What Does Increased Palestinian Political Repression Say about the Prospects for Peace?

In the late 1980s, Robert Putnam‘s argument about multi-level games in international bargaining kicked off a rich debate over domestic constraints.  The thesis, in essence, is that interlocutors in bargaining may choose to lend extra power to political opponents to argue that domestic constraints tie their hands and prevent them from making concessions beyond a certain, often minimal, limit.

This is not unlike what Binyamin Netanyahu did when he was elected Israeli prime minister in 2009, shortly after the inauguration of President Barack Obama.  As President Bush left office, it was clear that the field day Israel enjoyed as it violently repressed the second Palestinian uprising and increased settlements at a pace unrivaled since the Menachem Begin era was over.  Obama was widely suspected to be much more critical of Israel’s expansionist policies.  So when elections came to pass in Israel and the leading Kadima party failed to put together a government, Netanyahu joined his Likud party in a coalition that staunchly favored expansionism and retaining the West Bank and Gaza.  Netanyahu would argue that even temporarily halting the illegal construction of settlements would jeopardize his coalition, and that political suicide is an unreasonable request, even from the United States.  Questions about core issues like Jerusalem could not even be muttered.

But if Netanyahu can claim his hands are tied by demanding appreciation for his domestic political position, how has Mahmoud Abbas played his cards?  Of course, the inclusion of the main opposition party, Hamas, into the Palestinian Authority (PA) was a costly proposition for Abbas.  The reaction of the Western world (which provides the majority of the PA budget) and Israel (which collects tax dollars on the PA’s behalf) after Hamas electoral victory in 2006 sent a clear message to Abbas: failure to play by the rules established by the West and Israel would mean life under siege.  Abbas had only to look back at his predecessor, Arafat, who was besieged in his compound in Ramallah, or Hamas today, who are besieged in the Gaza Strip, if he chose anything other than the path of least resistance.

So the appearance of tied hands, which was never an option for Abbas, gave way to the clenched fists of repression.  With a right-wing Israeli government and an American administration that failed to get Netanyahu to fulfill a basic obligation, Abbas is now about to enter direct negotiations in spite of the adamant objections of the Palestinian public.

Unsurprisingly, every Palestinian party, save Abbas’ Fateh party (with a few individuals excluded), has rejected the call for direct negotiations with the Israeli government under the current conditions.  In the last few weeks there have been noticeable upticks in politically repressive activity.

Scores of Hamas affiliates have been detained or arrested, and a significant increase in these arrests was evident in the last two months, particularly the last two weeks.  Yesterday, after a directive reminiscent of the famed closing scene in Casablanca, scores, if not hundreds of Hamas affiliates — the usual suspects — were detained following an attack that left 4 settlers dead.

Leftist opposition parties like the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP and DFLP), the People’s Party, the National Initiative, and also prominent independents organized a conference in Ramallah, the administrative center of the PA, last week in protest of engaging in the newly announced direct talks with the Israelis.  The conference was disrupted by hundreds of plainclothes members of the security apparatus.  The organizers, who were alarmed by the repression of dissent, organized a press conference at a nearby television station, Al-Watan.  Amira Hass, covering the happenings in Haaretz, wrote thugs grabbed cameras, beat the Watan photographer, and prevented people from being interviewed (for example, by pushing photos of Abbas between the interviewee’s and the camera).

Since then, PA leaders have responded by saying they had no connection to the crackdown and that an investigation would be launched into how it happened.  Earlier this month, another independent news station was raided in Nablus and shut down.  Likewise, the higher-ups claimed to have had no knowledge of this and promised to initiate an investigation.

This type of activity is not new.  Numerous Palestinian protests in the West Bank were broken up during the attacks on Gaza in 2008-2009, and the same was true after the debacle over failing to further the Goldstone Report.

So if lending political opponents limited leverage to create the appearance of tied hands is allowing Netanyahu to stand firmer to his demands, Abbas is in the inverse position.  By cracking down on political opponents who reject further concessions to the Israelis (an effort supported and aided by the U.S. and Israel), Abbas is only affirming to the Israelis, Americans, and Palestinians what all have long suspected: that his government is in no position to sign a binding and lasting agreement on behalf of Palestinian stakeholders.  As Netanyahu used his domestic prerogatives to strengthen his position, Abbas enters negotiations in devastatingly weak position and the Israelis will be able to exploit it to extract more concession from the Palestinian negotiating partner.  The most recent evidence of this is Abbas’ willingness to enter direct negotiations and caving to the Israeli whim that they can build settlements and talk peace at the same time after stating numerous times that he would do no such thing.

Put into the perspective of history, dwindling legitimacy is a continuing trend.  The Oslo Accords divorced the Palestinian leadership from much of the Palestinian diaspora, leaving the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — which turned inward into the PA — representing only four million out of twelve million Palestinians (or roughly 33 percent).  While some might not think it necessary that the Palestinian negotiating partner represent Palestinians living outside of the West Bank and Gaza, it is clear that such representation is vital since issues such as the question of refugees is so intimately tied to the resolution of this conflict.  This makes diaspora Palestinians stakeholders in the outcome.

But the PA’s representation of even the 33 percent of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza has been called into question in recent years, given the election of Hamas and the inter-Palestinian divide.  The political repression of Hamas is evidence of that, and today, with the continued repression of independents and other non-Fateh party members, Abbas may be able to lay claim to representing 40 percent of the 33 percent of all Palestinians, or about 13 percent of all the stakeholders in the dispute.

Continued episodes of political repression at the behest of Israel, be it during the war in Gaza, the Goldstone debacle, or most recently in the lead-up to direct negotiations, only underscores the fundamental disparity in the position of the two negotiating partners and suggests that Palestinian domestic political disarray is likely to continue.  When push comes to shove, Israel can easily manipulate this situation to claim their weak negotiating partner is unable to guarantee a lasting agreement and Israel would therefore only offer the Palestinians a figment of a state, lacking all sovereignty, while retaining security control over borders and airspace — conditions unacceptable to Palestinians.

Only a unified and representative Palestinian partner can extract the minimum necessary concessions from Israel for a viable end of conflict resolution, and currently, as the security apparatus continues to crack down on domestic Palestinian dissent, Israel watches keenly knowing that no such Palestinian partner is on the horizon.

Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the Palestine Center.  This article is Palestine Center Brief No. 207.

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