In three decades of failed peace efforts, the Palestinians have never faced a more unsympathetic US administration, a more self-assured Israel or a more ambivalent international community.
But even as their hopes for statehood have never seemed so dim, there’s no indication their aging leadership will change course.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas remains committed to the same strategy he has pursued for decades — seeking international support to pressure Israel to agree to a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, lands Israel seized from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War.
That quest seems even more quixotic after the United Arab Emirates’ decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, which shattered the Arab consensus behind land for peace, a rare source of leverage for the Palestinians. The PA has castigated the deal as “despicable” and as a “betrayal” of their cause by the UAE. For its part, the UAE says it compelled Israel to call off planned partial West Bank annexation plans as part of the normalization deal, and that this gives Israel and the Palestinians a new opportunity to negotiate.
Other Arab nations are expected to follow the Emirates’ lead, lending support to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s contention that Israel can make peace with its Arab neighbors without any concessions to the Palestinians.
The UAE agreement has also resurrected US President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan, which favors Israel and was rejected outright by the Palestinians. It would remain the cornerstone of US policy for another four years if Trump is reelected.
But while the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against them, the Palestinians make up nearly half the population between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Their leaders say Israel still needs their signature if it hopes to resolve the conflict, a source of frustration for Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, the architect of the plan.
“There is an erroneous assumption that the Palestinians are defeated, and they have to accept the facts of their defeat,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian Authority official. “The Palestinians are willing, generation after generation, to continue their struggle until we get our rights.”
Here’s a look at the Palestinians’ options going forward:
The diplomatic route
The Palestinians’ demand for a state based on the 1967 lines still enjoys broad international support and is enshrined in UN resolutions. Palestine was granted “observer state” status in 2012, allowing it to join several global forums, including the International Criminal Court.
The Palestinians have requested an ICC war crimes investigation of Israel that could eventually see charges filed against political or military leaders. Israel is not a member of the ICC and says there is no legal basis for any investigation, but its citizens could be subject to arrest in other countries if warrants are issued.
Those moves have put pressure on Israel, but have not led to any concessions. They also haven’t prevented it from cultivating closer ties to Arab and African countries that historically supported the Palestinians, culminating in the agreement with the UAE.
The Palestinians responded to the UAE agreement by calling for an urgent meeting of the Arab League and the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, but the oil-rich UAE is a powerful member of both and the meetings have yet to materialize.
The EU — divided and preoccupied by the coronavirus crisis — also seems unable to offer significant support.
Boycotts and international solidarity
In recent years, a Palestinian-led international movement has sought to mobilize grassroots support for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions.
BDS organizers say they are leading a nonviolent campaign for Palestinian rights modeled on the struggle against apartheid South Africa. Israel accuses them of seeking to delegitimize its entire existence.
While BDS has notched some successes, it has had no discernible impact on Israel’s economy. Popular among left-wing activists in Western countries, it also has faced setbacks, including anti-BDS legislation in the US and Germany.
Tareq Baconi, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, says the growing solidarity between Palestinian and Black Lives Matter activists “is an example of some of the pressure that can be brought to bear on Israel eventually. But this is, for the moment, too fragmented and not sufficiently powerful enough to have any kind of political leverage.”
A one-state solution
In recent years a growing number of Palestinians and their supporters have suggested abandoning the two-state solution in favor of a single bi-national state for Jews and Palestinians or some kind of Israeli-Palestinian confederation.
The idea gained new attention last month when Peter Beinart, a prominent Jewish-American commentator, came out in favor of the idea.
The argument is that Israel’s right-wing government and its sprawling West Bank settlements — now home to more than 500,000 Israelis — make any partition impossible. There have been no substantive peace talks in more than a decade.
One-state proponents say Palestinians should instead seek equal rights, including the right to vote.
While it has gained traction among intellectuals, the idea has little support in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza. A June poll carried out by the respected Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research found that just 37 percent of Palestinians support the idea, and only 6% would choose it over other options.
The PA leadership remains staunchly opposed to a one-state solution, which would entail dismantling the Palestinian Authority and plunging into an uncertain future.
Many Palestinians argue that their leadership needs to pursue fundamental reforms. Abbas’s popularity has plunged in recent years and the Palestinian Authority is widely seen as corrupt and incompetent.
There have been no national elections in nearly 15 years because of the bitter division between Abbas’ Fatah movement and the Islamic terror group Hamas, which seized Gaza from his forces in 2007 in a bloody coup.
Fatah and Hamas are united in their rejection of the Trump plan and Arab normalization and in recent weeks have held joint meetings and rallies to project a united front. But several past attempts at a broader reconciliation have all failed.
That has left the 85-year-old Abbas entrenched at the head of an aging and inflexible Palestinian leadership.
Banking on Biden
The election of former US Vice President Joe Biden would likely spell the end of the Trump plan. But few Palestinians believe a return to the Obama-era approach of trying to coax the two sides toward a negotiated settlement will succeed.
“It’s very difficult to envision anyone doing more damage than Trump,” Ashrawi, the PA official, said. “At the same time, I would like to caution against thinking that Biden is a knight in shining armor.”
Biden “will go back to managing the conflict,” said Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
“Under the banner of a two-state solution you give money to the Palestinians, you tell the Israelis please don’t do this and don’t do that, and engage once more in negotiating that will take another 20 years,” he said.