Can the Istanbul conference for diaspora Palestinians lead to unity of vision?

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 16/2/2017

The situation continues to get worse for Palestinians as they remain under occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, and the latter has also been under siege for a decade. Those who make-up one-fifth of the Israeli population continue to suffer from official racism, with over 80 laws that discriminate between them and their fellow citizens who happen to be Jews. Palestinians driven from their homeland in 1948 and 1967 continue to eke out an existence, mostly in refugee camps under desperate conditions, with the added strain of more recent displacement from Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and Syria since the start of the Arab Spring. Those not in such camps are in a growing diaspora all over the world.

Their aspirations for freedom from Israeli occupation, for equal rights in Israel and for the right to return to their homeland from their decades’ old enforced exile are both legal and moral. However, Israel continues to deny them these rights and garners support for its position from the so called international community, which places Israel’s existence and security significantly above the rights for Palestinians that they all demand and provide for their own citizens.

The Palestinian leadership is split broadly between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. An honest assessment of their performance shows that both have failed to deliver either a daily dignified existence for the Palestinians they rule under occupation or an improvement in the prospects for delivering their national rights.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with Donald Trump this week showed that their vision of the future is all about Israel, with little mention of the 12 million Palestinians who exist both in historic Palestine, refugee camps and the diaspora. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state and accept that it must control all security “West of the river Jordan”. This effectively ends any pretence that he and his fellow extremists in the Israeli government may have emitted indicating their support for a Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s new language for peace is about “substance, not ‘labels’”. He said this in response to a question about the two-state solution which the “international community” has championed as the only game in town. Well, Netanyahu just blew the whistle in Washington for the end of the two-state game.

President Trump did not discount the two-state solution or even a one-state solution. At his joint press conference with Netanyahu he said: “So I’m looking at two states and one state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like.”

The 15 February 2017 — When Bibi Met Donald — is thus a deep line that has been drawn in the sand of this conflict. It should be a wake-up call not only for the Palestinian leadership, but also for all other Palestinians everywhere. Their situation is set to worsen and prospects for freedom and independence appear bleak.

One of the by-products of the Oslo Accords and the formation of the Palestinian Authority, was a radical change in the role of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s role and that of the Palestine National Council. This also led to a disconnect between the Palestinian institutions and Palestinians in the diaspora, who care deeply about their identity and homeland and who have much to offer to the struggle.

While the PLO does still exist, it now appears as a line in the PA’s budget; to observers it appears to be wheeled out (at least its Executive Committee is) as required by PA President Mahmoud Abbas — who also happens to be the PLO Chairman — to rubber stamp decisions already made in Ramallah. The PNC has been largely comatose since it met in Gaza to approve a change to the PLO charter back in 1996. In fact, both the PLO and PNC are in need of reform to include factions that are currently unrepresented. Furthermore, the ailing PNC needs fresh elections.

I wrote about the need for Palestinian unity to counter both the Paris Conference and a Trump presidency at the beginning of the year. Sadly, while there has been another attempt to bring Fatah and Hamas together, this time in Moscow, there is still no tangible evidence that this is going to happen soon.

If the leaderships of the two parties cannot overcome their differences then perhaps Palestinians in the diaspora can show them the way and send a clear message that the status quo is unacceptable. Unity and an agreed strategy for taking back control of the Palestinian people’s future cannot wait any longer.

There is a ray of hope that Palestinians from the diaspora could provide the impetus to move matters on. This comes in the shape of a Conference to be held in Istanbul on 25 and 26 February, billed as “The People’s Conference for Diaspora Palestinians”.

The conference objectives are:

  • Affirming the right of the Palestinians to liberation, self-determination and the role of the diaspora Palestinians in this.
  • Affirming the right of the Palestinians to return and working towards achieving this.
  • Undertaking political work to achieve the civil and human rights of the Palestinian people.
  • Political participation for the diaspora in the Palestinian national decision-making.
  • Build and strengthen the unity of the political situation of Palestinians in the diaspora.

The organisers, who have past experience of organising conferences for Palestinians in Europe that attract thousands, have on this occasion focussed on bringing together in Istanbul leading Palestinian figures and activists from around the world with the aim of taking stock, and identifying ways of connecting with existing Palestinian institutions, such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Palestinian National Council (PNC). They have reached out to participants from across the political spectrum and seem to have had some success in attracting a number who would perhaps not normally attend the annual conferences for Palestinians from Europe.

However, as with many Palestinian initiatives, the conference has not been without its critics. The PLO’s Expatriate Affairs Department emailed its contacts in the diaspora warning against the “factional use of the national constants and tampering with representational role of the PLO.” The statement articulates the department’s concerns at the lack of engagement by the conference organisers with itself and the Refugees’ Department. It argues that the short lead up time may result in there being inadequate preparation for a substantive discussion of the issues to be tackled by the delegates. It also expresses concern about possible interference by non-Palestinian actors in the conference which may influence its direction.

It is important to note that the PLO’s Expatriate Affairs Department does not offer an alternative to this gathering that would meet the conference objectives, nor can it point to a record of seriously attempting to reconnect the PLO with the Palestinian diaspora. However, it raises legitimate concerns about the conference which the organisers need to alleviate for it to be the ray of hope it could be for reconnecting the 12 million Palestinians around the world.

The organisers carry a heavy responsibility to ensure that what happens in Istanbul is what it says on the label: enough is enough as far as division and factionalism are concerned; saving Palestine requires Palestinian unity.

Can the Istanbul conference be a turning point in the struggle that leads to an agreed vision for the future? There are 12 million reasons why it must be given every opportunity to try.

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