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Bahbah: Two Top Concerns from Palestine--Liquidation and Leadership

posted on: Sep 5, 2018

Bahbah: Two Top Concerns from Palestine--Liquidation and Leadership

By: Bishara A. Bahbah/Arab America Featured Columnist

I am writing this column from Palestine where the two top concerns on people’s minds are the news of the latest US assault on UNRWA and its decision to cut off funding to the refugee agency.  More importantly, the suspicion that such a move is directly related to the “deal of the century”, which in the view of the astute observers, is being implemented while everyone is awaiting the announcement of its details.

The other major topics of grave concern on Palestinians’ minds is the rapidly deteriorating health of Mahmoud Abbas – the brewing power struggle to succeed him and the anticipated seismic changes in the Palestinian political power structures.

“Deal of the Century?” Trump is out to liquidate the Palestine question.

Bahbah: Two Top Concerns from Palestine--Liquidation and Leadership

As for the United States, Palestinians have simply given up on the Trump administration as a party to any peaceful resolution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Trump and company are seen as leading an assault on the entire Palestinian population from those living under occupation to those scattered in the refugee camps of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.  Trump is seen as enemy #1 by the Palestinians even more so than the Israelis.

No one is fooled by any statements pertaining to the “deal of the century.”  Trump is out to liquidate the Palestine question, and dump it on the lap of others, especially the Arab countries, the Europeans, and the rest of the international community to deal with.  Israel could have NEVER hoped for a better ally in the White House or anywhere else to do its bidding than Trump.

Thus far, Trump’s “deal of the century” has attempted to eliminate two key elements to the resolution of the Palestine-Israel question from the negotiating table by pre-emptively recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and cutting off aid to UNRWA and defining the number of Palestinian refugees as a mere 10 percent of the actual refugees.

Since its creation in May of 1950, the United States has been the largest donor to UNRWA.  Let us not be fooled, it is not because the successive US governments cared for Palestinian refugees more than other international refugees.  Rather, the objective has been to suppress Arab anger over the non-implementation of UN Security Council resolutions regarding the entire Arab-Israeli conflict.

Trump’s decision to cut off all aid to UNRWA is a significant financial blow to the organization and its mission given the US’s outsized annual contributions to UNRWA which it is estimated at about a third of the organization’s budget.

Now and, as part of the “deal of the century,” the United States, with Israel’s complete acquiescence and utter pleasure, wants to redefine who is a Palestinian refugee, their numbers, who among them has any rights, and what those rights might be.  In short, the US wants to eliminate the issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in historic Palestine as mandated by UN Security Council resolution, thus eliminating the central issue of what to do with the Palestinian refugees.

Few experts, observers, or even politicians know what the other aspects of the “deal of the century” entail.  One thing is for sure, the “deal of the century” is in place.  It is being implemented.  And, the only variable is when will it be revealed to the world.  My guesstimation is that it might not be unveiled until the death of Abbas at a time when Palestinian political forces are divided and are jockeying, if not, fighting one another to replace him.

Palestinians will define their new political institutions and new political leadership after Abbas.

Bahbah: Two Top Concerns from Palestine--Liquidation and Leadership

This brings us to the second major issue on the minds of Palestinians – who will succeed Abbas and whether the succession will follow the Arafat path or whether there will be a seismic shift in the political structure that will replace the existing political and governing structure.

In my humble opinion, an earthquake will follow the death of Abbas not so much because of the loss of his charismatic character, his esteemed legacy or his political significance.  Rather, it will be because his death will unleash political forces ready to jump in and fight, if necessary, to take over the reins of power.

There are those who think that once Abbas passes away, the power of the presidency will go to the anointed successor for 60 days until elections are held.  However, the envisioned elections are going to take place within the existing political structures of the PLO, primarily the Palestine National Council.  In other words, what will ensue is the continuation of the existing political structure with old faces in new positions.  Quite frankly, whether Mohammed Al-Aloul or Jibril Rajoub wins is going to be totally irrelevant because the Palestinian people and other Arab countries will insist on popular elections both in Gaza and the West Bank.  These elections will undoubtedly include Hamas and Mohammad Dahlan’s new political party whether it is going to be a revamped Fatah or a new party by another name.

Popular elections could mean that the existing governing elite, associated with Abbas, might be voted out of power and the new coalition of Hamas and Dahlan could take over the Palestinian government.

Willy-nilly, the Palestinian people are about to enter a dramatic and chaotic phase in their history.  On one hand, Palestinians will be fighting the existential assault on their rights by the Trump-Netanyahu alliance and, on the other hand, they will be defining their new political institutions and new political leadership – away from Abbas and company.


Prof. Bishara Bahbah was editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem based “Al-Fajr” newspaper between 1983-84. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security.  He taught at Harvard and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.