There is an overwhelming consensus among Palestinians opposing the normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
That was among the findings that prominent Palestinian pollster, Dr. Khalil Shikaki, presented at The Arab Center in Washington on Wednesday. According to polls conducted by Dr. Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research between September 9 and 12, 80 percent of Palestinians see the agreements as a “betrayal” and “strategic shift in the region” that will have significant long-term impact.
The findings are particularly noteworthy since Israel’s agreements with the Gulf states have been met with widespread acclaim in the United States and Europe, highlighting the marginalization of Palestinian objections. Shikaki’s polling suggests that Palestinians see normalization between Israel and Arab states as weakening their position, with 86 percent saying the agreements benefit Israel only, and only 8 percent believing it holds benefits for both Israel and the Palestinians.
Shikaki told the Arab Center audience that most Palestinians do not believe unilateral Israeli annexation of West Bank territory is off the table. The UAE claimed that their agreement with Israel eliminated that possibility, but Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to point out that he had only agreed to “delay” annexation, not cancel the idea.
Shikaki explained that, while Palestinians were angry at the Emiratis and Bahrainis, they were also bitter with their own leadership. His polling showed that, were elections held today, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would defeat Palestinian Authority President and Fatah head Mahmoud Abbas, 52 percent to 39 percent.
Shikaki said that Palestinians believed that Abbas had put too much faith in other Arab leaders, and that this had led to the increasing isolation Palestinians now face diplomatically. But, he added, in their polling “we did not find significant decline in support for Fatah.”
This indicates that the issue for Palestinians is Abbas himself, rather than a policy preference for Hamas or other rivals. Shikaki noted particular disappointment with the PA’s response to Trump’s “Deal of the Century” plan, which Shikaki said 90 percent of Palestinians reject. He said the Palestinian public would have preferred a counter offer that could have been employed “to neutralize the Trump plan and mobilize internationally” and even to reach out to receptive parts of the Israeli public.
Internal Palestinian squabbles
PCPSR’s poll shows that 59 percent of Palestinians are pessimistic about attempts to finally end the long split in the between the Fatah and Hamas, while only 37 percent are optimistic. But the recent summit between Fatah and Hamas leaders in Istanbul — held after PCPSR’s polling — ended with a new agreement on holding elections. Palestinians have heard that many times before, but this time, there is some hope that the agreement could bring about the first Palestinian national election since 2006.
Externally, the shifting global ground is reducing international options for the Palestinians. The trend of normalizing relations with Israel is the most obvious indicator of this. But it was telling that, when Abbas tried to get the Arab League to issue a statement condemning normalization with Israel without an end to Israel’s occupation, the effort failed. Even Jordan, with its large Palestinian population and its long history of advocating for the Palestinian cause, voted against the resolution.
While a possible Joe Biden administration might want to get back on a diplomatic track toward a two-state solution, it will find that difficult to do without reversing some of Trump’s most damaging actions such as closing the Palestinian mission in Washington and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Both of those reversals would require a lot of work and political capital from Biden at a time when he is surely going to have other priorities, foreign and domestic, given the mess he is likely to inherit if he wins. Therefore, even a Biden administration is likely to be extremely limited in what it can do in 2021. That means the Palestinian Authority will have to re-evaluate its strategy.
This leads to the internal Palestinian struggles. Exiled Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan, with significant support from the UAE, is once again seeking to establish himself as the next leader of the Palestinian movement. In 2018, Dahlan struck a deal with Yahya Sinwar, a populist figure and the leader of Hamas in Gaza who has made a number of enemies in the Islamic movement with accusations of corruption.
Together, Dahlan and Sinwar could represent a considerable threat to leaders in both of the major Palestinian parties, and this has prompted the old guard to renew efforts to overcome at least some of their differences.
Abbas is sufficiently concerned about Dahlan that he had his security forces round up Dahlan supporters after the UAE-Israel agreement was finalized. But it was the connection of another Fatah leader, Jibril Rajoub, and Hamas deputy chairman Saleh al-Arouri that, according to journalist Daoud Kuttab, helped forge the tentative bond between the two groups in Istanbul.
Still, both Hamas and Fatah want to ensure their respective positions among Palestinians, and the issues that have divided them remain unresolved, so whether they can actually create a new representative structure for both the West Bank and Gaza remains to be seen.
The need for a new path
With 58 percent of Palestinians now opposed to a two-state solution and 61 percent calling for Abbas to resign, according to the PCPSR poll, it seems clear that Palestinians want a new direction. As Shikaki said Wednesday, “Palestinians will support anything that will end the occupation.” That’s the priority, he said, and it is clear that without an end to the occupation nothing else can move forward.
This can be taken as a signal to both political leaders and advocates in the United States. For a long time, we have heard a bitter refrain about the Israel-Palestine conflict, bemoaning the lack of leadership and the need for new leaders.
If a Biden administration is truly interested in reviving some hope for a negotiated resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and an end to Israel’s occupation, they will have an opportunity to support the will of the Palestinian people, rather than pay disingenuous lip service to it.
If the elections that Fatah and Hamas discussed take place, they will occur probably some time in March or April 2021. Ensuring that those elections are held in a free and fair manner, without interference from Israeli or American forces and under the supervision of international monitors is all that would be needed for Biden, should he win in November, to take a significant step in changing the nature of the United States’ role in the conflict. Of course, after all that has happened, few Palestinians will believe the United States has really changed, but we have to start somewhere.
In 2006, the George W. Bush administration pushed for Palestinian elections and responded to the results by isolating the new Palestinian government and collaborating on an attempted coup. If a Biden administration listens to their own talking points about accepting the results of a fair election, that would be another step in righting some past wrongs.