In the wake of Yasser Arafat’s death, the world’s attention has justifiably been focused on who will fill the outsized shoes of the father of Palestinian nationalism. Clearly, any potential for peace hinges on whether the society he left behind will be ruled by the Palestinian Authority or by anarchy. But as the Palestinian power struggle unfolds, it is worth bearing in mind that in addition to creating a vacuum in the West Bank and Gaza, Arafat’s death has left a gaping hole in the Palestinians’ effort to project their cause to the world.
For four decades, Arafat led the Palestine Liberation Organization, which gave international prominence to the Palestinian cause and which Israel formally recognized as the political voice of the Palestinians in September 1993. Throughout the Oslo peace process and the current intifada, the international voice of the Palestinian people remained under the control of the PLO.
The PLO is often mistakenly confused with the Palestinian Authority. Functionally, the P.A.’s mandate, as prescribed in the Oslo Accords, is limited to serving as a governing body for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza until a final status agreement is reached. The P.A., however, does not speak for all Palestinians.
Under the Oslo agreement, the P.A. does not control the international relations of Palestinians; there is no formal position of P.A. foreign minister. In practical terms, this means that the P.A. does not speak for Palestinian refugees living outside of the West Bank and Gaza, and the P.A. does not control the people who speak for the Palestinian cause across the world. Arafat, in his capacity as leader of both the P.A. and PLO, made this distinction moot: he controlled everything.
Now that Arafat is gone, who will lead the PLO, and what will the new leadership’s tenor be? Since 1964, the Palestinians have mounted a two-pronged strategy in their quest for national liberation. Foremost, the strategy called for action on the ground — namely armed struggle, which ceased, at least formally, with the Oslo Accords.
However, the second prong of the Palestinian strategy has always been — and continues to be — devoted to promoting Palestinian self-determination, delegitimizing Israel and generating international pressure on Israel to end the occupation. This second prong, through top-down pressure, seeks to force Israel’s hand by imposing an internationally devised solution to the conflict. The venue for this strategy has traditionally been the United Nations.
While America’s veto in the U.N. Security Council has always been an obstacle toward implementing this top-down strategy, the Palestinian role in the U.N. has remained effective. Mobilization of the U.N. General Assembly to request an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of the Israeli separation fence is only the most recent triumph of Palestinian advocates. Palestinian diplomacy in the U.N. has made Israel a de facto pariah state in the world body and a polarizing force in the General Assembly, often to the chagrin of the United States.
Marshalling the international community was always a vital part of Arafat’s strategy. As if bipolar, Arafat authorized resolutions critical of Israel at the same time that the Palestinians were negotiating with Israel. Thus, amid negotiations on the Oslo Accords — when bilateral negotiations between Palestinians and Israel were progressing — the posture of Palestinian activity in the U.N. was divisive and unilateral. What the Palestinians could not achieve bilaterally they sought to gain through pressure from the international community.
All this was the brainchild of Arafat. Arafat’s control of the diplomatic arm of the Palestinians was nothing short of total and absolute. The current Palestinian ambassador to the U.N., Nasser Al-Kidwa, is Arafat’s nephew and received orders directly from Arafat. Will Kidwa stay on in New York? It remains to be seen.
However, if the fate of Arafat’s other kin is indicative — like the recent outrage when Arafat appointed another nephew to head the security apparatus in Gaza — it is unlikely. As a result, it is reasonable to suspect that a new era of Palestinian diplomacy may emerge.
Thus far, however, the prospects for positive change in Palestinian diplomacy have been ambiguous. True, Palestinian moderates Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qureia have assumed control of, respectively, the PLO and P.A. But Farouk Kaddoumi, an Oslo rejectionist who chose to remain in Tunisia rather than return to the territories and negotiate with Israel, was appointed head of Fatah, the most powerful Palestinian political faction.
Press reports indicate that Kaddoumi, whose official post is PLO foreign minister, believes that Palestinian foreign affairs, and particularly the Palestinian seat in the U.N., fall under his authority. Kaddoumi’s reemergence could be an indicator that the post-Arafat era may mean more of the same — or worse.
Roger Zakheim is senior articles editor of the NYU Journal of International Law & Politics. The views expressed are his own.