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Can Palestine matter again?

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Every democracy has wannabe tyrants, dogmatics who want to compel others to subordinate themselves, fringe groups that revere unrealistic crystalized memories of past imaginary glories and fear less predictable futures. The way it’s supposed to work is that fringe enemies of democracy remain fringe; they are never supposed to run the whole show.

But around the world, the unlikely has become likely. Whereas Francis Fukuyama once extolled the end of the struggle over government’s contours, and that the “end of history” arrived with the supremacy of market liberalism, today’s autocratic thugs contort their countries’ governing institutions into permanent, self-enriching sinecures.

We have seen Xi Jinping replace Mao in the Chinese firmament, Viktor Orban strangle democracy in Hungary, a Stalin-like Vladimir Putin murder enemies at home and abroad — and Donald Trump instigate a physical assault by his followers on the U.S. Capitol as senators, representatives and their staffs hide in fear. Vice President Pence had to hide, too, from those thinking they were “stopping the steal.”

Another place where democracy died in the night — but everyone failed to notice — is Palestine. Mahmoud Abbas, its current president, was elected 15 years ago to a four-year term but never left. He came into the presidency of the Palestinian National Authority during the second term of George W. Bush. Middle East politics are complicated, but those candidates who fight colonialism and occupation and fight for religious and political autonomy often have an edge over secularists. Bush’s insistence on free Palestinian elections (because he felt democracy would put the right folks in power) gave the more militantly anti-Israel Hamas a majority in the legislature and the prime ministership — until civil war erupted between it and Abbas’ Fatah Party. 

Abbas, 85, also known as Abu Mazen, had great timing to smother democracy. First, few leaders in Europe and the U.S. wanted an empowered Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, of which it is a part. Second, democracy in Palestine is understandably fragile amid the pressures, real and fabricated, of Israeli occupation. Israel is a democracy but, to many, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu seemed anything but a true democrat — yet another reason to turn a blind eye to Abu Mazen’s never-ending term. 

When President Obama and Vice President Biden tried to advance the Israel-Palestine two-state solution, Israel became the primary opponent that couldn’t be named and Palestine the obvious victim that eventually could no longer walk in the front door in order to maintain the veneer of Israel-U.S. harmony. But all leading Democrats, particularly Biden and then-Secretary of State John Kerry, were livid at Israel’s ongoing expansion of settlements and violence against the Palestinians. The last thing the Obama team was going to do was to tell Abu Mazen that he had to go. So he stayed, slowly sidelining his rivals, doling out foreign-aid largesse to his retainers and family.  

By the time President Trump made his first official overseas trip to Saudi Arabia, no one on his team cared what Abu Mazen did. Jared Kushner, the President’s Middle East dealmaker and son-in-law, essentially rolled out a “deal of the century” that never got negotiated with the Palestinians — who lost ground (literally) in the West Bank, lost the battle over Washington’s embassy moving to Jerusalem, and became completely irrelevant in the discussions about Middle East security and stability.

Abu Mazen occasionally floated a U.N. Resolution condemning Israeli actions, or tried to take what seemed like a principled stand against Kushner’s commercial diplomacy in the region. But stagnating for more than a decade after his elected term ended, he lost the Arabs, the Americans, the Europeans and even the support of his own people. His legacy as Palestine’s second elected president was supplanted by that of an anti-democratic party boss whose cronies became (as Orwell might have put it) the biggest pigs at the trough.

President Biden and his team know Israel and the many different angles in the unresolved Rubik’s Cube of an Israel-Palestinian end state that most can live with. Obama tried and failed to help the Palestinians, then shoved them far into the background of his priorities, and Trump ignored them — but the Biden team no doubt wants to see the issue of zero legitimacy addressed in Palestine’s political leadership before they dance together on anything.

That is the sole reason why Abu Mazen has called for legislative elections on May 22, presidential elections on July 31, and Palestinian National Council elections on Aug. 31. But the same challenges appear immediately: Will Fatah create a united ticket with Hamas? Will some of the new rival parties be let in? Will the still-popular jailed political figure Marwan Barghouti try to leverage his power towards new, less corrupt leadership or keep the old gang in power?

Just about everything around Palestine is changing dramatically, and Palestine needs a reset — new, younger, uncorrupted leaders who know the state and are done fighting battles that don’t matter any longer. The Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan are cocooning Palestine away from relevance, and Palestinian youth leaders are rising and calling for an end to the status quo and to Abu Mazen’s tenure.

In 1993, President Clinton invited youth from Seeds of Peace — a nonprofit that brought together Palestinian, Israeli, Egyptian and American teenagers into a summer camp — to witness the historic signing on the White House lawn of the Oslo Accords between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. The youth of that time are now in their late 30s and early 40s, and have remained engaged in the great debates about civic and international justice. Perhaps they are among the leaders Palestine should begin looking to for its post-Abu Mazen era.

After the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) talked about the moment in 2012 when she and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) met with Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, encouraging him to accept national election results showing he had lost. They told him that democratic leaders need to protect democracy and do the right thing when the people’s vote says it’s time to go — that the peaceful transfer of power is what defines great leaders. Saakashvili then announced the results and conceded.

It will be tough for Abbas to erase the stain of clinging to power for more than a decade after his mandate — but he can play a role now in retiring constructively and encouraging a new raft of Palestine’s potential leaders to come forward.

Steve Clemons is editor at large of The Hill.

Tags Bibi Netanyahu Donald Trump Jared Kushner Jeanne Shaheen Jim Risch John Kerry Middle East Palestine Vladimir Putin

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