The euphoria that swept over the Palestinian leadership following the cancellation of Saturday’s exhibition soccer match between the Argentine and Israeli national teams only demonstrates the depth of the crisis in which the Palestinian leadership finds itself.
Palestine Liberation Organization secretary-general Saeb Erekat and the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, as well as the star of the show, Palestinian Football Federation chairman Jibril Rajoub, were beside themselves in their praise for the Argentine team, expounding on how important the Argentine decision was to Palestinian international public diplomacy. Some in Ramallah celebrated with drums and flags.
Doubtless the development represents a considerable Palestinian public relations achievement, but the leadership ought to put things in perspective and understand that the achievement is minor compared to the major challenges it faces both domestically and internationally. The scenes of Wednesday’s victory could quickly vanish by Friday along the Gaza border fence with Israel if the killings continue.
Nevertheless, the timing of the cancellation of Saturday’s game, coming as it did during the night between June 5 and 6, involved two dates that are well-etched in Palestinian collective memory. June 5 was Naksa Day, marking the 51st anniversary of the outbreak of the Six-Day War, which ended Arab patronage over the Palestinian issue and spurred the growth of an independent Palestinian leadership. It was one of the main reasons for the birth of the PLO as the recognized representative of the Palestinian people.
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June 6 marks the anniversary of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which became a blood-soaked confrontation front despite the shock of the force of the Israeli blow. But the Palestinians’ spirit was not broken and five years later, the first intifada began, which from a diplomatic and public relations standpoint laid the groundwork among Israeli public opinion for the need to initiate a diplomatic process, and for a realization that the problem of the Palestinians could not be resolved by “breaking their arms and legs.”
When measured now based on results, 51 years after the Six-Day War and 36 since the first Lebanon War, it’s hard to say that the Palestinian dream of independence and self-determination is on the way. On the contrary, the Israeli government has been aiming with impressive consistency at annexing the West Bank and “Israelizing” the settlements there. That would leave the Palestinians, in the best case, with an expanded Israeli civil administration and economic and humanitarian solutions for the Gaza Strip, with its 2 million residents, to prevent the enclave’s collapse, but without any diplomatic route to independence.
In Israel, people think such an arrangement can enable control over the Palestinians for generations, even if the two peoples are equal in numbers. And if Palestinians are numerically superior in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza combined, Israel would still have huge military, economic and technological superiority that would permit its domination for many years to come.
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The Palestinian leadership would do well to deal with this situation. It should identify an attainable horizon and assess whether it has given the next generation of Palestinians the tools to get there. The cancellation of the Argentina-Israel soccer game is important to Palestinian public diplomacy. The world has not followed the American lead in moving embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the international community recognizes the Palestinian right to self-determination. Nevertheless, in practice virtually nothing has been done to apply pressure on Israel. And to the extent that it has been applied, it does have the weight needed to force Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government to reconsider their course.
Some of the responsibility for that rests with the Palestinian leadership itself, due to its split with Hamas over the past decade, which has contributed greatly to the public’s loss of confidence in them and the apathy over the diplomatic standstill. The international community, particularly the United States, bears responsibility for ignoring dozens of UN General Assembly and Security Council resolutions that sought to force Israel to seek an early resolution of the conflict. Israel can treat the United Nations and its institutions as hollow organizations without influence, as long as it can count on American support.
If it wants to be viable, the Palestinian leadership and particularly President Mahmoud Abbas, 82, who understands that he doesn’t have long in office, should act immediately to rehabilitate Palestinian national institutions and restore trust in the leadership, especially among the young.
Abbas must seek free elections as soon as possible and put an end to the fight between his Fatah movement and Hamas, which is fundamentally a fight over power centers and control in the face of occupation and siege, and will not lead to self-determination.
If the Palestinian leadership manages to lead a process of change, the results on the ground will be a lot more meaningful than the Argentine national soccer team’s no-show in Jerusalem. Even in the wake of the Argentine decision, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza woke up today to the same reality and understood that, with or without Lionel Messi, the occupation hasn’t budged.