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The Palestinians are on their own

The time may have finally arrived for the Palestinians to disabuse themselves of the hope that the status quo Arab political order could help them.

Analysis | Middle East

President Donald Trump’s controversial proposal to end the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict has finally come to light, affirming his administration’s full-throated embrace of Israel’s policies and utter disregard for the Palestinians’ right to dignity and an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. As Palestinians set out to oppose Trump’s plan, which gives Israel more entrenched control over their lives and future, they are disappointed by what they correctly see as a general Arab weakness to confront what may be regarded by Arab leaders as a fait accompli. In fact, Trump’s announcement is feared to have helped drive the final nail in the coffin of collective Arab commitment to a just resolution of the Palestine dilemma following years of indifference to the plight of the Palestinians.

Officially and outwardly, however, the League of Arab States in Cairo on February 1 unanimously declared its rejection of the proposal for not meeting “the minimum rights and aspirations of [the] Palestinian people.” All 22 member states also promised not to help in implementing any of the proposal’s provisions and warned Israel not to do so by force. Importantly, and so as to not appear entirely sidelined, they insisted on the principles of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative which outlined a two-state solution, with a Palestinian independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem as its capital. On February 3, in a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference also rejected Trump’s plan out of hand and cautioned against any cooperation with the United States to implement it.

The declared unified Arab League position on the Trump Administration’s plan for Palestinian-Israeli peace obscures variations of the stances of individual Arab countries and it should not be misconstrued as representing the specific preferences of each state. To be sure, while the League’s communiqué containing the collective Arab position gives short shrift to the proposed plan, Arab positions have ranged from accommodation to outright rejection. A New York Times article published on the eve of the plan’s announcement best summarizes the divisions on display in the Arab world. What seems to be a separating line in the different positions is a particular regime’s closeness to the Trump Administration and willingness to go to bat on its behalf, and by extension, on Israel’s behalf.

The Accommodationists

The United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Bahrain seemed to be most enthusiastic, sending their ambassadors to attend the unveiling of the plan at the White House. But soon after the ceremony, an Arab diplomat was quoted in the Israeli daily Haaretz as saying that Arab countries had been sent incomplete details about the plan which intimated, falsely, that there would be a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. This begs the question of why other Arab ambassadors in Washington did not participate in the event since, presumably, they also would have been fooled.

What adds to this dubious account is a report that the UAE pushed the leader of Sudan’s Transitional Council, General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda’s capital, causing a political crisis in Khartoum. Oman, for one, is well on its way to fully normalize relations with Israel, with the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said having met with Netanyahu in Muscat in October 2018. Warmer Bahraini-Israeli relations have also become reality. It is noteworthy that all three––the UAE, Oman, and Bahrain––signed off on the Arab League’s decision rejecting the Trump proposal.

Other Gulf countries, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco expressed varying degrees of appreciation for the plan with healthy doses of cautionary statements about the need for negotiations and accommodation between the Palestinians and the Israelis. With Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar on very good terms with the Trump Administration, it is very difficult for them to voice outright opposition. Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel and are heavily reliant on the United States for economic and military assistance. But Jordan has a special situation as it hosts a large Palestinian community and has historical ties to Jerusalem and other areas of the West Bank. Morocco also cautioned that the plan has positive aspects but needs mutual acceptance by the parties.

Animating the willingness to accommodate what would be the seminal effort to liquidate the Palestinian issue is a false general belief among young Arab leaders and their assistants that Palestinians and Arabs are guilty of always rejecting peace overtures advanced by the United States and others. But the record to the contrary is quite clear. In a public lecture at the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Center General Director Azmi Bishara detailed at least seven US peace proposals since 1970––when former US Secretary of State William Rogers proposed his “Rogers Plan”––that were accepted by the Arab world and rejected by Israel. Indeed, with the encouragement of then-Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013, the Arab world even modified its 2002 peace initiative to allow for land swaps between Israel and a new Palestinian state. But that major concession still did not sway Netanyahu, who was Israel’s prime minister then, or advance the Obama Administration’s vision for a two-state solution to the conflict.

The Rejectionists

On the other hand, Palestine led the rejection camp to the current so-called peace plan, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas calling it “a disgrace” at the Arab League meeting. On February 11, he denounced the plan at the United Nations in New York, accusing President Trump of transforming Palestinian land into “Swiss cheese.” Importantly, the plan offered an opportunity for Palestinian unity with Hamas and Islamic Jihad to show a willingness to coordinate future steps with the Palestinian president. Other rejectionists included Algeria, Iraq, Syria, and Tunisia, whose president, Kais Saied, called Trump’s proposal the “injustice of the century.”

For its part, Lebanon presents a special case in that the new government of Hassan Diab has only just received parliament’s vote of confidence and has not yet formulated a clear response. The country also needs continued American assistance to the Lebanese national army at this juncture of political trouble. Lebanon is host to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees whose resettlement in Lebanon has been rejected by politicians and successive governments. The new government is also beholden to Hezbollah, which rejects the plan as a scheme to liquidate the Palestine issue. The American embassy in a Beirut suburb saw a demonstration of a few hundred activists who chanted anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans.

The Palestinians Cannot Rely on Either

It is this division between accommodationists and rejectionists of Trump’s peace proposal which arguably mutes the Arab League’s decision about the plan. Many accommodationists share fears of Iranian policies and behavior and want to stay on good terms with the American president. But Trump’s mercurial foreign policy gives them pause about him possibly leaving them out in the cold one day. Still, they fear an Arab public opinion that continues to believe in the centrality of the question of Palestine as a defining issue in Arab solidarity and politics, one that refuses to accept Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights. In other words, their accommodation of Trump and of his affinity with Israel, coupled with worries about their own publics, keep them from fully committing to a course that fully protects Palestinian rights.

The rejectionists also may not be completely counted on to correct the Arab course and help the Palestinians regain their rights, or at least to maintain some semblance of a balance of power with Israel. To be sure, they have domestic political problems––many of their countries suffer from civil strife––and their economies cannot sustain their own populations, let alone growth and development. It is indeed difficult to see how Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Tunisia, and Lebanon could surmount their current problems to alleviate the injustice that Trump’s proposal imposes.

The time may have finally arrived for the Palestinians to disabuse themselves of the hope that the status quo Arab political order could help them. Instead, and in addition to remaining vigilant about American and Israeli plans to liquidate their cause, Palestinians would do well to devise a new strategy for national renewal. An essential element in such a strategy would be democratizing their institutions to be able to navigate the difficult road ahead and work toward independence, with the aim of realizing their inalienable national rights.

This article has been republished with permission from the Arab Center Washington DC.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (a katz /
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