By Jonathan Schanzer, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism analyst at the U.S. Treasury, is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets at @JSchanzer. The views expressed are his own.
Has the Palestinian-Israeli conflict finally entered the post-Oslo Accords era? In the Middle East, nothing is dead until it’s buried, but several troubling signs are pointing in that direction.
The game-changer was Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ historic mission upgrade at the United Nations General Assembly on November 29 of last year. The upgrade merely afforded the PLO, which sets foreign policy for the Palestinians, status akin to the Vatican as a non-member observer. Since then, however, the PLO has enacted several changes that may make the 1994 Oslo impossible to resuscitate.
Within days of his U.N. victory, Abbas requested that the United Nations begin referring to the Palestinian Authority government as the “State of Palestine.” That may not sound like much, but it means that the PLO has scuttled the Palestinian Authority, the interim government put in place by the Oslo Accords, and the cornerstone of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations since 1994.
The Oslo Accords were built upon the premise that U.S.-led diplomacy between Israel and the PLO would help take the Palestinian Authority from interim government to statehood through a bilateral process.
Here’s where it gets tricky. The “State of Palestine” is not the caretaker government Israel is contractually obliged to deal with in the Oslo Accords. Moreover, the bilateral process stipulated in Oslo has been outwardly violated.
It is perhaps for these reasons that Shawan Jabarin, director of Al Haq, a human rights organization in Ramallah, expressed concern about potential “legal and political complications” and a “lack of clarity that needs to be sorted out.”
The complications don’t end there. Abbas recently issued a decree that all stamps (currently under production in Bahrain), signs, and letterheads will be changed to reflect the new name. The move, according to one Palestinian official, was aimed at enhancing Palestinian “sovereignty on the ground,” and was a step toward “real independence.”
The Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, an aid institution more commonly known as PEDCAR, was reportedly the first Palestinian institution to comply with Abbas’ decree. The Palestinian Ministry of Information has followed suit.
Abbas also reportedly ordered new passports and identity cards, which would have “State of Palestine” emblazoned upon them. The Israelis howled with disapproval, and Abbas appears to have backed down for now.
Still, the PLO chief may not be done making moves.
The PLO’s official mouthpiece, WAFA, ran a piece on January 5 stating that, “an earlier decision has been reached [by the PLO] to delegate to the [PLO] Central Council the duties of the Palestinian Authority’s government and parliament.”
If this is true (and two senior Palestinian insiders say it is), Abbas appears to be consolidating power by facilitating the transfer of key components of the Palestinian Authority into the hands of the PLO, which is not subject to public scrutiny in the way that the PA has been since its inception in 1994.
Abbas would never frame it this way, of course. He would claim that he seeks to shut down the PA in the face of continued Israeli settlement construction.
By one count, Abbas has threatened to quit as the PA’s president or simply dismantle the PA more than 25 times. And partisans of the Palestinian cause support him. They say that the Palestinians should not have to ask permission to do anything, not least from their occupiers. They roundly support the notion that collapsing the PA would saddle the Israelis again with the full administrative burden of the West Bank (Gaza, under the control of Hamas is another kettle of fish).
But what Abbas’ supporters – both domestic and international – don’t seem to realize is that, by shutting the doors of the PA, the PLO may be leveraging its newfound status at the U.N. (not Abbas’ elected presidential authority, which expired in 2009) to consolidate power.
The last thing anyone needs is a more muscular PLO. The PA was created, in part, to curb the bloated PLO, which has earned a reputation over the years as being ossified and less than transparent.
One obvious challenge now for Abbas is figuring out how far he can push this agenda without setting off alarm bells in the West.
Abbas is betting that since Hamas is the only real alternative to his rule – thanks in large part to his refusal to help cultivate new leadership – the West will fold. Fearing a takeover by Hamas, even the Israelis are loath to topple him.
But there is still another challenge for the new president of the “State of Palestine.” Winds of war are blowing in the West Bank. Ever since Abbas challenged Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu by upgrading the PLO’s status, the West Bank has been signaling that it might plunge into revolution. Every few days, we see another report of Palestinian violence against Israelis. Palestinian terror groups are calling for a new intifada. And Israeli military officials are warning that one may have already begun.
Conflict is not a foregone conclusion, however. Abbas may somehow find a way to maintain calm in this atmosphere of growing tension. Yet the injection of the “State of Palestine” has created a state of confusion, with the future of the peace process, the viability of the PA, and the power of the PLO hanging in the balance.
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