For several years the Palestinian question had seemed to decline in regional and international policy priorities, but it is on the rise again.
The most immediate reasons for this included renewed interest in Washington under the new, Joe Biden administration and increased inter-Arab interplay, notably between Egypt, Jordan and the PA.
They also include the Arab League Secretary General’s address to the UN Security Council, in which he reaffirmed Arab principles on the Palestinian question, the rights of the Palestinian people and the Arab peace initiative, as well as the peace and normalisation agreements concluded between four Arab countries and Israel last year.
Perhaps the ten years since the so-called Arab Spring have also generated compelling strategic conditions at the regional level, prompting the codification of Arab-Israeli relations and the resolution of a conflict that has defied peace-making efforts for the past two decades.
None of which necessarily implies that the region is on course to a solution to the conflict. An impetus has been building up in that direction, however, and all concerned parties are feeling their way in that context. Two observations should be registered in this regard.
Firstly, we do not know the substance of the recent communications between the parties concerned. Up to this point they have gone no further than to declare their general positions, which remain as far apart as they were at the beginning of the century.
Secondly, the domestic fronts of the two main players - Israel and the Palestinians - are not ready for diplomatic initiatives. They are both sharply divided as they approach general elections in a climate of that propels extremist attitudes and one-upmanship in each case.
Of course, this is hardly a new phenomenon at times of peace-making drives and it has not prevented various degrees of progress in the past. In fact, this may be the first possible scenario for the Palestinian question in the near future: the overall continuation of the status quo with some slow progress. Emirati and Bahraini normalisation initiatives, for example, brought about a suspension in the Israeli annexation of the West Bank settlements. Another example is the understanding reached between Israel and Hamas thanks to Qatar’s mediation.
The second scenario also presumes the continuation of the status quo, but over a longer period, culminating in the emergence of a de facto single state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
Many factors may contribute to this: the recent resumption of security relations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel; intensive mutual dependency between Palestinians and Israelis in such matters as the currency, labour and economic activity in general; Gaza’s dependence on Israel for electricity, fishing and, in the near future, the processing and export of natural gas; and the demographic balance.
Once these factors are taken into account it can be seen that many of the ingredients for the birth of a single state already exist in concrete terms, regardless of the disparities in rights and standards of living. Such a scenario would transform the conflict over land into a conflict over equality. It could possibly also give rise to the third scenario: an Israeli-Palestinian confederate system in which each side would preserve political autonomy within certain geographic boundaries while Jerusalem would become the capital of the federation, making it the capital for both sides.
The fourth scenario is American-made. Within just six days after being sworn in, Joe Biden initiated a near U-turn in US policy on the Middle East conflict. He announced that the US would resume engagement with Palestinian leaders and that it would restore US assistance to UNRWA. In a marked shift in rhetoric, Richard Mills, the current deputy ambassador to the UN, affirmed the Biden administration’s commitment to the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in which Israel would live in safety side by side with a viable Palestinian state. In an online address to the UN Security Council, Mills said that “this is the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state.”
Such actions and language are in sharp contrast with those of the Trump administration which delivered four years of favouritism for Israel’s far right government. If this scenario takes some steps back towards the contours of the US stance in the pre-Trump era, it continues to accept Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and Israeli rule over the Syrian Golan Heights. In addition, although the US appears prepared to revive diplomatic and political peacemaking efforts, it will do so within the general framework of disengagement from the Middle East which has declined in current US priorities.
The fifth scenario is Arab in origin. It proceeds from the coordinated backing by various Arab parties of a practical concept for promoting the Arab Peace Initiative. The concept takes as its premise that there are now six Arab countries in a state of peace with Israel, despite variations in the temperature of bilateral relations. In this framework the Arabs could benefit from the American scenario, reducing Israeli pressure on the Palestinians and shifting Israeli opinion in favour of a historic deal based on withdrawing from the occupied territories in exchange for peace and normalisation with all Arab countries.
This scenario would also be able to take advantage of the normalisation initiatives undertaken by the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, as well as recent Egyptian and Jordanian actions, in order to engage with diverse political forces in Israel and support what remains of the pro-peace camp there.
Those five scenarios differ considerably in substance and they have conflicting legal and philosophical foundations. For one thing, an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem and a “viable” Palestinian state are by no means the same thing.
There is a big difference between international law and resolutions as a frame of reference and picking up the peace process where it left off in order to build on whatever was concluded in the “Deal of the Century” project of the previous US administration.
Regardless of differences, the diverse scenarios risk remaining exercises in political theorising against a backdrop of shifting forces and realignments, but without changing the basic realities for which Palestinians continue to pay the price.
Therefore, the Arabs need to set in motion initiatives capable of changing reality for Palestinians on the ground, so that actions taken in the framework of any of the aforementioned scenarios can have real impact.
The Palestinians’ continued presence on the ground is a demographic reality demonstrating that Israel is not the only party able to create de facto realities with its settlement activities.
Bearing this in mind, the difficult task of achieving a Palestinian-Palestinian reconciliation is not just about mending fences, it is also about creating the realities of Palestinian statehood on the ground, and one of the cornerstones of statehood is that the state should possess a monopoly on legitimate recourse to arms.
Recently, Hamas’s military wing, the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades, conducted a military drill with 11 other paramilitary organisations in Gaza. Apart from the polarisation this creates over arms and the decision to use them, the proliferation of militias deprives the PA of an essential condition for its political legitimacy as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.
Rectifying this situation ahead of the Palestinian elections or even committing to doing so afterwards would probably vastly improve the Palestinian negotiating position, regardless of which of the scenarios unfolds.
Failure to rectify it means the continuation of the status quo, complete with the proliferation of pain and suffering.
At the same time, regional and international interest in peacemaking will decline and darkness will once again overshadow prospects for resolving the Palestinian question.
*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 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly