In face of fourth Arab-Israeli normalization, Ramallah tries new tactic: Silence

After its harsh denunciations of countries that established open ties with Israel failed to yield results, the PA is now keeping quiet on Morocco’s decision to normalize

Aaron Boxerman
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting with the Palestinian leadership to discuss the United Arab Emirates' deal with Israel to normalize relations, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on August 18, 2020.   (Mohamad Torokman/Pool via AP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting with the Palestinian leadership to discuss the United Arab Emirates' deal with Israel to normalize relations, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on August 18, 2020. (Mohamad Torokman/Pool via AP)

In a sign of how much things have changed in just the past four months, Thursday’s announcement that Morocco had decided to restore bilateral ties with Israel failed to elicit even a peep from the Palestinian Authority.

Five days after Rabat and Jerusalem officially announced the opening of ties, the Palestinian Authority has yet to officially comment on the agreement. Most senior officials in the ruling Fatah movement, including those who have previously denounced normalization in the harshest terms, have yet to publicly utter a word.

As news of the American-backed agreement between Israel and Morocco made headlines around the world on Thursday evening, viewers of official Palestinian television heard nothing about it on the hour-long nightly news broadcast, which aired three hours after US President Donald Trump announced the deal on Twitter.

A Fatah spokesperson reached by The Times of Israel declined to comment in any way on Morocco’s decision to normalize with Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad both issued condemnations of the Morocco deal, with Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem calling it “a sin.”

The silence, a stark contrast from angry denunciations issued by Ramallah after previous agreements between Israel and Arab states, may indicate a change in strategy by the PA, after its confrontational approach failed to stanch the diplomatic bloodletting.

The Palestinians have not, of course, suddenly decided to embrace normalization. In their view, Israel’s tightening web of regional alliances offers the Jewish state a way to avoid ending its military rule over the Palestinians. Nor are they rushing to publicly patch up their differences with those states that have already normalized.

But the PA is showing signs that it is adjusting their strategy to fit the new regional reality: one in which open ties with Israel are no longer taboo — with or without the Palestinians.

When the United Arab Emirates established public ties with Israel in mid-August, by contrast, Ramallah responded with fierce and immediate condemnation. After the UAE announced it would establish open ties with Israel, Palestinian diplomacy sought to condemn and isolate the Emirates.

Palestinians burn pictures of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest against the United Arab Emirates’ deal with Israel, in the West Bank city of Nablus, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020.(AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Days earlier, Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub and the late senior Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat had assembled on official PA television to condemn the normalization accords, which they described as “despicable,” “a betrayal,” “a stab in the back.” Ramallah announced that it was recalling its envoy from Abu Dhabi, effective immediately.

The following day, angry demonstrators stomped upon pictures bearing the face of Emirati crown prince Mohammad bin Zayed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. They set ablaze Emirati flags and effigies of the prince in Nablus and on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

“The Gulf won’t normalize with Israel, nor will Saudi Arabia normalize with Israel,” Erekat told The Times of Israel at the time. But he added, half as explanation, half as warning: “When your friends betray you, they cease to be your friends.”

The Palestinian leadership clearly hoped that some of their old diplomatic ploys — seeking an Arab League condemnation of the UAE, for example — would help rally support abroad. But their diplomatic push failed spectacularly when the Arab League struck down the resolution the Palestinians put forward.

That was then. In the intervening months, three more Arab governments — Bahrain, Sudan and now Morocco — have begun the process of normalizing ties with Israel. This time, Ramallah, seemingly afraid of further antagonizing the Arab world, has opted for silence.

“The Palestinian Authority is at a loss. It can’t say everything it said previously about normalization. They want to maintain their relations with Morocco,” former PA minister Nabil Amr commented in a video posted on his Facebook page. “The official Palestinian stance right now is silence.”

Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, attends by video conference a meeting with deputy Hamas chief Saleh al-Arouri (unseen) discussing Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, on July 2, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

Still, at least one senior Fatah official has publicly commented on Morocco’s decision to normalize with Israel: Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub.

Asked a direct question about Morocco during an official visit to Iraq, Rajoub went through the list of criticisms of other countries’ normalizations, before adding: “As for what happened with Morocco, that’s at the expense of Palestine and Jerusalem. If you have a problem, solve it however you like, but not at the expense of the Palestinian cause. It’s shameful.”

Rajoub’s comments were relatively mild — pronounced with sorrow rather than anger — but even they were not put out by any official Fatah or PA channels.

A senior source in his movement subsequently told Qatar-based newspaper Al-Arabi Al-Jadid that “ironclad instructions” had been issued from the Palestinian leadership to stop criticizing countries that had normalized with Israel.

A spokesperson for the PA Foreign Ministry said that no formal remarks had yet been issued, and they were waiting to hear from the presidency before issuing any formal statement.

“It seems as though the leadership has decided not to issue a statement or is discussing the matter further,” the spokesperson said.

Ramallah’s previous tactics ended with it being increasingly “diplomatically isolated,” said Palestinian political analyst Mukhaymar Abu Sa’ada.

“The Palestinian Authority’s criticisms of the Emirates and Bahrain caused it diplomatic problems with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, because those countries blessed the normalization process,” Abu Sa’ada said in a phone call. “The more it criticizes normalization, the more it antagonizes those countries.”

Palestinians hold a poster with crossed-out pictures of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Dubai ruler Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, US President Donald Trump, and Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, during a rally organized by Hamas in the central Gaza city of Deir al-Balah on September 12, 2020, to condemn the Israel-Bahrain normalization agreement. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Relations between Ramallah and Cairo have been poor for years. But staving off a potential normalization by the Saudis is of particular concern for Abbas, as Riyadh’s yearning for ties with Israel has only grown more open and less secret.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting more or less publicly with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has stoked Israeli hopes and Palestinian fears that the heavyweight monarchy could be the next domino to fall in the so-called “cascade of normalizations.”

Ramallah also hopes to restore its ties with the incoming Biden administration — which has been publicly supportive of the normalization deals. US President-elect Joe Biden has even sought to take a little credit himself for the so-called Abraham Accords, saying they built “on efforts of multiple administrations to foster broader Arab-Israeli opening.”

A few weeks after Biden’s November victory, Ramallah returned its envoys to the UAE and Bahrain. The move was done quietly, accompanied neither by fanfare nor an official statement, although sources within the PA leaked the ambassadors’ return widely in Arabic media.

Observers interpreted the move as a signal to both Washington and Abu Dhabi that the Palestinians were ready to re-engage. The PA’s decision to let Morocco’s announcement that it would normalize with Israel go by is an even stronger indication that Ramallah may be changing tack after failing to rally the Arab world against the normalizers.

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