6 weeks after UAE’s normalization bombshell, Palestinians still have no strategy

With former regional backers abandoning ship, Ramallah needs a new way forward. Instead Abbas has opened the familiar ‘crisis playbook,’ and it isn’t working

Palestinians in the West Bank city of Ramallah burn pictures of Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (top) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, during a demonstration against the UAE-Israeli agreement to normalize diplomatic ties, August 15, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
Palestinians in the West Bank city of Ramallah burn pictures of Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (top) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, during a demonstration against the UAE-Israeli agreement to normalize diplomatic ties, August 15, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

It has been nearly a month and a half since the surprise announcement that the United Arab Emirates was establishing open ties with Israel. But analysts say the Palestinian Authority is still at a loss as to how to combat the wave of normalization sweeping the region.

“There is no strategy right now — at least not in foreign policy,” Jihad Harb, a Palestinian political analyst based in Ramallah, told The Times of Israel.

Palestinians have scrambled to respond, switching rhetoric fast enough to give close observers whiplash. Bitter denunciation of the UAE, including public burnings of pictures of UAE Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed, was suddenly put on hold after harsh criticism from powerful Gulf sponsors forced Abbas’s office to announce that it respected “the sovereign symbols” of its fellow countries.

After the Arab League smacked down a Palestinian-sponsored resolution to condemn the UAE for normalizing its relations with Israel, the PA said it was reviewing its membership in the pan-Arab body — before folding and saying it would remain inside after all.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R) and Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Saeb Erekat (L) at the opening session of the 30th Arab League summit in the Tunisian capital Tunis on March 31, 2019. (Fethi Belaid/Pool/AFP)

The leadership has dusted off a well-worn “crisis playbook” familiar to fans of the genre: unity talks with old rivals Hamas and Islamic Jihad, protests against the normalization deal, and an attempt to extract condemnations from the Arab League.

“The PA essentially fell back on its traditional strategy and tools. It’s a strategy that worked in the past in certain respects — especially in forging an Arab, Islamic and almost international consensus against the Trump peace plan,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to Abbas who is currently a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Gaith al-Omari, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former director of the American Task Force on Palestine, speaking at Georgetown University in Washington, DC in 2013. (screen shot: YouTube)

But this time around, it’s not working. PA-backed protests against the deal failed to take off. The Arab League rejected passing a resolution condemning Emirati normalization. And, most damning of all, Bahrain went ahead and joined the UAE in establishing open ties with Israel.

In Ramallah’s defense, its options are both unappealing and limited. US President Donald Trump’s proposed peace plan would essentially take the status quo — Israeli military rule over millions of Palestinians — and label it a state. With both Jerusalem and Washington disinterested in Palestinian statehood, it seems unlikely that the PA could get a better deal.

“You say you want us to adapt ourselves to these circumstances? That means surrender,” senior Abbas adviser Nabil Shaath told The Times of Israel. “What about demanding that Israel implements our previous agreements?”

But who will make that demand? Among Arab regimes, the old slogan that “what the Palestinians accept, we accept, and what they reject, we reject” clearly no longer holds.

“The Palestinians were lulled by the reaction to the [Trump] peace plan,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute. “All Abbas had to do was say ‘no, no, no,’ and the whole Arab and Islamic world got behind him. So in that sense, it went really well. But all of a sudden, that has fallen apart.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan wave from the Truman Balcony at the White House after they participated in the signing of the Abraham Accords, where the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognize Israel, in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Since the Arab Spring, a new coalition of repressive autocrats has come to the fore. From Saudi Arabia to Egypt, these leaders believe their interests lie with strong Israel rather than with the weak and divided Palestinians.

At the same time, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has yet to develop a strategy to confront normalization. It has been consistently blindsided by the events of the past month, responding belatedly — with little more at its disposal than condemnations.

“[Ramallah] knows this is a disaster. But they’re letting their refusal to take any risks dictate their national strategy in a really damaging way,” said Ibish. “They’re paralyzed. And they’re reveling in their paralysis. It’s tragic.”

Some analysts have suggested that the PA leadership is simply waiting for the results of the US presidential elections in November, hoping for a win by Democrat Joe Biden. But it is far from clear that as president, Biden would meaningfully change US policy toward the Palestinians as far as normalization is concerned.

The Democratic presidential candidate hailed the agreements between Israel and Arab states — and even sought to take a little credit himself, telling the press that normalization “builds on efforts of multiple administrations to foster broader Arab-Israeli opening.”

“Biden will not do anything to prevent Sudan and Oman and Saudi Arabia from going forward and doing the same,” Ibish said, listing states said to be in line for normalization with Israel.

No unity

In times of crisis, the Palestinian Authority often feints towards ending the rift that has defined Palestinian politics since 2007: the division between Fatah and the Hamas terror group. Though the move is popular among Palestinians, deep distrust and sharp ideological differences have torpedoed every previous reconciliation attempt.

A widely publicized meeting attended by senior figures in 14 major Palestinian factions was given an enormous amount of media coverage in Palestinian state media. For three hours, the leaders — including both Abbas and Hamas terror chief Ismail Haniyeh — gave speeches against normalization.

But the public warming — which really began as far as back as June — has failed to lead to any tangible changes on the ground.

“The tone was different, but so far there haven’t been any steps taken,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “There isn’t the traditional animosity that we’ve seen, but there isn’t real movement on the ground towards actual reconciliation, towards elections, towards reform in the PA or the PLO.”

The numerous Palestinian factions agree on only three things: no to normalization, no to annexation, and no to Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. On every other issue — from their visions for Palestinian statehood to who ought to control Palestinian institutions in the West Bank and Gaza — enormous and perhaps insurmountable gaps between the parties persist.

“The status quo is comfortable for both Hamas and Fatah. They’re both secure where they are, and they both have a lot to compromise on, and neither of them is in any rush to unify,” al-Omari said. “They might flirt with this, they might send signals — but really they have no path forward here.”

The Palestinian public, which has seen countless rounds of unity talks come and go, seems to agree. According to new polling released last Tuesday by the Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research, only 11% believe that “unity will return soon” in the Palestinian leadership.

The extent of apathy and distrust in the leadership, in fact, is staggering. When the so-called Abraham Accords were signed last Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority could only rally a few scattered gatherings around the West Bank. A few dozen demonstrators gathered in Jenin, and perhaps 100 in Hebron, in addition to several other small protests.

The contrast with the mass demonstrations which erupted after Trump decided to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem could not be more stark: thousands of Palestinians clashed then with Israeli security forces in violent protests across the West Bank and Gaza.

The crisis of faith in the leadership now runs so deep that few wish to turn out for an official protest, al-Omari speculated.

“The message I hear is ‘why should we go out and endanger ourselves for a leadership who will not translate our participation into political capital?” al-Omari said.

Palestinians protest in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank against Israeli normalisation deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on September 15, 2020, hours ahead of a signing ceremony at the White House. – The decision by the UAE and Bahrain to normalise ties with Israel breaks with decades of consensus within the Arab world that a peace deal with the Palestinians is a prerequisite for establishing relations with the Jewish state. (Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

That sentiment perhaps underlies the meager attendance after the Tuesday signing of the accords in Washington, as a paltry 200 people gathered in the central demonstration in Ramallah’s al-Manara Square to condemn the deal. The demonstrators filled perhaps half of the intersection, with traffic continuing more or less as usual as motorcycles and small taxis wove around the demonstration.

A quick walk down neighboring Palestine Street confirmed that the shops and markets were full, even as the demonstrators chanted slogans, took some photographs, and trickled away. About an hour after the demonstration began, only a few protesters were left in the square.

No Friends

Such a weak domestic position may explain the zigzagging the Palestinian Authority has done in its foreign policy.

The Palestinian leadership surely knew that the Arab League would reject its resolution to condemn the far more powerful UAE. Egypt, Oman, Bahrain, and others had publicly praised the deal. And the Arab League had already refused the PA’s request for an emergency summit.

An early, conciliatory draft resolution leaked to the press showed a Palestinian attempt to stake out a rhetorical win without treading too sharply on the toes of the larger, more powerful states on which Palestinians depend for financial and diplomatic support.

But at the session, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki gave a searing speech condemning the Arab League as a hypocritical paper tiger.

“It puts us in an embarrassing position to hear other countries explain to us that [Arab League] decisions were nothing more than ink on paper to mollify the Palestinians,” al-Maliki concluded.

Shaath admitted that Palestinian Authority officials did not expect the resolution to pass, but added “it was important for us to show the Arab world what was really happening. It was important for us to make the Arab world look at itself and see what remained of its promises.”

Why the decision to double down in the face of overwhelming evidence that the resolution would be struck down?

Abbas’s unpopularity — 62% of Palestinians in a poll released on Tuesday believe he ought to resign — makes taking a hard line against the UAE a logical political choice.

“There’s enormous anger among the Palestinian public. In that sense, the PA was compelled to put forward the resolution it did, so that it could satisfy its constituency, as much as it also wanted to prevent further normalizations,” Harb said.

Al-Maliki tried to put on a brave face after the resolution’s failure, saying that the PA was emerging from the Arab League stronger. Few seem to have been convinced.

“They’re saying we have our sumud [steadfastness] and our refugee camps and so on, and that’s enough. Well, if that’s enough, then enjoy. But of course it’s not enough. They know it’s not. It’s the most empty rhetoric you can imagine,” Ibish said.

Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. (Courtesy)

“They’re scared. It’s like they’re in this tiny little box, and the walls are closing in. But they still don’t want to move. The fear is enormous — combined with a sense that there’s nowhere to go,” he concluded.

The prominent Palestinian newspaper al-Quds published a long editorial last Wednesday which seemed to indicate that some, at least, wanted to see a concrete way forward.

“Protesting and condemnations are not a response to normalization,” the editorial concluded. What would be? It left that for its readers to guess.

The PA has long been trapped in a political paradox: on the one hand, any compromise is politically risky, and it lacks the popular legitimacy to make it. On the other hand, its unwillingness to take political risks helps perpetuate the miserable reality of Israeli control over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza — in turn making its continued rule still more unpopular.

“The next intifada is as likely to be directed at [Palestinian] leaders as at the Israeli occupation,” Elgindy said.

Abbas is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly later this week. Al-Omari suggested that the speech could signal which way the political winds are blowing in the Palestinian camp. There are roughly three options: a proposal for Palestinian statehood, a plan to overhaul Palestinian politics by unifying with its rivals — and the status quo, in which much is said and little is done.

If the Palestinian Authority makes a serious compromise proposal, it will suffer criticism from nationalists and Islamists, from Palestinian refugees and ordinary citizens in the West Bank and Gaza. But if it leans back and relies on merely cursing out the Gulf, it will continue to bleed support anyway.

“It’s never too late for them to put their own initiative on the table. It would have been a lot more powerful and effective in March than now. But it’s not too late,” Ibish said.

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