Biden’s victory prompts great expectations in Ramallah, quite possibly too great

PA is anticipating a possible White House invite for Abbas, the reopening of its DC offices, and resumed aid. It may be over-confident, and there’s a two-month transition first

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

US Vice President Joseph Biden (left) with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)
US Vice President Joseph Biden (left) with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

On Tuesday, Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Executive Committee of the PLO, died at Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Doctor Abu Ali, as his friends would call him, had long been formally designated Kbir Almufawidin — the greatest of the Palestinian Authority’s negotiators — a title that may have carried some weight in the years when actual negotiations with Israel took place. Erekat would cite it in interviews to prove how ostensibly vital he was, especially as he had no “impressive” record in Israeli jails and no “freedom fighter” persona, unlike many of his Fatah colleagues. Over the past 11 years in which there have been no substantive negotiations, however, the title became worthless at best, and the subject of ridicule by those who oppose such talks.

Erekat’s support for the peace process with Israel steadily eroded his status over the years, as he was perceived as having led the Palestinians down a dead end. He had been prominent at crucial political moments, beginning with the Madrid Conference, where his appearance in a keffiyeh for some reason angered the Israelis — and on through countless sessions in Oslo, Cairo, Camp David, Annapolis, and beyond. He also headed the talks with foreign minister Tzipi Livni during Ehud Olmert’s term as prime minister. But both the Israelis and the Palestinians always knew that, regardless of that Kbir Almufawidin moniker, the deals were always done, or not done, by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas or his predecessor Yasser Arafat.

The body of of chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who died from COVID-19, arrives at a hospital in the West Bank city of Ramallah on November 10, 2020. (Flash90)

Some Hebrew media outlets once considered Erekat a candidate to succeed Abbas, but he was never a real option, always lagging one step behind.

Palestinian mourners carry the coffin of Saeb Erekat during a funeral procession in Jericho on November 11, 2020 (Ahmad GHARABLI / PPO / AFP)

Erekat’s casket was placed in the PA’s Muqata headquarters in Ramallah on Wednesday, and senior Palestinian officials came to pay tribute to him — albeit maintaining their distance in light of his death from COVID-19. (Erekat suffered from severe lung disease, and when he contracted the disease it was clear he was at high risk). A guard of honor carried his casket to the Muqata entrance, where Abbas eulogized him.

Tuesday, November 11, was also the anniversary of the death in 2004 of Arafat — with whom Erekat had an up and down relationship but to whom he always remained loyal, even during the worst days of the Second Intifada.

Palestinian security officers and mourners gather around the grave of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat after the funeral at his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Friday Nov 12, 2004. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

The two funerals were vastly different. After Arafat’s death in a Paris hospital, his body was brought to the Muqata amid chaotic scenes. As soon as the helicopter landed, a crowd of 10,000-15,000 people swarmed to its door, trying to touch the legend one last time. Complete disorder, just the way the “Old Man” liked it.

That day appears to have marked the beginning of the Palestinian Authority’s slow and painful decline. Although Abbas restored law and order to the West Bank, the Hamas coup in Gaza took place on his watch, and the schism in the Palestinian arena has festered for the past thirteen and a half years. The Palestinians are at a low — they are marginalized, almost irrelevant, a yoke around the necks of the wealthy Arab states. Now pivotal Sunni states also view them, in the resonant words of Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban, as ones who “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Negotiations with Israel are receding into history. The Abbas-Erekat PA cut its ties with Washington, which cut off most of its financial support, after US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Even the West Bank settlements are starting to gain support in some international quarters as a legitimate part of the Israeli state.

Saeb Erekat (left), with John Kerry (center), and Tzipi Livni at a July 2013 press conference in Washington, DC, relaunching peace talks. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

Joe Biden’s US presidential victory has restored some color to the cheeks of senior officials in the PA, Fatah, and mainly Abbas’s close circle. The hope is that four years of diplomatic drought are ending, and the expectation is that the PA is back in business. It is doubtful that Biden will prove as accommodating as the PA would like to believe, however. Ramallah will need to demonstrate an abundance of readiness to progress in order to avoid angering the incoming American administration.

Had Trump won reelection, Fatah and Hamas would have been inclined to hold parliamentary elections for the first time since 2006. Jibril Rajoub of Fatah and Saleh al-Arouri of Hamas had been holding intensive preparatory talks for such a vote — but they were halted in recent weeks both because of opposition on both sides, and in order to wait out the US elections.

Now, Ramallah will not want to irritate Biden from the get-go by reconciling with the terrorists of Hamas, so that process is likely over. On Tuesday, indeed, Rajoub announced that the reconciliation was delayed “due to special circumstances.” As for parliamentary elections, those too are likely off the agenda, at least until Biden’s policies on the Palestinian issue start to become clear.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas holds a placard showing maps of (L to R) historical Palestine, the 1947 United Nations partition plan on Palestine, the 1948-1967 borders between the Palestinian territories and Israel, and a map of US President Donald Trump’s proposal for a Palestinian state under his new peace plan, as he speaks in the West Bank’s Ramallah on September 3, 2020, by video conference with representatives of Palestinian factions including Hamas gathered at the Palestinian embassy in Beirut. (Alaa BADARNEH / POOL / AFP)

The PA will instead wait out the two-and-a-half-month transition period, hope for no parting shots from the Trump administration, wait again as Biden deals with higher priorities, and then likely explore contacts with the new administration to examine renewing ties.

Trump may yet attempt to complicate matters for his Democratic successor by making a move Biden would find it difficult to rescind — announce official recognition of Israeli sovereignty at major settlement blocs such as Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion, or in the E1 area east of Jerusalem, for instance.

L-R: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House on September 15, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Along with looking to restore ties with DC, the PA may also consider restoring ties with Israel, if annexation stays off the table. In May, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that extending Israeli sovereignty to all the settlements and the Jordan Valley was imminent, Abbas cut off financial and security coordination, and also refused to accept payments from Israel of taxes and customs duties it collects on the PA’s behalf.

Since then, PA employees have been receiving only half pay. Along with the ravages of COVID-19, this has battered the West Bank economy, and yet there have been no major anti-PA protests.

There is no guarantee that this calm will be maintained. There is also no guarantee that the PA will renew its ties with Israel. Ramallah is feeling stronger now than when annexation loomed — Netanyahu agreed to suspend the move as part of the normalization process with the UAE — and it will probably try to set conditions before resuming coordination with Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (L) listens as US President Donald Trump speaks to the press before a meeting at New York’s Palace Hotel during the 72nd UN General Assembly on September 21, 2017. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

But current expectations in Ramallah may be too high. Once Biden has settled in, it expects Washington to want to renew relations, which for months have been confined to minimal communications between the PA’s General Intelligence Services headed by Majed Faraj and American intelligence. It anticipates that Abbas may be invited to the White House, a step to be followed by the reopening of the PLO’s offices in Washington. And it is awaiting a renewal of substantial American financial aid to the PA, along with security assistance and security equipment. We shall see.

View of neighborhoods in the Israeli settlement of Maaleh Adumim, near Jerusalem, on June 28, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The key question is how capable Biden and his new administration will prove in regenerating hope and faith in the two-state solution. West Bank residents can see as well as anyone else that the notion of a Palestinian state on contiguous territory is hard to reconcile with the facts on the ground. Even if Biden were to broker a renewal of talks, he is unlikely to change the face of the West Bank, with settlements and illegal outposts on so many hilltops.

Gaza, too, will likely continue to defeat efforts to arrive at a peaceful solution. How exactly does one contend with the Hamas terror group, a regime running the lives of two million Palestinians that does not want peace with Israel and possibly not even quiet borders with it?

And finally, as ever, there is the matter of Abbas’s future. Arafat has been gone 16 years this week. Now Erekat has gone too. This coming Sunday, Abbas will be celebrating his 85th birthday. It is premature to eulogize him, but not to understand that he may not be in office for much longer. In such a scenario, it would actually be the new American administration that will have to wait — for his successor, or successors, to gain control and to determine their policies regarding Israel and a peace process.

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