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AnalysisOn Palestine, peace, and the region's 3 rival religious axes

A peace paradox: Sidelined Palestinians may finally have their leverage

Israel’s inroads in the Arab world are based on strategic necessity. The Palestinians can’t stop the new peacemaking, but they can set a high price for it

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Palestinians protest against the peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 15 September 2020. (Flash90)
Palestinians protest against the peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 15 September 2020. (Flash90)

In his speech to the UN General Assembly last week, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa lavished praise on his own decision to normalize relations with Israel — and then vowed before the world’s virtually assembled leaders not to abandon the Palestinian cause.

The normalization bid first announced by the United Arab Emirates last month only came “in exchange for stopping Israel’s annexation of the Palestinian lands,” he explained, and called for “the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, based on the resolutions of international legitimacy and the Arab Peace Initiative.”

At every stage in the advancement of the normalization agreements with Israel, leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have taken pains to reaffirm support for the Palestinian cause, a fact that has led to some head-scratching as to who their intended audience might be.

There’s no question that normalization with Israel amounts to an abandonment of the Palestinian cause in the sense usually meant in the Arab world of resistance to the very idea of Israel’s existence.

In this September 15, 2020, photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan pose for a photo on the Blue Room Balcony after signing the Abraham Accords during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

But why keep reminding everyone of that fact? If you’re already walking away from the Palestinians and taking great pains to showcase the new warmth and lucrative commercial potential of the relationship with the Jewish state, why keep bringing up the Palestinian issue? There are enough advocates for the Palestinians and enough outspoken critics of the conservative Sunni regimes to make the case; why do it yourself?

Arab monarchies pay attention to the public mood, as all dictators must. But if Abu Dhabi and Manama are really worried about the rallying power of the Palestinian cause among their domestic opponents, why risk the deal in the first place? Israel was already wholly committed to the alliance with them, which is constructed not on warm and fuzzy sentiment, but on the hard and pressing problem of Iran. Israel cannot afford to abandon the alliance in any case, so what did they gain by publicizing and deepening it? There are benefits to normalization, but not ones so strategically valuable to the governments in Bahrain and the UAE to be worth risking domestic upheaval. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the regimes believe that they will not, in fact, face much domestic anger over the move – and so it’s unlikely that their own people are the primary audience.

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, right, receives Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, in Sakhir Palace, Bahrain, February 12, 2008. (AP Photo/BNA)

Nor is the audience the Palestinians, who will remain unconvinced that the normalization is good for them no matter how many times Bahrain’s king assures them of his good intentions — and whose opinions in any case rarely interest other Arab states.

It is possible to argue that such declarations of fealty to the Palestinians’ plight are a cultural artifact, a rhetorical flourish too ingrained into the literary genre of Arab political speechmaking to be left out even by those actively working to upend the old assumptions.

If you’re already walking away from the Palestinians and taking great pains to showcase the new warmth and lucrative commercial potential of the relationship with the Jewish state, why keep bringing up the Palestinian issue?

But there is a third audience that fits the exact shape and contours of the new pronouncements, a group so unused to being addressed by Arab leaders that they don’t easily recognize it when it’s happening: the Israelis.

Israel’s newfound Arab friends keep raising the uncomfortable question of Palestine because they are trying to explain to Israelis that Israel now has a role to play in safeguarding its Gulf allies from strategically compromising embarrassment. To be friends with Israel is to be vulnerable to accusations of culpability each time the Arab world’s news cycle fills with new images of Palestinian suffering. The normalization deals acknowledge that the Palestinian conflict may take time to solve, but, the Arab leaders are urging Israel, at least don’t make it worse in the interim.

It’s a strange new chapter in the Israeli-Arab encounter, one that poses a surprising irony for the Palestinians — an irony that might be summarized thus: The further they are pushed to the margins of Arab political consciousness, the more valuable their negotiating position becomes. For the first time in a long time, and only as a function of their abandonment, the Palestinians have something to offer that Israel and its Arab allies want.

Palestinians wave national flags as they take part in a protest against US President Donald Trump’s Mideast initiative in the West Bank city of Ramallah, February 11, 2020. (Majdi Mohammed/AP).

Axes and pivots

One of the more helpful paradigms for understanding the complicated politics of the Middle East is what might be termed the theory of religious coalitions.

There are at least three of these coalitions: first, the conservative Sunni regimes, including the monarchies of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain, as well as the Sissi government in Egypt and in an important sense the Fatah faction among the Palestinians; second, the radical Sunni political movements and regimes closely identified and affiliated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party that rules Turkey, the regime in Qatar, the Egyptian Brotherhood itself, and Hamas in the Palestinian context; and third, the Shiites and their allies, who form a close-knit alliance anchored in Teheran and extending to the Alawites of Syria’s Assad regime, the Houthis in Yemen and the Shiite Lebanese who gave birth to Hezbollah.

Thus if one thinks of Iraq less as a coherent nation-state and more as an arena in which these powerful axes clash and compete, many of Iraq’s problems become comprehensible. It is along these axes, too, that Syria and Libya have been torn apart, their conflicts constantly renewed and reenergized by the interventions of these competing regional alliances. It is a vast, complex, ideologically driven clash that cuts through Islam’s ancient heartlands and shapes and exacerbates the region’s smaller conflicts. It explains why the Saudis funded insurgents in Syria, why Turkey now battles Assad’s forces and their Russian backers in the country’s north, why the Emirati army fought in Yemen and Hezbollah in Aleppo, and why the Emirati air force now trains with the Cypriot one as both grow wary of Turkey’s Mediterranean ambitions.

It is also key to understanding the dysfunctions of Palestinian politics. The support of these outside axes has a decisive effect on Hamas’s decision-making in Gaza, on the timing of its rocket strikes on southern Israel, and on its political maneuvering room as it occasionally seeks ceasefire agreements with the Jewish state. The Fatah-Hamas divide draws much of its stubborn resilience from the fact that each side has vast support from the outside, and fears losing that support.

When Erdogan grants Turkish citizenship to Hamas leaders, it isn’t for their personal benefit. It’s an assertion of patronage, a signal meant to reinforce the alliance — to challenge Israel, of course, but no less importantly to undermine Fatah and thus weaken the latter’s regional patrons. By supporting Hamas, Ankara generates photogenic friction with Israel and thus reaffirms the revolutionary bona fides of the radical Sunni axis writ large while strengthening its own client in the Palestinian arena.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, left, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Ankara, Turkey, January 3, 2012. (AP Photo, file)

This regional contest is at the heart of the new peace with Israel, as Gulf Sunnis fret over an ever more aggressive Iran and an ever more assertive Turkey.

As Mossad chief Yossi Cohen explained the new relationship, “You must build a system of mutual trust between us and them… trust, that we are here for them and they are here for us, together against all these threats.”

Naming a price

But there’s a threat, too, embedded in the alliance with Israel. Viewed against the broader regional contest, to be accused of culpability for Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians is more than a public relations problem. It validates and empowers the opposing axes.

Emirati officials have explained repeatedly that their normalization initiative was good for the Palestinians because it buried Netanyahu’s West Bank annexation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a tree planting event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat in the West Bank settlement of Mevo’ot Yericho, in the Jordan Valley, February 10, 2020. (Flash90)

“We kicked the can [of annexation] down the road far enough that Israelis are going to see tremendous benefits for Israel. They’re going to see the benefits of these agreements in reality, very, very soon. And I think annexation will be something most people do not address in the future,” the Emirati ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, one of the architects of the normalization deal, said last week in one of the more explicit versions of the same message repeated constantly by Gulf leaders in the hopes Israelis will understand.

“I’m very confident that annexation is off the table for a significant period of time,” he went on. “I’m very optimistic and very confident that this is going to be a win-win and a mutually beneficial relationship for a very, very long time,” he added, just in case any listener had managed to still miss the point.

To translate from diplomatic language: Israelis will have all the benefits of peace and normalization for exactly as long as the annexation remains off the table, and those benefits will be great enough that Israelis won’t want an annexation in any case.

The Palestinians have long served as a rallying cry in the Arab world, a vocabulary for declaring one’s fealty to Arab honor and Muslim piety. Even as he murdered his way through Iraq and Iran, Saddam Hussein was careful to declare his devotion to Arab and Muslim dignity by championing the cause of Palestine.

There’s a threat embedded in the alliance with Israel. Viewed against the broader regional contest, to be accused of culpability for Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians is more than a public relations problem

The Palestinians have long suffered for playing that role, for the yawning gap between the pronouncements of fealty and the harsh reality of Arab stinginess and apathy over the years.

Now, too, Fatah is caught in a vise between unsympathetic regional powers. Its own Sunni regional coalition is the one seeking normalization with Israel, while rival Hamas’s allies continue to piously affirm Israel’s detestability.

Fatah is alone in the region, a loneliness put into stark relief by a desperate budget crunch. Arab states gave the PA $267 million in the first seven months of 2019, but just $38 million in the same period this year, an 86 percent drop, according to PA figures cited last week by the London-based Al-Araby Al-Jadeeda. It is being abandoned by its own side.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R) and Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary General Saeb Erekat (C) look on as Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit (L) reads a statement during an Arab League emergency meeting discussing the US-brokered proposal for a settlement of the Middle East conflict, at the league headquarters in the Egyptian capital Cairo on February 1, 2020. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

In a sense, Fatah is alone even among Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas cannot call an election to legitimize his 14-year rule, despite repeatedly promising to do so, because he’d lose.

Fatah stands at a crossroads. Last week, it abandoned the longstanding Egyptian initiative for Palestinian unification and turned to Turkey to lead the process. It was a dramatic step, simultaneously a threat to its former allies and an acknowledgment of its own desperate position. It has now entered into unity talks with Hamas under the auspices of Hamas’s most powerful regional benefactor. The talks are slated to continue this coming week – in Qatar, Hamas’s second patron. That is, Fatah appears to be exploring abandoning its regional alliance for that of its rival.

But Fatah has another option before it, one that didn’t exist a year ago.

The Emiratis and Bahrainis have been relentlessly reminding the Israelis that the Palestinian issue remains a sensitive one, and that while Palestinian anger can’t stand in the way of normalization, a dramatic escalation on the Palestinian front might do the trick. That fear is part of the reason the Saudis have yet to jump on board, even though everyone in the region understands that the current peace deals could not have gone ahead without their approval and blessing.

Palestinians protest Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, in Jericho on June 22, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

A wise Palestinian leadership might ask itself: What would the conservative Sunni axis give us to have the Palestinian issue, and the political and strategic danger it represents in the inter-axis contest, finally and comprehensively removed from the equation? Our cause can no longer stand in the way of normalization, but we can still make the inevitable normalization much more painful than it needs to be. What would the Saudis and Emiratis pay to ensure our cause does not threaten them down the road?

And, for that matter, what would Israel pay, now that the Gulf states have shown that a full and deep integration into the region is in the cards once Palestine is no longer a concern? As Al-Otaiba noted in his comments last week, Israelis prefer normalization with the Arab world to further land gains in the West Bank by a five-to-one margin, or 77% to 16%.

It isn’t a threat, but a barter. The old strategy of Israeli isolation no longer carries weight in broader Arab calculations. Fatah can either join the radical Sunni camp alongside Hamas — or play its one powerful card for all it’s worth, before it expires. Powerlessness can be an effective source of influence in the hands of a leadership that knows how to wield it. The Palestinians now have a potent boon to offer at the negotiating table: the final liberation of the Arab world from the shackles of their cause.

It’s scarcely possible to imagine what a Palestinian normalization offer would look like. No Palestinian leadership has ever arisen that has proven able to conceive or implement such a stratagem. The point here isn’t to advocate for or against it, only to notice the strange new path opened up by the abandonment by some Gulf states of the traditional understanding of what the Palestinian cause demanded of them.

Palestinian members of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, during a patrol in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 27, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Nor is this an argument that such a move would necessarily succeed. Whether such a move comes to be seen as capitulation to Israel or as the snatching of a strategic victory from the jaws of defeat depends in large part on what the Palestinians actually demand, on the contours of the final map and on the concessions extracted from Israel while a real and credible regional peace is dangled as a carrot over the proceedings. Even if there were a Palestinian leadership capable of forcing such a choice on Israel, would Israeli politics be able to offer enough to ensure a Palestinian “victory” at the negotiating table? It goes without saying that the Ankara-led axis, with Hamas at the vanguard, would do everything in its power to spoil the party.

In the end, Turkey won’t liberate Palestine. It will use Palestine in its relentless contest against Riyadh and Tehran. The Palestinians will be pawns in that fight, and a frustrated, embittered Fatah will have made them so, just as Hamas has transformed Gaza into a platform for the bloody political theatrics of other regional powers.

The Palestinian cause was once a symbol. For the conservative Sunni axis it has shrunk to a policy problem. Symbols resonate, but policy problems are more urgent — and more soluble.

Here is one of history’s stranger ironies. The very support the Palestinians could not get from the Arab world through their suffering they may be able to obtain from their marginalization. For the first time in a long time, the Palestinians have something tangible and desirable and deliverable to bring to the negotiating table.

The fact that Abbas’s emissaries are now shuttling between Ankara and Doha, however, suggests the current Palestinian leader would rather switch sides in the great intra-Muslim contest than acknowledge the opportunity. If so, the Palestinians, as always, will suffer for it.

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