Palestinians are understandably furious at the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain for agreeing to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel, but it leaves them with no choice but to formulate their own strategy for ending the occupation.
The Palestinian leadership has been remarkably passive in recent years, especially since the announcement of the Trump administration’s so-called peace plan last January. Instead of replying with a constructive and compelling counterproposal, the Palestine Liberation Organization simply rejected the plan out of hand. President Mahmoud Abbas didn’t have to persuade the 22-member Arab League and the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation to fully endorse his rejection. Most European governments also dismissed the Trump proposal.
This surge of international support may have given the Palestinians a false sense of security. Instead of coming up with their own plan, they have been relying mostly on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API), which promised Arab recognition of Israel in return for the creation of a Palestinian state.
This was a huge mistake, because the Palestinians didn’t control the API’s implementation, or even its interpretation. When first promulgated, the API was generally understood to make normalization contingent on an agreement. However, some Arab countries began contemplating mutually reciprocal steps, with Israel easing (or promising to ease) the occupation in return for Arab diplomatic overtures. The idea was to create a virtuous cycle that would eventually lead to ending the occupation and normalization of relations around the same time.
Now the UAE and Bahrain have effectively inverted the original concept, front-loading normalization and leaving the bigger questions over the occupation to some future date. For now, they are satisfied merely with the understanding that there will be no further Israeli annexation in the West Bank.
The main strength of the API for the Palestinians was that it could be presented as an Arab consensus. Now that has been broken, the API provides them with no leverage.
This means Palestinian leaders now must come up with their own approach to ending the occupation or be left with none at all. And they have to face the fact that they will be dealing with Israel directly, not as part of a cohesive Arab bloc.
Palestinian paralysis stems not only from a lack of good options, but also political cowardice and crippling disunity within the leadership. This can best be rectified by elections. If the vote is restricted to the West Bank — because Hamas won’t let people in Gaza participate and Israel may exclude East Jerusalem — it’s still worth doing.
A fresh mandate is essential to restore the credibility that the leadership will need in order to make the Israelis a bold counter-offer. That must perforce contain significant concessions on emotive issues like refugee return and land swaps.
There must also be a serious effort at national reconciliation among the Palestinians themselves. This could be pursued through collective bodies such as the Palestinian Legislative Council, or through a national-unity arrangement with Hamas. Even if it can’t be accomplished overnight, it must be credibly attempted.
A serious Palestinian counterproposal would’ve been a lot more effective in January or February, but it’s never too late to demonstrate diplomatic credibility. If Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidential election, that would be a perfect opportunity for Palestinians to issue their own plan, on the grounds there is now once again an American leader they can take seriously.
Gulf Arab countries, including the UAE and Bahrain, would welcome an opportunity to demonstrate that they haven’t turned their back on the Palestinians. As they develop stronger relations with Israel, they should be in a much better position to help.
But this can only happen if Palestinian leaders drop the crutch of the API and act decisively, in the name of the undoubted national emergency their people now face.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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