Restoring Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy

Bassem Aly , Thursday 26 Nov 2020

Financial pressure has seemingly spurred the Palestinians to restore diplomatic relations with Israel

Restoring Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy
photo: AFP

Diplomatic relations between the Palestinians and Israel have been cut since May in response to Israel’s decision to annex new occupied areas of the West Bank. But Hussein Al-Sheikh, an aide to Palestinan President Mahmoud Abbas, tweeted last week that the “relationship with Israel will return to how it was.” Al-Sheikh stated that this step will come after receiving “official written and oral letters” from Israel that it will abide by past agreements. 

Amid uncertainty about whether Israel will remain committed to its vows, two days later, the Palestinian official revealed the real reason behind the rapproachment decision, which is the transfer of all financial dues to the Palestinian Authority (PA). “It was agreed to transfer all financial dues to the PA, and we rejected the settlement policy, demolishing homes and land confiscation,” he said on Twitter after talks with an Israeli military official.

Cutting relations with Israel came at a huge political, socio-economic and security cost for the Palestinians. It became harder for the Palestinians to move between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which requires the approval of the PA’s civil affairs division, whose work is supervised by COGAT, an Israeli army body. The PA also was forced to cut, partially pay or avoid paying the salaries of its 177,000 employees, amounting to 750 million shekels, amid both the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic and its loss per month in VAT and custom duties of about 687 million shekels ($200 million). 

Such monies used to be collected and transferred to the PA by Israel. The PA faced a monthly budget deficit of almost 350 million shekels. The World Bank warned in June that the 14 per cent poverty rate in the West Bank could double. It urged the PA to cut the budget by roughly $1.5 billion in 2020. 

Security and economic meetings between the Palestinians and Israel coincided with the return of PA ambassadors to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the two Gulf states who recently normalised relations with Israel under the US sponsorship of President Donald Trump. In September and October, Trump brokered normalisation agreements for Israel with the UAE and Bahrain, which were followed by another agreement with Sudan. The so-called Abraham Accords between the UAE and Israel involves the “establishment of peace and diplomatic relations”, “mutual understanding, cooperation and coordination between them in the spheres of peace and stability” and cooperation in a wide range of activities.

Cooperation includes areas of healthcare, science, technology and peaceful uses of outer space, tourism, culture and sport, energy, environment, education, maritime agreements, telecommunications, agriculture and food security, and water and legal cooperation.

Being the highest numbers since 2012, Israel built more than 12,150 new settlements and demolished hundreds of Palestinian properties during this year. These escalatory measures followed Trump’s controversial peace plan that recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and transferred the US embassy to it, killing the option of implementing the two-state solution on basis of pre-1967 borders. Trump also cut Washington’s $300-million fund to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) that offers comprehensive humanitarian and socio-economic support to Palestinian refugees across the Middle East. 

Leila Farsakh, associate professor and chair of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the new record number of Israeli settlement homes “is a reflection of the confidence Israel has in continuing with its expansionist policy, given the support it enjoys from the US administration and the immunity it de facto receives from the lack of international accountability”.

But she expressed hope in the newly-elected administration of Joe Biden. “The Biden administration is likely to go back to a more nuanced US foreign policy, one that is more in line with the changes that have been taking place since 2008 and what has been described as the pivot towards Asia.  With regards to the Middle East, a Biden administration is likely to uphold the nuclear deal with Iran, focus on the regional balance of power, and to reiterate US support for the two-state solution.  It is likely to be vocally opposed to Israeli settlement expansion but is unlikely to force Israel to stop or retreat from the West Bank and Gaza,” Farsakh argued. 

Such optimism about Biden’s policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is related to the fact that he served as vice president to Barack Obama, the last US president to impose pressure on Israel to reverse its expanisonist actions. During the Obama administration, Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu temporarily froze the construction of settlements for 10 months and agreed to negotiate peace with the Palestinians in 2014. However, at a later stage Netanyahu unilaterally suspended talks after refusing a reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas. Netanyahu then described Hamas as “a terrorist organisation that calls for the destruction of Israel”.

This was the last time peace was negotiated between both parties to the conflict. Daniel Serwer, an ex-US State Department official and scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the normalisation deals will “reduce pressure” on Israel to make a serious agreement with the Palestinians. He also noted that the election of Biden as president will benefit the Palestinians. “Yes, Biden will try to restore the prospect of a Palestinian state. In order to do that, he’ll need to end the creeping annexation on the West Bank,” Serwer said. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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