Regional and international attention paid to the Palestinian cause and the peace process has declined considerably due to a number of factors. Major internal causes include the persistent Palestinian rift, which continues to frustrate efforts to implement reconciliation agreements while tensions persist between Fatah and Hamas, especially in light of the latter’s determination keep all Palestinian factions and organisations in Gaza on its side and against Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Tensions are aggravated by harsh economic conditions, in Gaza in particular. The economic deterioration is destabilising and undermines security in general, despite the Palestinian government’s attempts to keep the Palestinian economy separate from the Israeli economy.
Externally, ongoing conflicts in Arab countries, in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Lebanon above all, have inevitably overshadowed the Palestinian cause. The plight of terrorism, the prime common denominator between these crises, keeps the international community primarily riveted on such crises. But the Israeli government’s behaviour also forestalls hope of reviving the peace process. Despite all the problems it has encountered during the past year, the Israeli government remains as intransigent as ever on the chief issues related to a settlement with the Palestinians. In fact, for all intents and purposes, Israel has dropped peace from its agenda as it shifts towards more extreme positions and moves to annex portions of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. Israel finds full encouragement from the US, which has pivoted from being a partner in the peace process to unmitigatedly backing the most hardline Israeli positions on the most important final status issues, such as the questions of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
While the foregoing factors have contributed to detracting attention from the Palestinian cause on the whole, the PA has lobbied energetically abroad on behalf of the Palestinian cause, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has personally been very active in this regard, undertaking numerous visits to Arab and foreign countries and contributing to UN General Assembly meetings, Arab summits and Arab League meetings on developments in the Palestinian cause. These efforts have won some important diplomatic achievements and kept some degree international light focused on Palestine. In 2019, Palestine was elected to chair the G77 and China Group at the General Assembly. The position offers Palestine a number of advantages, the most important of which is that it enables it to be treated as a full UN member as opposed to an observer state. Also, in 2019, Palestine was elected a member of the executive bureau of the Association of Member States of the International Criminal Court. The decision was adopted by a unanimous vote in the opening meeting of the association’s general assembly which took place in Amsterdam on 2 December this year.
In a positive development on the domestic front, President Abbas injected some fresh air into domestic politics with the announcement of his intention to hold legislative and presidential elections in 2020. The last presidential elections in Palestine took place in 2005 and the last legislative elections were held in 2006. After initiating procedures with the Central Elections Commission, he undertook several visits to Gaza to meet with Hamas and other Palestinian factions in order to promote a spirit of consensus that would enable an electoral mechanism that would obtain the widest possible agreement among the factions.
Hamas and other factions in Gaza were initially adamant on holding a comprehensive national meeting to agree on the technical and political aspects before Abbas issued the presidential decree calling for elections. However, Abbas stressed the need to issue the decree first. He fears that if the meeting was held first, inter-factional tensions and wrangling would forestall the entire electoral process. Abbas’s decision to hold elections, which he announced to the UN General Assembly in September, was welcomed by both the international community and the Arab League. Once the decree to hold elections was promulgated, he said, a national dialogue could be convened to discuss all the important issues that Palestinian parties and organisations feel need attention in order to ensure the elections proceed with complete transparency and under international supervision.
With persistence, Abbas’s view prevailed. Hamas and the other factions in Gaza delivered a response, described in the press as “positive”, to the Central Elections Commission approving legislative and presidential elections, clearing the way for Abbas to promulgate the presidential decree. The new dynamism should pave the way to genuine national reconciliation and a reunification of Palestinian ranks.
The reconciliation process has refused to budge from its long standstill despite Egypt’s strenuous mediating efforts over the years. Thanks to these efforts, there exists a main frame of reference in the reconciliation agreement signed by the Palestinian factions in Cairo in May 2011. The agreement resolves all points of dispute between the factions, including the status of the PLO and the security question. There is a subsidiary frame of reference as well: the Cairo agreement signed in October 2017. This agreement focuses more clearly on a basic point, namely the need to empower the Palestinian government and reinstate it in Gaza so that it can fully perform its governmental duties in the strip.
Unfortunately, no tangible progress has been made in implementing these agreements. Despite the attempts to generate a climate favourable to the PA’s resumption of work in Gaza, obstructions resurfaced, preventing the government from carrying out its responsibilities as stipulated in the agreement. The difficulties brought a complete halt to the implementation of the 2017 agreement which had become the main avenue towards implementing the 2011 agreement. As a result, reconciliation efforts also ground to a halt and stagnation in this process has persisted ever since.
It has become abundantly clear that implementing the reconciliation agreements has become contingent on a single factor: the political will of the key players. It is they who must summon the resolve to do what is necessary to end the Palestinian rupture which will soon enter its twelfth year unless these key players acquire a sense of historic duty motivated by the conviction that this division is a catastrophe on par with the Nakba in 1948.
It should be stressed, here, that President Abbas has been unswerving in his efforts to end the rupture which occurred at the outset of his presidency. He has shown considerable flexibility in the hope of stimulating progress, even though it seems that responsibility falls more squarely on Hamas. After all, this faction controls Gaza, and one would expect it to show the flexibility necessary to enable the PA to fully resume its duties in the strip. Once this takes place, the PA will resume its role as the sole responsible and accountable governing authority, which will usher in a new phase in Palestinian political life, the most important landmark of which will be the end of that pernicious rift in the Palestinian nation.
DEAL OF THE CENTURY
The “Deal of the Century”, a Palestinian-Israeli peace plan devised by the US under President Donald Trump, has not yet been officially proposed. So far, only some aspects related to its economic dimension have been discussed in the Manama Economic Conference in Bahrain, in June 2019. The US-sponsored conference, attended by delegations of world powers, international organisations and some Arab states, presented some ideas, in principle, on how to develop the economic infrastructure and foster numerous development projects in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. The estimated funding figures cited ($50 billion) fall short of the aspirations represented in the envisioned economic plans.
Arab and world opinion is more interested in the political dimension of the “deal” and the extent to which it could contribute to a real solution to the Palestinian cause. In this regard, it is important to note:
- The Trump administration will only unveil the deal, whether fully or in stages, after a new Israeli government is formed. I believe Washington will not give up on this project as long as the current administration is in power, even if it has to delay presenting it due to circumstances in Israel or in the US.
- There is certainly a US-Israel understanding on the main outlines of the deal. Washington would never produce a proposal for a solution that does not conform with Israeli demands, especially security demands. This helps explain the strong support the US president has given Netanyahu in order to perpetuate the prime minister’s hold on power in Israel.
- One of the main aims of the deal is to integrate Israel, politically, economically and in terms of security arrangements in the Arab region, after resolving the most important obstacle to integration, namely the Palestinian cause.
- The deal will take into consideration Israeli security demands, to a large extent. In fact, the deal will be essentially based on this dimension. This has encouraged Israeli leaders in both the Likud and the Blue and White Alliance to openly speak of their determination to annex and impose Israeli sovereignty over portions of the Jordan Valley.
- The deal will not meet Arab/Palestinian demands on the questions of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees, the two central issues of the Palestinian cause on which the Arabs cannot compromise. Washington’s absolute bias in favour of Israel on these issues drove the PA to reject the plan, leading to a freeze in contacts between the PA and Washington.
THE PALESTINIAN-ISRAELI CEASEFIRE
Another crucial dimension of the state of Palestine at the threshold of 2020 is the question of the ceasefire with Israel. Egypt has played a central role in helping the ceasefire to hold, rapidly intervening when necessary in order to contain resurgent tensions and spare Palestinians in Gaza the tragic consequences of Israeli military operations. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and thousands of homes have been destroyed as the result of Israeli military actions in Gaza. Infrastructural damage led to further deterioration of the already frail economy.
Egypt, recently, proved instrumental again to restoring calm between Israel and Gaza in the aftermath of Israel’s assassination of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza Bahaa Abul- Ata, and its attempted assassination of Ahram Al-Ajouri, the Islamic Jihad commander in Syria. Had it not been for Egypt’s intercession, a protracted war could have erupted between Israel and Gaza.
ARAB SUPPORT FOR THE PALESTINIANS
Arab political and material support for the PA is still a mainstay for the Palestinian cause, despite all the obstacles presented by Israeli and US positions. Arab support expressed itself again in the last Arab Summit in Tunisia in March, in which the Arabs reaffirmed a number of important principles in support of the Palestinian cause and the preservation of Palestinian identity. Foremost of these principles are:
- The need to furnish all forms of political, material and moral support to the Palestinian people and their legitimate leadership.
- The PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
- The establishment of an independent Palestinian state within 4 June 1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem.
- The Palestinian refugees’ right to return in accordance with UN Resolution 194.
- The need to provide material support and a financial safety net for the Palestinian state.
- Continued support for UNRWA and the need to provide international protection for the Palestinian people.
- The rejection of all types of unilateral action that Israel is taking in the occupied Palestinian territories and Jerusalem.
- The rejection of the Israeli law on the “Jewishness” of the state as a racist law.
A word should be added, in this context, on the Arab stance towards the “Deal of the Century”. Although the Arabs have not, as of yet, declared an official stance on this plan, the Arab League’s Ministerial Council, in a statement 21 April 2019, stressed its opposition to any plan or deal that does not meet Arab and Palestinian demands. The Arab League reiterated this stance in its declaration of absolute rejection of Washington’s recent assertion that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories do not conflict with international law.
If a number of actions at the international level were politically and legally favourable to the PA, they had no practical impact on the ground due to Israel’s hardline policies. In fact, Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank has only increased in pace and the Judaicisation of Jerusalem and Hebron have been proceeding at breakneck speed. The support given by Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Alliance, for the annexation to Israel of portions of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley indicates that expansion will be one of the priority issues on the agenda of the next Israeli government.
In light of the foregoing, there is an urgent need to keep international attention focused on the Palestinian cause and to work to advance this cause. Towards these ends, action needs to be intensified on two levels. In Palestine, concerted efforts need to be stepped up to realise intra-Palestinian reconciliation. All sides must make the necessary compromises, even if in stages. All Palestinian factions should also work together to hold legislative and presidential elections, which is an important step towards achieving meaningful changes in Palestinian domestic circumstances. At a broader level, the Palestinians and Arabs should continue to coordinate closely to unify their outlooks on how to promote a fair and just solution to the Palestinian cause without compromising on established principles. There should simultaneously be a stronger focus on nonviolent grassroots resistance in order to attract favourable international attention to the Palestinian cause.
At the Arab level, the Arabs should continue to promote the Arab Peace Initiative adopted in the Beirut Summit in 2002. The initiative represents the unified Arab stance on a settlement to the Palestinian case. The Arabs should simultaneously avoid taking a stance on the “Deal of the Century” until after it has been formally presented and studied. Only then should they formulate a response that is cogent and acceptable to the international community. This does not preclude interacting tactically with some phases (as occurred in the Manama conference in June) as long as this does not jeopardise the fixed principles of the Palestinian cause.
The Arabs must sustain their political, material and moral support for the Palestinian Authority in Palestine and internationally, as well as for UNRWA, especially now that Washington has cut its support for the relief agency. They must work to safeguard the Arab identity of Jerusalem against the Israeli drive to Judaicise the city and strip it of its authentic identity.
Arab governments should continue to coordinate and communicate with Washington to drive home how the lack of a solution to the Palestinian cause continues to jeopardise the stability of this region. While urging the need for a solution, the Arabs should make it clear that any peace plan, American or otherwise, that fails to meet just Palestinian and Arab demands will be unacceptable and that Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley could trigger mass unrest in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
The Arabs should link Israeli attempts to integrate into the Arab/regional order to issues related to a just solution to the Palestinian cause. At the very least, Israel should be expected to show flexibility on crucial issues related to the Palestinian cause. The Arabs should also explore possible ways of gradually paving the way for a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations which ground to a halt over five and a half years ago. I still believe that negotiations should be resumed, under international sponsorship and on the basis of international frames of reference, because they provide one of the most important avenues to pressure any Israeli government into making the concessions necessary to achieve peace.
*The writer is a member of the advisory board of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.