The angry political and public reaction to the decision by the Palestinian leadership to postpone discussions of the Goldstone war crimes report requires a sober look at the reasons and lessons that need to be learned to avoid repetition.
Anger came from Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike, including many supporters of Palestine. Arab media, especially Al Jazeera dedicated hours and hours of prime time TV to give space to bombastic attacks against Mahmoud Abbas and his leadership. Public accusations calling Abbas a traitor who sells out the blood of Palestinians in Gaza have become so common that it is worrisome.
Anti-Abbas demonstrations took place in Gaza and Ramallah, and many petitions, public statements and web-based messages were issued.
While the Palestinian president has established a PLO committee headed by a non-Fateh member to investigate what happened, a number of facts are undisputed. The Human Rights Commission members were ready and willing to vote in favour of turning the report over to the UN Security Council. At least 33 of the 45-member council appeared to be willing to vote for it.
It is also undisputed that although the Palestinian observer delegation has no right to vote, its clear support for the postponement was key to the decision of the voting delegates. Arab and Muslim leaders who were also under US pressure said in public that they could not be more Palestinian than the Palestinian leadership.
Many more details have now come out about the US and Israeli pressure and arm-twisting tactics. President Barack Obama called Abbas and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked her diplomatic machine using the US consulate in Jerusalem, all apparently due to the pleading of the Israelis.
The Israeli media publicly talked about harsh economic pressures threatened if the Goldstone report is not postponed. The Palestinians were apparently blackmailed with the possibility of denying licence to a second cellular phone company, which would have cost the Palestinian government $300 million in punitive fees. The fact that the second company includes some direct and indirect relations to the PA leadership has not been denied by Ramallah.
The Palestinian leadership was caught completely off guard and has failed to provide satisfactory justifications. Attempts to say that they are not voting members or that the war crimes report also implicated Hamas failed to convince anyone.
The longer the Palestinian leadership refused to take responsibility the longer the attacks have continued.
Even the high marks Abbas garnered coming out of the sixth Fateh congress and the holding of the Palestine Central Council that elected pro-Abbas executive committee members failed to shield the Palestinian leader from angry public attacks.
Understanding some of the circumstances surrounding this scandal can help put things into context. The terrible results, in Palestinian eyes, of the New York tripartite summit after months of high expectations from the Obama administration left Palestinians and their supporters totally disillusioned and hopeless in a US led diplomatic breakthrough.
With disappointment from the political process high, the only option to put real pressure on the Israeli occupiers seems to be in dealing with Israel’s crimes of war. The Goldstone Report was a Godsend and the squirming of the Israelis proved to many that the threat of effective war crime accusations might be their Achilles heel.
Another circumstantial problem is the controversy over the licensing of the Watania cellular company. For over two years the PA, with help from Tony Blair and others in the Quartet, has been pushing Israel to release the airwaves that would allow for the second cell phone company to work.
On the eve of the Goldstone discussions, the Israelis bluntly came out in public saying that the licensing of Watania was conditional on the PA’s position regarding the report.
Whether this was the motive behind the Palestinian decision or not, the appearance of a quid pro quo became fodder for discussions, to the point that even the former UN special rapporteur for Palestine, Robert Falk, mentioned this as a reason, even though he was unable to provide evidence of this allegation when confronted by a reporter.
Even supporters of the Palestinian Authority admit that it was clearly outmanoeuvred by the Israelis and the Americans, and was seen to be totally out of touch with its own public and the Arab and international supporters.
What are the lessons that the Palestinian Authority should derive?
To begin with, it is clear that Abbas relied much more on his close advisers than on the legal bodies that represent Palestinians, or at least the ruling Fateh faction. Neither Fateh’s central committee nor the executive committee of the PLO were consulted or involved in the decision. Leaks from the two groups say that whatever discussions took place within these bodies was totally unfavourable to postponing discussion on the report.
Even the Fayyad administration, while mostly a technocratic government, is reported to have been opposed to this decision. Had he sought and received approval from these two representative bodies, Abbas would have saved himself much of the personal attacks and would have made all involved responsible.
What comes out of the behind-the-scenes discussions is that Abbas and his top advisers rarely use the weapon of political and public opposition in Palestine. At a time when the Israeli government stands up to tremendous US pressure, stressing its refusal to fulfill international obligations, the Palestinians are not used to say that a decision will not fly by the opposition or the public at large.
In this context, it appears that Abbas seems to exaggerate the consequences of saying no to the US than the Western-trained pro-US Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Reliable sources told this correspondent that Fayyad rejected US pressure on this issue, saying that the Palestinian public cannot handle this problem after what happened in New York.
Furthermore, the Palestinian leadership seems ill equipped to deal politically and publicly with such experienced and cunning counterparts. Instead of being caught off guard, the Palestinian leadership rarely makes political demands or uses the media to preempt a potential problem.
Imagine if the PA requested and received an Israeli release of 1,000 prisoners or the stoppage of house demolition in Jerusalem in return for its support for this unpopular move. Imagine if the PA leaked news of the US pressure in order to prepare the public for its decision, or used such leak to seek Arab and Muslim support so as not have to face alone the unbearable pressure.
The PA also needs to have a much better understanding of the feelings of its people. A trial balloon of the possibility of such a decision would have brought enough reactions to alert the leadership of the possible consequences.
Finally, as has been learned by so many scandals involving senior officials, the problem of cover up is often worse than the original mistake.
The Palestinian president did well to appoint a committee to investigate, but that is not enough. He needs to address his people, take responsibility for his actions, take some tough decisions, including firing some advisers, and then vow to keep his ears closer to the public.