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AnalysisHow the Emiratis won by giving Israel something to lose

The Palestinians weren’t betrayed by the UAE. They were simply left behind

There’s a lesson for the Palestinians in the normalization agreement: Israel can be pressured and swayed, but not by those champions of the Palestinian cause who seek to destroy it

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and UAE's deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces, at the Kremlin in Moscow, March 24, 2016. (Alexander Nemenov/Pool photo via AP/File)
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and UAE's deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces, at the Kremlin in Moscow, March 24, 2016. (Alexander Nemenov/Pool photo via AP/File)

Palestinian leaders are hard at work considering a response to last week’s announcement of the normalization of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Their options are limited. Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh was reduced to announcing Palestine would now boycott the Dubai Expo scheduled for October 2021.

As Mahmoud Habbash, adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, complained on Monday, even the Arab League and multinational Muslim organizations seem to have been struck dumb by the agreement.

“Is this the Arab nation?” he demanded in an interview on Palestinian television, vowing that any Arab who visits Israel on a pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa will be met at the holy site with “the shoes and spit of the people of Jerusalem.” The Arab world’s “shameful” silence, he contended, “shows we face a conspiracy with many participants.”

Moments of profound frustration can spark anger and inspire conspiracy theories, but it’s not a conspiracy that has the Palestinians over a barrel. It is a long-delayed reckoning with one of the most bitter facts of their situation: that the Arab world has always been more concerned with Palestine as a symbol than with Palestinians as human beings.

The vision of “colonialist” Israelis stampeding over a weak, hapless Arab people was for many Arab thinkers and political leaders a stand-in for anxieties about the larger and older Arab weakness in the face of Turkish and European dominion and imperialism. Nowhere was Arab weakness in the modern age reified more viscerally than in the slow-moving but seemingly implacable failure of the Palestinian cause. It is that symbolism, what Palestine said about their own stories and identities, and not Palestinian suffering itself, that made anti-Semitism a majority doctrine even in places like Algeria, an Arab nation that hasn’t seen a Jew for nearly 60 years.

It should therefore come as no surprise, least of all to Palestinians, that the Arabs’ fervent declarations of loyalty to Palestine never translated into meaningful succor for Palestinians, whether in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or in the communities of refugees and their descendants scattered throughout the region and variously denied social services, citizenship and even the right to own land by the countries in which they have resided for seven long decades.

The Palestinian national movement is now at a crossroads. To be sure, the Arab world still cares about the Palestinians, sometimes deeply. But the Palestinian story has nevertheless shrunk from representing a broader Arab story to a tragedy that affects only the Palestinians, and in the process lost its grip on Arab policymaking. The oil-rich Gulf states are now respected global business hubs that view the West not as oppressor or competing civilization, but as a target for investment and a source of stability. The new threats that loom over the Arab world are regional — Iran, Turkey, Islamist factions of various sorts — or deeply local, from corruption to sectoral strife. The Arab world has changed, the Palestinian narrative has not.

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)

Haniyeh’s demand

Then, too, there is the sheer intractability of the conflict. One doesn’t need to like Israel to appreciate that Palestinian politics, from Hamas’s rejectionism to Fatah’s corruption, are a wrench in the works for the Palestinian cause.

In a July 26 interview with Qatar’s Lusail News, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh revealed something important about the interaction between Palestinian political factions and the broader Arab world.

“Parties, who we know are on the payroll of certain superpowers” — an apparent reference to wealthy Gulf states — “came to us, and offered to establish new projects in the Gaza Strip to the tune of perhaps $15 billion,” he said, according to a translation by MEMRI.

Those projects included a lifting of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on the beleaguered territory, an airport and a seaport.

Fishing boats in the Gaza City port, June 25, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

“We said to them: ‘That’s great. We want an airport and a seaport, and we want to break the siege on the Gaza Strip. This is a Palestinian demand, but what are we supposed to give in return?’” The answer: “They want us to disband the military wings of the factions, and incorporate them into the police force.

“Naturally, we completely rejected that offer….We want these things because we are entitled to them and not in exchange for relinquishing our political principles, our resistance, or our weapons.”

The interviewer asked, “What are your political principles?”

Haniyeh’s reply: “We will not recognize Israel, Palestine must stretch from the river to the sea, the right of return [must be fulfilled], the prisoners must be set free, and a fully sovereign Palestinian state must be established with Jerusalem as its capital.”

Haniyeh did not seem to reflect seriously on what he was acknowledging. It makes sense that the wealthy parts of the Arab world would try to buy their way free of the Palestinian issue, since it no longer resonates as a question of identity. Those who now seek to ally with Israel against Iran or to partner with the Jewish state on commerce and technology are willing to shower the Palestinians with cash not for the Palestinians’ welfare, but to make the political problem they represent go away.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh tours the site of a destroyed building in Gaza City, March 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Haniyeh’s response to that desire was a simple demand for Israel’s complete disappearance, a response that probably sounded to his would-be benefactors like a demand that all the benefits that may accrue to Arab states from a relationship with Israel must be subordinated to a Palestinian narrative they no longer really identify with, and to the needs of Palestinian factions they no longer respect.

The Emirati decision to normalize relations with Israel is a kind of liberation from the Palestinian question. To the desperate frustration of the Palestinians, the Emiratis don’t even seem embarrassed by it

It is now mostly in Islamist religious politics that one still finds intense ideological anxieties about the Palestinian question. It’s no accident Hamas now finds its main patrons in Ankara and Tehran. To the present-day leaders of Turkey and Iran, the Palestinian condition symbolizes something important about the standing and trajectory of the Muslim world. Their support is thus assured for the time being, though only for the part of Palestinian politics raising that Islamist banner.

Hamas vs. the French

The Emirati decision to normalize relations with Israel is thus a kind of liberation from the Palestinian question. To the desperate frustration of the Palestinians, the Emiratis don’t even seem embarrassed by it.

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

Yet in the normalization deal lies a lesson for the Palestinians. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who negotiated the agreement from the Emirati side, has demonstrated a key point about dealing with Israelis, a point the Palestinian factions, who spend surprisingly little time seriously studying how Israeli Jews think and feel, have yet to grasp. It is so simple it can seem cartoonish: To change Israeli Jews’ behavior, you must convince them they have something to lose.

A sentence like that is a dangerous thing to throw into the frenetic Israeli-Palestinian argument. Some will say that powerful, wealthy Israel has a very great deal to lose — and the sooner it starts losing it the sooner that will make a dent in its behavior. Others will say the need to end Israel’s military rule over another people is such an overwhelming moral imperative that all talk about finessing the Israeli psyche, including glib comments like “give them something to lose,” amounts to a monstrous abrogation of basic moral sense.

A better way to put it might be that Israelis must be made to believe they have something to gain that could compensate for all they might lose.

Israelis — forgive the generalization, there are many kinds of Israelis with all kinds of views, but the term serves for the moment to describe the very large majority of them — do not actually believe that Palestinian politics are capable of offering them peace. That’s not just a convenient conceit, it’s a real, driving assumption for most Israelis when they come to think about the conflict with the Palestinians.

Israeli soldiers stand guard near the scene of an apparent attempted car-ramming attack by the West Bank settlement of Halamish on May 29, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

And it’s rooted in long and painful experience. Israeli withdrawals in recent decades have nearly all ended in waves of terrorism and violence so intense that they fundamentally altered Israeli voting patterns. After the Second Intifada began in 2000, Israel experienced the lowest voter turnout in its history. The left hasn’t won an election since 1999 because of the hundreds of terror attacks that struck Israeli cities in that intifada. The debate overseas about Israelis and Palestinians tends to forget the bloodletting; Israelis have not forgotten.

The point here isn’t just that Palestinians seem to Israelis to reciprocate territorial withdrawals — whether those of the Oslo agreements in the 1990s or from Gaza in 2005 — with massive violence. It is that Israelis no longer believe a withdrawal could possibly produce any other outcome except massive violence.

While the world’s attention focuses on Mahmoud Abbas and his commitment to security cooperation with Israel, Israelis are more liable to notice that Abbas is in the 14th year of a four-year term — and won’t call elections because he knows he will lose them to Hamas. That is, while Abbas sounds his moderate tone, Hamas is the future. Any political vacuum Israel leaves behind in a new withdrawal will be filled by the terror group that has already transformed Gaza into the beleaguered battleground of its ideological war.

It hardly helps that Abbas’s Fatah movement has responded to the fading of the Palestinian cause by trying to cleave closer to Hamas. Fatah invited Hamas to a special leadership summit on Wednesday. That’s no accident. When the chips are down, Hamas is the only one of the two major Palestinian factions with a meaningful story to tell about the Palestinian condition.

Hamas views the conflict with Israel not as ethnic strife between two peoples, but as a version of the Algerian war against French colonialists in the 1950s and 60s. That was a bloody war, Hamas teaches in its sermons and schoolrooms, and the more the French bled, the faster they withdrew. It’s a powerful narrative that counsels patience and encourages especially cruel forms of terrorism against Israelis.

Illustrative: Palestinian protesters place the Hamas flag on the trunk of a tree during clashes with Israeli security forces in the West Bank town of al-Ram, north of Jerusalem, on October 9, 2016. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)

But it’s a blind narrative nonetheless. In clinging to the colonialist interpretation of the conflict, Hamas has ignored a few pertinent facts about Israeli Jews that should have made it question the wisdom of its policy of permanent belligerence. For example, unlike those French Algerians, Israeli Jews have nowhere to go. That’s not a minor point. When you kill the children of someone who believes they can leave, they tend to leave. The anti-colonial wars of the 20th century were by and large successful. But when you target the children of someone who believes they have nowhere to go, the response tends to be the opposite. They become ever more determined to suppress the violence, and less willing to offer concessions not backed up by force of arms.

Haniyeh turned down billions in aid for Gaza and rejected a lifting of the blockade, all in the service of a strategy that still insists — as he explained explicitly — that Israel can be dismantled, that Israeli Jews, as though they were French, have somewhere else to go. He does not stop to consider the possibility that his opponent is not French, has nowhere to go, and therefore that his strategy of permanent war is more likely to decimate Palestine than to hurt Israel.

New options

The global campaign for the Palestinians likes to think it models itself on the campaign around South Africa or on the US civil rights movement. It’s a conceit that allows it, like Haniyeh, to carefully sidestep facts that don’t fit the narrative. But the sidestepping of facts rarely delivers the desired outcome.

Israelis are inoculated to the boycotts and howling moral indignation of foreigners not because they are braver or perhaps dumber than other peoples similarly chastised by foreign activists, but because no boycott, however ferociously pursued, can bring more psychological pressure to bear than the costs Hamas vows to extract from Israel after a withdrawal.

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)

Whether Israelis are correct in the lessons they draw from the failures of past withdrawals is a valid question, but the point here is simpler: those lessons are what now stands in the way of Palestinian independence. The most stubborn obstacle to that independence lies in Israeli Jews’ certainty, justified or not, that they have only violence and pain to gain from more withdrawals, and so have little to lose, relatively speaking, from refusing to do so.

The UAE left the Palestinians behind

Then came the Emiratis. A fascinating Sunday poll conducted by Direct Polls for Channel 12 revealed the dramatic effect on Israeli opinion and politics that a sliver of hope could bring.

Asked explicitly whether they preferred the normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promised annexation in the West Bank (the Emiratis conditioned the deal on stopping the annexation), fully 77% of Israelis preferred the peace agreement with the UAE. Just 16.5% favored the annexation.

Even among self-described right-wingers, Netanyahu’s constituency, the Emirati deal won handily, with a whopping 64% to 28%.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem on a phone call with UAE leader Mohammed Bin Zayed on August 13, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/PMO)

If a May poll found a plurality of Israelis — 45% — in support of annexation (with 32% opposed), the Sunday poll revealed how weak that support really was. Just 16.5% of Israelis continued to favor annexation when it meant losing a normalization deal, even if it was with a distant Arab state that has never threatened them.

Israelis did not resist Netanyahu’s push for annexation, but neither did they back it. It was a proposal born on the ideological right, but which managed to gain traction mainly because Israelis do not perceive any real hope on the Palestinian front.

Palestinians lost a great deal last week. They weren’t “betrayed,” as some PA leaders have complained, but simply left behind. They didn’t lose vital allies who cared deeply for their cause, but one-time supporters who still vaguely support them but are tired of the intractability of their cause.

Palestinian leaders and activists may gall at the prospect, but the Emirati initiative demonstrates one thing above all: if they wish to change Israeli policy and behavior, they must convincingly explain to Israelis that a withdrawal is not the catastrophe-in-waiting that so many expect. The Palestinians must give the Israelis something to lose, or rather something to gain that might justify the risk of abandoning some significant portion of the West Bank highlands to — not to belabor the point — a people that declares itself their bitter foes.

The Palestinians don’t have much to offer Israel, except the one thing they’ve always had and that Israelis have consistently wanted from them: an end to the self-destructive Algerian war.

If that happened, Israel’s newfound friends would likely be delighted to throw an airport, seaport and $15 billion into the bargain — out of sheer relief.

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