To some surprise – given that just weeks ago it seemed as if a rapprochement between Palestine’s rival factions was off the table – the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, just announced that elections will take place this year.
It has been 15 years since the last parliamentary election took place, and 16 years since the last presidential election. In fact, rather astonishingly, the last time Palestinians voted for a president, it was to decide the successor to Yasser Arafat.
If that seems a long time ago, it should: The politics of the Middle East has been transfigured since then. When Arafat passed away at the end of 2004, the full consequences of the Iraq war were not yet apparent; a brutal, pivotal war between Hamas and Israel was two years away; and the Arab Spring was unimaginable.
It is far from clear if the elections will actually take place this year. But if they happen, they will be about more than Palestine’s democratic transition: They will be the last gasp of a passing political generation.
That is not merely about age – although Abbas is 85 years old – but about ideas.
The idea that has animated Palestine policy throughout the Abbas era has been the two-state solution. But that policy, the centerpiece of the 1993 Oslo Accords, is reaching the end of its political usefulness.
Assailed on all sides, and with minimal political backing, it staggers on, a zombie policy. Given events on the ground, the forging of a new bloc between some Arab states and Israel, and the looming threat of Iran, it looks irrelevant.
No single politician in Palestine or Israel is more associated with the two-state solution than Abbas. His pitch – more than 15 years ago – to carry on Arafat’s legacy and forge an enduring peace has not transpired. Still, he is determined to try once more. But there is a new generation waiting in the wings, waiting to take over, either this year or soon after.
That shift from Abbas’ leadership will entail a change from the long-standing goal of two states. When it happens, it will seem a like a small step. In reality, it will herald a political earthquake.
The international community has built its Palestine response around the nearly three-decade-old accords. The reality on the ground doesn’t support it, but so much political capital has been invested it seems impossible to jettison them.
But Abbas is probably the last Palestinian leader to be committed to Oslo. If he can’t fulfill that aspiration, or if he is removed in the summer, a new generation will seek a new answer – most likely a one-state solution.
There are certainly those – inside Palestine, inside Israel, across the Middle East and in capitals around the world – who clamor for the end of the Oslo Accords. But big ideas don’t die easily, and without something concrete to replace it, the end of Oslo will be a political earthquake.
For now, there is a sense among Israeli right-wingers that the end of the two-state solution can be “managed”: with a few more guards and a few more checkpoints, a bit more power to the Palestinian Authority, perhaps a hollowed-out capital for Palestine that isn’t in Jerusalem.
That is an eccentric idea, one that will not survive contact with reality. The Palestinian issue needs a resolution, not mere management, and if the passing of a political generation takes with it the best idea of that generation for peace, there will inevitably be new ideas. History won’t wait.
In truth, no one is ready for that shift. Not Israelis, not Arab states, not the rest of the world. Not even the Palestinians themselves. Make no mistake, changing the Palestinian narrative from a two-state solution to a one-state solution would be significant and have far-reaching consequences.
For one thing, the vast system of controls and checkpoints in which the West Bank is enclosed is itself a creation of the Oslo Accords. In the quarter of a century since, Israel has expanded what were meant to be temporary administrative measures, their legitimacy tied to the Oslo Accords. Take Oslo away and the veneer of legitimacy collapses, leaving Israel scrambling to explain why the system exists.
Inside Palestine, a one-state solution could become a new political platform, and new leaders would stand on it to challenge the incumbents. Indeed, a politician may well use it to challenge Abbas this summer. A Palestinian president elected on a one-state platform would pose immense political challenges for Israel, the European Union – and a new American president.
There, indeed, as with so much in the Middle East, the new US president could be a deciding factor.
In a way there is an odd parallel between Abbas and Joe Biden. Both are seen as heirs to a more dynamic predecessor. Both are aware their time in power may be limited – Biden let it be known during the election that he may serve only one term. Both see a rising generation behind them and are struggling both to reflect it and contain it, aware that it may be more radical than the center can handle.
The difference is that Biden ran on a platform of change, which Abbas will not. A second Abbas term as president would not be a chance for change, but a chance for the status quo finally to work. It will also be the very last chance for the status quo to work.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.