In Depth

Palestine: hour has arrived - to find a dynamic new leader

It's also time to reduce the role of the Middle East's chief mediator – the United States

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made a half-hearted attempt last Friday at pushing his people’s cause forward at the UN.

The 79-year-old statesman clearly senses that he cannot possibly continue to claim to represent Palestinians much longer without something to show for it; not only is he nearly 80, but his mandate to govern expired five years ago and disillusionment over his negotiations with Israel is at an all-time low.

As a result, many were expecting specifics. But instead of setting a timetable for Israel to end its near 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, instead of announcing that he was going to seek to join the International Criminal Court to allow independent experts to settle a number of issues, instead of giving any specifics at all about how he planned to break the deadlock that has allowed the West Bank to be slowly eaten away by settlements, he fell back on sentiment.

“There is an occupation that must end now. There is a people that must be freed immediately,” Abbas told the UN General Assembly in New York. “The hour of independence of the state of Palestine has arrived.”

It's a grand statement, but hardly one that offers any constructive plan for progress.

The only ray of light he offered was that he was asking the UN Security Council to dictate the rules for future talks with Israel and set a deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands.

Negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis desperately need to get out of the rut they have become stuck in, and the best way to achieve that would be to reduce the role of the chief mediator - the United States.

It has become patently clear this year that heeding the rules America sets down for talks is no longer seen as necessary by Israel. Despite repeated calls for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to stop building settlements, it did not. Despite the US urging Israel to release a batch of Palestinian prisoners as agreed in March, it did not.

US Secretary of State John Kerry - who was given the unenviable task of handling the peace process - has made his frustration over Israel's unilateral actions quite clear.

In what was referred to as the "poof speech" - as in “Poof, that was sort of the moment,” according to Kerry, “we find ourselves where we are” - he testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Israel was responsible for the breakdown in talks and Abbas's "unhelpful" decision to apply to join 15 international conventions and treaties.

If the US cannot make Israel abide by the rules of the game, then it is time for someone else to step in, someone who will actually punish both sides if they do not play ball.

There is also an enormous need for a mediator who can look at Hamas in a fresh light. Yes, they have been classified as a terrorist organisation, but in contrast to what Netanyahu would have had the UN General Assembly believe during his speech last night, they are nothing like IS, al-Qaeda or Boko Haram.

Last week's announcement of Hamas's latest unity pact with Fatah - of which Abbas is head - is an important step that could be used to bring the Islamist party into line with international standards, if only anyone dared embrace the opportunity, something the US is being intensely pressured not to do.

Making Hamas part of the peace process - on the obvious condition that they would have to accept Israel's right to exist and renounce violence - would give the international community far more leverage over them and could actually interrupt the barbaric cycle of war.

The tactics of the past seven years have not worked: can either Israel or Palestine really afford to not give something else a go?

Crucially, the new mediator should be a country or group of countries where the Israel lobby does not have quite such a pervasive grip. Connie Bruck, writing for the New Yorker about the notorious American Israel Public Affairs Committee, shows how the group has an unfathomable amount of sway in Congress, making impossible any meaningful criticism of Israel - let alone a push for the concessions that both sides must undertake.

Unfortunately, asking the Security Council to step in and take over the process is unlikely to solve much; America is a vetoing power and will almost certainly exercise this privilege on any resolution on the subject.

So, for the moment, in the absence of a real mediator, Palestine must fight for its own rights.

What is needed first is a new leader, a younger, bolder moderate who is not just willing to talk about the urgency of the state of Palestine but will also act to address it, even if that means making moves that are unpopular at home and/or abroad.

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