Searching for a Strategy

As Arab states normalize relations with Israel, Palestinians are struggling to build consensus around a new way forward.

Mairav Zonszein
September 30, 2020
Palestinians protest in Gaza City
Palestinians in Gaza City protest against Israeli normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on September 15th, 2020, hours ahead of a signing ceremony at the White House. Photo: Ramez Habboub/Abaca/Sipa USA via AP Images

ON SEPTEMBER 15TH, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al Zayani joined President Donald Trump on the White House South Lawn to sign normalization agreements between Israel and the two Gulf states. Lauded by Trump and Netanyahu as a “historic achievement,” the “Abraham Accords”—as they’ve been dubbed by the Trump administration—mostly reflect a repackaging of existing economic and security ties between the three countries, which have been developing behind the scenes for years.

To many Palestinians, the UAE and Bahrain normalization agreements have revealed with stark clarity the extent to which they have been abandoned by the international community, and in particular the Arab states once counted as allies. “Palestinians are completely on their own, political orphans,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the author of Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump. The agreements mark a break with what has been the Arab League consensus on Israel/Palestine for almost 20 years. In 2002, the loose confederation of Arab states endorsed the Saudi-brokered Arab Peace Initiative (API), which offered Israel full recognition and normalization of diplomatic relations in exchange for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Now, the UAE and Bahrain have committed to normalization in exchange for Netanyahu’s pledge to the UAE (which he has already reneged on) to temporarily suspend Israel’s planned de jure annexation of parts of the West Bank—an agreement that leaves Israel free to continue de facto annexation through settlement expansion and forced population transfer

With even more normalization agreements rumored to be on the horizon—Sudan could very well be next—the Palestinian leadership faces a strategic dead end. Israel’s ongoing military occupation has not led to its international isolation but rather to further impunity: As Raja Shehadeh wrote in The Guardian, “Israel has managed to turn its occupation of Palestinian territory from a burden into an asset”—a testing ground for surveillance and crowd control technologies in high demand from authoritarian regimes like the UAE and Bahrain. Meanwhile, the Oslo framework for negotiations toward a two-state solution has not brought Palestinians any closer to self-determination. “If the lesson under Obama was that the US isn’t going to save you, the lesson under Trump is that the Arabs aren’t going to save you either,” Elgindy told me. Faced with this abandonment, many Palestinian policy analysts and intellectuals are asking: Where do we go from here? 

There is little consensus on the answer. “There is a huge gap between civil society, scholars, activists, on the way forward,” said Carol Kasbari, a Palestinian expert in conflict resolution and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. “While some say resistance, others say diplomacy and the international community. Some want [new] elections and others want to dismantle the PA [Palestinian Authority] altogether.” Support for a two-state solution, an integral part of Palestinian politics for more than three decades, is also increasingly up for debate. Yet there remains no clear path toward ending the occupation and achieving national liberation. “Palestinians are disoriented with nowhere to turn,” Elgindy told me. “They are all over the map.” The lack of a “cohesive, credible, effective political leadership” only makes matters worse, he added. “I don’t know what the Palestinian strategy is other than to hang on and survive day to day.”

Prior to the normalization agreements, the Palestinian leadership crisis was already acute. The PA was formed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as part of the Oslo Accords in 1994, to serve as a temporary administrative body charged with managing the areas in the West Bank that Israel withdrew from—with the goal of a establishing a Palestinian state by 1999. In the nearly 30 years since, unceasing Israeli territorial expansion and the PA’s consolidation of power has turned what was meant to be a Palestinian state-in-waiting into an impotent bureaucracy, reduced to a subcontract police force for the Israeli government in the West Bank and dependent on foreign aid to pay civil servants’ salaries and avoid collapse. PA President Mahmoud Abbas—84 years old and often in poor health—has no obvious successor and has extended his term in office for more than a decade. Like the PA itself, he has become deeply unpopular. According to a September poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 62% of the public wants President Abbas to resign, the same percentage that views the PA as “a burden.”

Yet the events of the last month have highlighted the need to address the crisis of leadership with greater urgency. The normalization agreements were “a blunt awakening for people in the PA, and for a lot of Palestinians,” said Dr. Yara Hawari, a senior Palestinian analyst with Al Shabaka, an independent Palestinian policy think tank. “If not now, when is the time for a complete recalibration of strategy?” But such recalibration will not be easy, Hawari added, as the PA is a product of the same paradigm that has led to its failure. “The very strategy that keeps the PA alive—the two-state framework—is dead and being violated left, right, and center,” she said. “It can’t go against the two-state solution because that is its bread and butter.”  

Even Palestinians who remain committed to a two-state solution acknowledge that they will have to find other ways to achieve one. Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian Mission to the United Kingdom and a senior adviser to Abbas, acknowledged the failure of the US-led peace process, but stressed that it “doesn’t mean we fail as a nation and as a people. If Israel rejects the land for peace formula, we need to assess other ways to get there. Hope did not end. The only thing that ended is the possibility of a US-mediated two-state solution.” Zomlot, who led the PLO mission in Washington before Trump shuttered it in 2018, did indicate that a broader reconsideration of the two-state paradigm was on the table, but stressed that “any future strategy that revisits our commitment to the two-state solution must be adopted by newly elected representatives.”

On September 24th, leaders of Hamas and Fatah, the two largest Palestinian political factions, announced they had reached an agreement to hold elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). These elections will be the first since 2006, when Hamas won a landslide victory, precipitating an armed conflict between Hamas and Fatah that ended with the de facto division of the Palestinian territories: the West Bank governed by the PA, and the Gaza Strip by Hamas. The new Hamas–Fatah agreement also calls for presidential and central council elections within the PLO, the umbrella organization of the Palestinian national movement, which is also headed by Abbas. 

Zomlot insists that PLC elections are imperative, both as a “renewal of our democratic process—and thus strategies—and a resistance tool.” “Nothing is more effective to resist our situation of subjugation than democracy,” he said. But Hawari told me that it is more complicated than that. She pointed out that elections do not include the broader Palestinian diaspora, but only the West Bank and Gaza, “a context in which there isn’t a democratic space, but rather an atmosphere of political repression.” As she outlined in a recent report for Al Shabaka, Palestinians in the occupied territories have never had a space free of external Israeli and international intervention, a situation that makes it practically impossible to hold leadership democratically accountable. Elections there aren’t a reflection of a meaningful democratic process, Hawari said. Rather, the West Bank and Gaza are “two authorities [that] operate increasingly as authoritarian police states in the context of an increasingly militarized settler colonial regime.” Hawari added that this has led to the entrenchment of a one-party system, a situation exacerbated by the fact that the international community has effectively “criminalized every party” in the West Bank except Fatah. “There’s a hypocrisy when the international community pleads with the PA to have elections,” she said. “They are only doing it because they want an air of legitimacy to the money they give to PA. They don’t want to be accused of supporting an increasingly authoritarian, non-elected body.” 

Frustration with the PA has led to increasing pressure from some Palestinian intellectuals to “reclaim the PLO” by holding elections that might actually be inclusive of Palestinian voices from around the world, as well as factions excluded from formal Palestinian leadership structures for decades, like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement. These leadership bodies, which are currently dominated by Fatah, include the PLO Executive Committee, which is supposed to be elected by the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the PLO’s highest legislative body. But the PNC has been operationally dormant for decades, due in large part to Fatah’s consolidation of political power within the PA. 

Established in 1964 by the Arab League, then run by Palestinian resistance groups under the chairmanship of Yasser Arafat from 1969 until his death in 2004, the PLO remains the most important Palestinian institution, recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people on the international stage. The organization derived its strength from its ability to unite the various factions in both the Palestinian diaspora and historic Palestine. But with the signing of the Oslo Accords, the newly created PA, established as an interim government, subsumed the PLO. And as Israeli settlement continued unabated and the peace process ran aground, Edward Said’s 1993 warning that the PA would become “Israel’s enforcer” proved prescient. Over the last 15 years, since the Second Intifada, criticism of the PA and calls to dismantle it have mounted. Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu wrote in 2017 that the PA should be shut down and replaced with community-based initiatives that call for mass protests and boycotts. 

But revitalizing the PLO would be a complicated, multi-pronged process. Those who advocate for doing so, from the academy or from Palestinian civil society, argue that, to be truly representative, elections for the PNC would have to enable voting by Palestinians residents of East Jerusalem, which Israel won’t allow, and from the diaspora, which has never been done. Without making room for “the entire Palestinian people—those in diaspora, refugees and 48-ers [Palestinian citizens of Israel], I don’t think elections [to the PLO] would be effective or a manifestation of democracy,” Hawari told me. 

Nevertheless, there is currently an online petition circulating among Palestinians to put pressure on the PA to hold PNC elections. The goal, explained Kasbari, is to transform the PLO into a democratically representative institution in order to better reflect the will of Palestinian people around the world. “The internal conflict reached a point where it has become the [primary] conflict,” she said. Kasbari added that there is more internal engagement and inclusive discussions among Palestinians—from Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and the diaspora—about how to overcome divisions and respond to their continued subjugation than she has seen in over two decades. “Palestinians want to be united,” she said. “One state, two states, Hamas or Fatah. There aren’t the same sensitivities as before about who is more Palestinian than the other, about who has the say.”

But Kasbari is not optimistic that such a vision of unity will be realized in her lifetime. It would require the kind of mass mobilization and grassroots organizing that the PA has often thwarted through crackdowns on internal dissent and protest. “As long as there are people in the Palestinian leadership benefiting from the division,” she said, “the [disunity] will remain the same.”

Despite different positions on how to move forward, among many Palestinian intellectuals and policy analysts there is a shared understanding that a new approach is needed, and that even once fundamental assumptions—like support for a two-state solution—may have to be reconsidered. Much of the disagreement has to do with what constitutes genuine democracy under the conditions of occupation, siege, and geographic dispersion. But the question of democracy may be unavoidable if Palestinian political institutions are to be revitalized. Before moving forward, Hawari told me, “We need to be relatively under consensus about what justice in Palestine looks like.”

Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli American journalist and commentator who has covered Israeli politics and US foreign policy for over a decade. She is a founding editor of +972 Magazine, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, The Columbia Journalism Review, and more. She is currently senior analyst on Israel/Palestine with the International Crisis Group.