Arab reactions to the US Middle East peace plan, or so-called “Deal of the Century”, from the resolutions of the Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to the flag burnings and trampling on pictures in Ramallah and Gaza, were natural and expected. No one disputes the fact that the substance of the US initiative violates previous agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis, not to mention international law on the administration of occupied territories. But then much the same can be said with regard to how other international conflicts have been handled. As for more international resolutions, whether from the UN Security Council, General Assembly or International Court of Justice, even if they surpass the US veto by registering a majority opinion, in terms of practical effect they will merely go the way of their predecessors. Meanwhile, the call for “armed struggle” declared by Palestinian factions and other Arab parties will contribute little to altering the Palestinian reality while adding another arena of violence to a region that has had more than its fill of foreign interventions, civil wars, popular uprisings, terrorist movements, funeral processions and waves of refugees and displaced persons.
The Palestinian situation pretty dire. The chasm between the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Hamas and its allies in Gaza is so deep that the quest for reconciliation is akin to chasing a mirage. What is needed is not more of the same, but new approaches. Perhaps the most important achievement of the Palestinian struggle was the Oslo approach in which Mahmoud Abbas and Yossi Beilin were instrumental in forging the first agreement to give the Palestinian people a political entity and a national authority. It is most regrettable that the achievements won through Oslo could not be preserved due to anticipatable Israeli intransigence and territorial ambitions, as well as to Hamas’s determination to undermine the agreement through militant violence when negotiations were in progress.
In any case, when we look back at the history of the Palestinian cause we will find that there are more than enough sins and foibles to go around. The US peace plan is another test among the many other tests and critical moments in the history of a conflict that is essentially about the balance of power to impose realities on the ground. Israel has always been the winner in this regard, from the Balfour Declaration to its emergence as a little expanding empire. But the Palestinians scored two successes: the creation of a Palestinian national authority on the ground in Palestine and the continued presence of more than six million Palestinians on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Current Arab reactions to the unjust US initiative do little to help preserve and build on these successes. Firstly, the plan’s architects do not recognise and do not even care that the Palestinians made a huge concession by even agreeing to negotiate over only 22 per cent of the historic land of Palestine. Secondly, they took the unjust realities that Israel created as their starting point for the plan and the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the move of US Embassy to Jerusalem, and its condoning of the annexation of Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley to Israel were all intended to consolidate these realities.
Despite all the foregoing, from an Arab point of view, apart from the questionable pleasure of accumulating more international resolutions in our favour, approaching the US peace plan as a framework for negotiations in an Arab incubator offers more practical potential than a vote in favour of the Palestinian cause in international forums. Perhaps the recent meeting in Uganda between the Sudanese president and the Israeli prime minister best drives home the fact that Arab countries have vital interests that cannot be put off until a solution is reached to a cause that defies solutions.
Choosing the negotiating path on the basis of the proposed plan offers the Palestinians the opportunity to improve many of that plan’s conditions, bearing in mind that the Palestinians will be in a better negotiating position if the PA could act as a state, which entails holding a monopoly on the legitimate recourse to arms (a sine qua non of statehood that means that there should be no paramilitary entities). In negotiations, the Palestinians can, for example, demand a halt to measures to annex the Jordan Valley and Israeli settlements until negotiations have concluded, and the US would respond by making that demand on Israel. The Palestinians could also push to regard the Jordan Valley as a security issue as opposed to a prerequisite for Israeli sovereignty. After all, peace has a dynamism of its own: the security protocols in Sinai were lifted 40 years after peace had taken hold.
Without doubt, the Palestinians can benefit considerably from Israeli and US acceptance of the establishment of a Palestinian state, a halt to Israeli settlement expansion and the creation of a joint Palestinian-Israeli council to administer Jerusalem, its transport system and its infrastructure, even if the portion designated for the Palestinian state is on the outskirts. The crucial point is that the purpose of negotiations is to win greater manoeuvrability and advantages for the envisioned Palestinian state, especially after agreements are signed on projects designed to link the West Bank with Gaza which would give the PA access to the Mediterranean, Palestinian offshore natural gas resources and communications and transport networks between the various parts of the state. Certainly, the Gaza airport and seaport will offer the fledgling Palestinian state considerable edge when it comes to attracting foreign investment which, in turn, will curb Palestinian migration abroad. Maritime border agreements between Palestine and Israel and Palestine and Egypt will open a seat for the Palestinian state in the Eastern Mediterranean Forum and bolster the young state against Israeli pressures.
What I am proposing here is another approach to the flaw-filled US plan. I believe it opens a way that is unavailable under a current situation characterised by a deepening inter-Palestinian rift, dwindling Arab energies and declining international interest. The fact is that the Palestinian cause does not exist in a historical or geographical vacuum. It is impossible to ignore the many sweeping changes that have taken place in the Middle East and the world. Still, what is needed is not just fresh ideas and approaches but also a complete negotiating strategy that includes comprehensive and coordinated Arab action to bring the Arab peace initiative to the negotiating table, lending Palestinian negotiators moral and material support and energy, and forcing the Israelis to make a crucial historic choice between empire versus membership in the region, the benefits of its markets, and alliances against common enemies.
Negotiations are a difficult and dynamic process. They require considerable level-headedness and wisdom, as well as a lot of work to prepare a favourable negotiating climate. Current Palestinian anger is totally understandable. But an examination of the current situation forces us to derive some lessons from the past. One is that anger does not solve intractable problems. Another is that the responsibility for Palestine must include Palestinians.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.