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Analysis

Palestinians, desperate for a Biden victory, hold their breath as America votes

Ramallah sees a Democratic win as a return to the status quo. And if Trump is triumphant? ‘God help us’; official hints PA preparing to resume accepting tax revenues from Israel

Aaron Boxerman
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas listens while US President Donald Trump makes a statement for the press before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2017, in New York. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas listens while US President Donald Trump makes a statement for the press before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2017, in New York. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

As hard as it might be to recall now, it wasn’t that long ago that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was enthusiastic about Donald Trump.

“With you, we have hope,” Abbas gushed at a meeting with the US president in May 2017, praising the president’s deal-making skills.

Three and a half years later, diplomatically isolated, in a deep fiscal crisis, and with relations with Washington at a nadir, Abbas and his deputies are desperate for an electoral victory by Joe Biden, who they believe will be more attentive to the Palestinian cause.

It is no secret that Ramallah considers the Trump administration a near-unmitigated disaster. American policy has dealt a series of blows to the Palestinians’ diplomatic strategy, which offered peace with Arab states as a carrot in exchange for a two-state solution based on the 1967 armistice lines.

In January, Trump unveiled a peace plan that the Palestinians insist does not offer them true statehood. Then an Israeli plan to annex parts of the West Bank, in accordance with the Trump proposal, dominated headlines for months.

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)

A few months later, three Arab governments — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan — agreed to normalize relations with Israel over the course of a few weeks. The accords were concluded with considerable American investment, both diplomatic and financial. Senior PA officials, including Abbas, called out what they deemed an abandonment of the Palestinian cause, saying it amounted to “a stab in the back” and “treason.”

But the list of grievances did not start there. Under Trump, the US moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018, closed the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s consulate in Washington, and rescinded hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

“There is nobody who could possibly be more foolish. He has been the worst American president as far as our cause is concerned…The most important thing as far as we are concerned is that Trump goes,” said Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh made the point even more bluntly in a meeting with a group of European parliamentarians in October.

“If we are going to live another four years with President Trump, God help us, God help you, and God help the whole world,” he said.

US President Donald Trump, left, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas pose for a photograph during a joint press conference at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on May 23, 2017. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

With little faith left in the Trump administration, the PA has sought to buy time until the US election in the hope of a change in Washington after November 3.

Delegations representing Abbas’s Fatah movement have crisscrossed the region, meeting with their bitter rival Hamas, and calling for national unity. Abbas promised the first Palestinian elections in 14 years in a speech to the United Nations. And as relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have deteriorated, the PA has feinted toward warmer ties with their competitors, Turkey and Qatar.

But the unity and election pledges have yet to be realized, strengthening a popular perception among Palestinians that the latest round of diplomacy was just more empty talk from a leadership running down the clock to November 3.

“Should Biden win, Abbas would likely drop any pretense of elections, regional realignment, and so on and immediately move to reengage with the US,” said Washington Institute senior fellow and former PA advisor Ghaith al-Omari.

No turning back

If Biden wins, Ramallah hopes to push the clock back to 2016 as much as it can. Palestinians are likely to ask for a renewed PLO presence in Washington, the restoration of aid, and the reopening of a separate US consulate in East Jerusalem, which long served as the channel for the Palestinians.

Biden represents a more conventional American stance. He came out strongly against the Israeli plan to annex parts of the West Bank, criticized the Trump peace plan, and voiced support for a two-state solution satisfactory to the Palestinian leadership.

At the same time, he has affirmed an “unbreakable” bond with Israel and fondly discussed his memories of former Israeli leaders.

But as much as Ramallah might wish for a return to the status quo ante, the path to reversing the Trump administration’s policies faces numerous obstacles. Israel would need to approve any decision to reopen the East Jerusalem consulate, while restoring aid to the Palestinian Authority requires a vote in the US Congress.

Biden would also reach the presidency with turmoil raging at home and abroad. Even in the Middle East, Biden’s agenda is to prioritize the Iran nuclear deal and the war in Yemen well before the Palestinians, analysts say.

Furthermore, that Biden would expend valuable political capital by pressuring Israel or even moving the US embassy back to Tel Aviv seems highly unlikely.

“Israel and Palestine are not going to be a priority for any new administration. Not because Biden doesn’t care — but he’s in the middle of a pandemic and global economic crisis. There is a huge range of issues – the restoration of democracy, institutions, health care…I’m not sure how much bandwidth that will leave for Israel-Palestine,” said Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

While senior PA officials have condemned the normalization deals, Biden has been vocally supportive of the so-called Abraham Accords. The former vice president even sought to take a little credit himself, saying that the recent wave of normalization “builds on efforts of multiple administrations to foster broader Arab-Israeli opening.”

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, shake hands for the press at the presidential compound in Ramallah, West Bank, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. (Debbie Hill, Pool via AP)

“Every Democratic and Republican administration in the past has supported normalization between Israel and the Arab states, regardless of what happened on the Palestinian front,” said Telhami. “They’re not going to oppose it if the Arab countries say they want to make peace with Israel, although I don’t think [a Biden administration] would go about forcefully trying to make it happen.”

‘Close to an explosion’

Beyond improving diplomatic ties with Washington, Ramallah also sees the prospect of a Biden victory as a convenient way to solve an imminent economic crisis at home.

In protest of Jerusalem’s annexation initiative, the PA announced in June that it would suspend security coordination with Israel, and no longer accept tax revenues that Israel collects on its behalf. The taxes constitute the majority of the PA’s budget; as such, hundreds of thousands of civil servants have not seen a full paycheck in nearly five months.

The annexation bid has since been publicly suspended as part of the agreement to normalize ties with the Emirates. But coordination has yet to resume, and the PA economy continues to pay an enormous price. According to the World Bank, the Palestinian economy — already buffeted by the economic effects of coronavirus — is expected to contract by around eight percent by the end of the year.

“The situation is close to an explosion. Don’t look at [the PA capital] Ramallah, which is another world, with its international organizations and civil society institutions. Look around at other cities. The economy is terrible, and the PA has become incapable of providing services,” said Ramallah-based political analyst Jihad Harb.

A Biden win would at the very least provide Abbas with a respectable way out of that mess. With annexation officially off the table in Washington, Abbas could begin accepting the tax revenues again, and even coordinating security with Israel.

“But without a Biden victory? It’s very hard for the PA to justify retreating from its current strategy and return to coordinating with Israel,” Harb said.

Ramallah, however, has been quietly signaling that given the dire nature of the situation, it could seek to take the money even if Trump is elected. PA Cabinet Secretary Amjad Ghanim promised on Sunday in a meeting with the Palestinian teachers’ union that the fiscal crisis caused by the PA’s refusal to accept the tax revenues “is nearing its conclusion.”

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

‘The worst since 1948’

What about the scenario officials in Ramallah find most terrifying — a Trump victory?

PA officials have said publicly that they fear a return to this summer’s annexation talk in the event of a Trump victory. Trump’s peace plan — wildly unpopular among the Palestinian public — would still be the official basis for negotiations. And Trump has asserted that additional normalization deals between Israel and the Arab world will be on the way, should he win a second term.

Given the price the Palestinian Authority has paid for its diplomatic isolation, many analysts say that in the event that Trump remains in office for another term, Abbas will be forced to return to the table. The question is how long Ramallah will be able to hold out before finally agreeing to sit down with the United States, and on what terms they will return.

“Even if Trump is elected, Ramallah will find a way to reengage. Another four years of total isolation is something they simply cannot afford,” al-Omari, the Washington Institute fellow, said.

If Abbas were to engage with the United States without receiving a “political horizon” he can sell to his public, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the opposition to Abbas within Fatah would all stand to benefit, Harb said.

“The sense I get is that the Palestinian political scene right now is similar to where it was leading up to 1948,” al-Omari said bleakly, referring to the year that marks both Israeli independence and Palestinian dispossession.

“It is weak, divided, and slowly moving outside the international consensus,” he said. “There is more and more of a sense that this is the worst moment for the Palestinian national movement since 1948.”

“The reality is very fragile,” al-Omari added. “Any major shock, and it could all spin out of control.”

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