the PLO to set up the PA as the subcontractor of the occupation. As such, the PA lost all legitimacy soon after it assumed office, save among the Palestinian elites who shored it up for a while. But even those elites are no longer able to sustain their support for it, as they previously had done.

The road to the treachery of the Fatah-dominated PLO began in Algiers when the PLO formally accepted the two-state solution in November 1988. It was less than a year after the December 1987 emergence of Hamas, whose hallmark has been its development into a political and military wing and the dynamism of its understanding of the nature of Israel and its occupation. This is exemplified by the changes in its charter and its pronouncements on the nature of the Palestinian struggle, as scholars of its history have demonstrated.

Unlike the PLO, Hamas, along with Islamic Jihad, formed in 1981, opted for continued resistance. Both remain the two major Palestinian factions outside the PLO.  

After the Israeli occupation army redeployed around Gaza in 2005, the West made attempts, channelled through Arab regimes, to bring Hamas into the fold. The goal was to transform it into another PLO by goading it into abandoning the national struggle for liberation and independence, and joining the American-invented “peace process” racket, whose objective has always been to entrench Israel’s Jewish supremacy and settler colonialism and to defeat the Palestinian struggle for national liberation.

Talks between Hamas and the PA were held in Cairo. The political leadership of Hamas began to waver in its total opposition to the Oslo Accords and the procedures that ensued after it, and decided to participate in the 2006 elections to lead the PA, which operated under Israeli occupation. Hamas won a landslide victory, which precipitated a US, Israeli, and Fatah coup against it in 2007. The coup was successful in the West Bank, where a Fatah-ruled PA was restored, but failed in Gaza where the elected Hamas continued to rule.

Since 2007, Israel has waged multiple bombing campaigns to destroy Hamas, or at least to get Hamas to abandon armed resistance and rejoin the Fatah-controlled PA, which had overthrown Hamas when the latter won the last elections.

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Wavering, yet again, the political wing of Hamas participated in new talks held in Cairo three years ago, in February 2021, and agreed on holding new PA elections, which the PA had refused to conduct since 2006 for fear that Hamas would win again.

Despite the flexibility and the concessions of the Hamas political wing, PA head Mahmoud Abbas reneged on the agreement and never held new elections. Meanwhile, the PA has continued to collaborate (what it calls “security coordination”) with Israel and suppress any and all Palestinian resistance to the occupation.

A month after the Cairo talks, in March 2021, the current leader of Hamas, Yayha al-Sinwar, was elected for a second term. Sinwar is close to the Hamas military wing, having been one of its founders. As late as May 2021, Sinwar expressed Hamas’s openness to talks with the PA in order to “put the Palestinian house in order”. He refused to abandon armed struggle as his proposal sought to combine “armed resistance, the legitimacy of the [Palestinian] Authority’s institutions, and peaceful efforts on the road to liberation and return”.

The PA and its western sponsors, however, continued to stall.

Western designs

During Israel’s ongoing genocidal war on Gaza and the complete collapse of the PA’s reputation as a treacherous entity, the western enemies of the Palestinians, who have been funding, arming, and defending Israel’s genocide, began to scheme for a new Palestinian leadership. As the PA has fulfilled its collaborationist role with aplomb but has lost all legitimacy in the process, the Americans want to design a new Palestinian collaborator body for their interminable “peace process”.

Several weeks after the war on Gaza began, The New York Times reported in November that “the only solution, many Palestinians say, is to find a way to bring Hamas into the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian Authority, both run by Mr Abbas and Fatah”.

The paper asserted that a “more representative PLO could hold new elections for a more representative Palestinian Authority, which would have much more credibility in both Gaza and the West Bank, this thinking goes. But it would also require a weakened Hamas to agree to accept the existence of Israel and commit to negotiating a Palestinian state alongside it”. This sounds more like US thinking, ventriloquised by the Times, rather than that of the Palestinians.

In December, Foreign Affairs floated that “Palestinians will need to revive not just institutions of governance and security but also, more fundamentally, of politics: the lack of effective political leadership owing to the decay of Palestinian political institutions, notably the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.”

The publication added: “Any discussion of the ‘day after’ should therefore be predicated on encouraging the emergence of a unitary and cohesive Palestinian political leadership. Palestinian leaders will have to set aside their factional commitments, and Israel and the US will have to relinquish the wholly unrealistic idea that Hamas can be permanently excluded from Palestinian politics.”

Proposals in US governing circles include one whereby “Abbas could appoint a deputy, hand broader executive powers to his prime minister, and introduce new figures into the leadership of the organisation, the Palestinian and regional sources said”.

The US, the most cynical world power when it comes to supporting democratic rule anywhere in the world, insisted through the State Department that “leadership choices were a question for the Palestinian people and did not elaborate on the steps needed to revitalise the Authority”.

However, as polls revealed the growing popularity of Hamas and the decline of Abbas and his PA, which would lead to yet another election win for Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories, the US “believes it would be premature to send Palestinians to the polls soon after the war ends. US officials are mindful of Hamas’ victory in 2006 legislative elections, which were encouraged by Washington and other western governments”.

So, while the State Department insists that the Palestinian people must decide who their own leaders should be, it asserts that “whenever elections are held, Hamas must be excluded”.

Arab collaborators

Such proposals coincided with the new Egyptian plan announced in late December, calling “for a new governing body of Palestinians to oversee both the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. It would direct the postwar reconstruction of Gaza and provide for possible future elections to create a national unity government”.

Due to Israeli and US opposition, that part of the plan has reportedly been “dropped from the latest two-page version of the proposal”. Nonetheless, the Egyptians claim that “the future Palestinian leadership was expected to be discussed in talks with Egypt and is expected to be a crucial part of any agreement”.

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The PA welcomed the Egyptian plan, with Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh emphasising that “any proposal for the future leadership in the West Bank and Gaza Strip must not circumvent the internationally recognised Palestine Liberation Organisation”.

The PA’s sudden resurrection of the moribund PLO is most remarkable, given how it was the PA itself, as part of the Oslo strategy, that gutted the organisation and bankrupted it financially since 1994.  

Indeed, it was recently reported that unofficial messages sent by Mahmoud Abbas to Hamas and Islamic Jihad informed them that the two organisations could each obtain no more than one seat each to represent them in the PLO, even though both organisations carry more popularity among Palestinians than the 11 PLO factions, including Fatah, put together.  

Interestingly enough, none other than the leading Zionist New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman also recently called for “a reformed version of the current Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah - which has embraced the Oslo peace accord with Israel and worked with Israeli security forces - or some completely new institution named by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”.

Friedman added that “Palestinians, through the Palestine Liberation Organisation, would go through their own process of naming a transitional governing authority - before they hold elections for a permanent one - and the West and Arab states would help this authority build proper institutions, including a security force for Gaza and the West Bank.”

Friedman is clear that none of this is for the benefit of the Palestinians at all. On the contrary, it is all to safeguard Israel’s Jewish supremacist apartheid regime: “Therefore, the key to Gaza no longer being a permanent threat and burden to Israel is having an alternative Palestinian governing structure that is viewed as legitimate because it is part of a two-state solution and effective because it has Arab state funding and backing.”

Friedman does not seem to include Hamas in the new leadership, as he defines Hamas per Benjamin Netanyahu as “a terrible organisation dedicated to destroying the Jewish state”.

The anti-Hamas former PLO negotiator Ahmad Samih Khalidi is also pushing for a new leadership in an appeal to Israel and its western backers, published in The Guardian.

Unlike Friedman, Khalidi realises that no amount of reform of the PA would endow it with legitimacy and that the only thing that would is for Hamas to join it: “With regard to re-establishing a viable political authority in the Gaza Strip and reconstituting a Palestinian representative body that is capable of taking and sustaining decisions, the real issue is how to incorporate Hamas and its associated ‘spirit of resistance’ into a new Palestinian Authority, rather than how to quash or excise it.”

Khalidi adds: “Within or associated with such an authority, Hamas could be part of the solution; outside, it would remain both a spoiler and an opposite pole of attraction.” But what Khalidi seems not to account for is that if the Hamas leadership were to become another PLO and concede Israel’s right to remain a Jewish supremacist colonial settler state, Hamas too would squander its national liberationist capital and become yet another PA.

The US and Israel realise that there could never be a legitimate Palestinian leadership that would accept Israel’s right to remain a Jewish supremacist state

Khalidi worries that “rather than crush Hamas”, the most likely effect of Israel’s genocidal war “will be to remythologise the notion of resistance and sow the seed for future iterations that may be inspired by Hamas”. While the continuation of anti-colonial resistance until national liberation is a time-honoured struggle that Palestinians have adopted since the 1920s, Khalidi is correct that it would not be a good thing for Israel and the Palestinians’ western enemies.

What is evident from these schemes is that neither the US nor its Arab allies have new ideas. Instead, they want to continue the very same failed strategy followed since the early 1970s, which the British and the Israelis have used since the 1920s. The Oslo agreement indeed succeeded for a short time in tricking a good number of Palestinians into believing that the PA leadership it propped up was legitimate. However, the majority soon abandoned such illusions.

The US and Israel realise that there could never be a legitimate Palestinian leadership that would accept Israel’s right to remain a colonial-settler Jewish supremacist state, no matter what autonomy or a disempowered micro-state is granted to the Palestinians. It is why it has to scheme to produce a leadership that only appears to be legitimate while simultaneously destroying or co-opting any existing legitimate Palestinian leadership.  

Israel and the western enemies of the Palestinians were successful for a short time in 1993 when they transformed the PLO into the PA. Their chances today in transforming the PA back into the PLO, with or without Hamas, are far less likely to succeed.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.
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