The Palestinians and the Normalization Agreements with Israel

Harel Chorev analyzes the Palestinian response to the Abraham Accords. This article is part of "The New Normal? Arab States and Normalization with Israel".

Abraham Accords Signing Ceremony
Abraham Accords Signing Ceremony, September 15, 2020. The White House [public domain].

The Palestinian response to Israel’s normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco began with total rejection, across the Palestinian political spectrum. However, it is currently evolving, reflecting adaptation to the new regional reality of normalization. This Palestinian flexibility stems from recognition of international and regional political constraints, as well as from an intra-Palestinian clash between approaches. It also reflects growing acknowledgment of regional processes that in the past two decades pushed the Palestinian issue from the top of Arab priorities.

The status of the Palestinian cause has always been a mirror of the state of the inter-Arab sphere and the ability of its players to cooperate. The beginning of this relationship can be traced to 1959, with the establishment of the “Palestinian entity” designed to ease the pressure on Egyptian President Nasser to manage the Palestinian cause, or even earlier. Arab regimes’ attention and dedication to the Palestinian cause often stemmed from weakness, and their desire to channel internal popular frustration outwards, towards Israel. However, there also existed an authentic element of solidarity, especially at the popular level. The most recent manifestation of this phenomenon was probably the Saudi-proffered Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 (reaffirmed in 2007).

The current leaders of the Arab states are overwhelmingly members of a generation that emerged after the decline of Nasserist pan-Arabism, and are less empathetic to the Palestinians, as well as less attentive to the Palestinian issue due to the intensity of the internal and external challenges they face. Some of these challenges are a direct result of the “Arab Spring,” such as the Syrian civil war, the refugee crises in Jordan and Lebanon, continued instability in Egypt, the ongoing conflicts in Libya and Yemen, the rise of ISIS, and the intra-Sunni Cold War. The threat of Iran, and more recently, the coronavirus, have also preoccupied Arab states. Other problems are much older and reflect an ongoing process since the defeat of pan-Arabism in the 1967 war: each country is focusing on its own national interests. State interests have been predominant in the recent normalizations, such as: UAE’s desire to have advanced American weapons; Morocco’s aspiration to gain American recognition of its sovereignty in Western Sahara; and Sudan’s desire to be removed from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism and thus gain American aid.

Hazem Saghieh recently wrote that as long as the Arabs are divided into states and societies with diverse interests, it will be difficult to expect “pan-Arab commitment that no longer has meaning in anyone’s eyes.” He added that those who are claiming that normalization encourages the public to overthrow the Arab regimes – apparently referring to warnings by Palestinian Authority (PA) spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina – are wrong. In practice, Saghieh claims, the Camp David Accords did not provoke widespread protest in Egypt and as the years went by, the number of countries fighting against Israel decreased. Therefore, he concludes, the Palestinian issue is nothing more than “sad nostalgia, and those who live in nostalgia – risk serious consequences.” Saghieh’s remarks are an expression of a broader public discourse that reflects erosion in Arab support for the Palestinians, ranging from bloggers to high officials such as Saudi diplomat Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

For a long time, the Palestinian leadership has been in denial about the erosion that has taken place in the last decades in the inter-Arab status of the Palestinian issue. This fact is evident in its response to the normalization agreements, which reflected surprise and unpreparedness. The PA recalled its ambassadors to the UAE and Bahrain for consultations and on September 3, 2020, the leaders of the Palestinian factions announced that they are rejecting any initiatives seeking to “eliminate our national interest and violate our legal rights.”

They stressed that the Palestinians condemn all manifestations of normalization with Israel, and see them as a “stab in their backs and in the backs of the Arab and Islamic states.” The declaration called on the “free people all over the world to oppose with all the power at their disposal against these plans.” On September 15, the day the White House normalization agreement was signed, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh agreed on “cooperation between all factions against recognition and normalization with the occupying state.” The decision was accompanied by the PA’s statement that “what is happening today in the White House will never promote peace in the region, as long as the U.S. and the Israeli occupation do not recognize the right of the Palestinian people to establish an independent and continuous state on June 4, 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital and the inevitably to resolve the refugee issue in accordance with Resolution 194.” Abu Rudeina explained that the leadership’s measures would be based on the cessation of normalization and annexation, the renunciation of President Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century and the fact that no one has the right to speak on behalf of the Palestinian people, while examining ways of dealing with the “plots that are being hatched against the Palestinians.”

Additional statements reiterated the claim that the PLO is the only legal representative of the Palestinians, reflecting its belief that normalizations with Israel has violated the Palestinian leadership’s exclusive claim to represent the Palestinian people as established in the Arab Summits of Rabat and Algeria in 1974. These statements therefore reflected the old paradigm, which saw the Arabs as one body, whose organs are not allowed to act independently. They also reflected a refusal to recognize the decline in both the centrality of the Palestinian issue and in inter-Arab cohesion.

It appears that the core Palestinian opposition to normalization came predominantly from the entrenched older generation in the Fatah-dominated PA, including figures like Hanan Ashrawi and the late Saab Erekat, the most senior Palestinian diplomat. A day after the signing of the normalization agreement, Erekat called it a “poisoned dagger” that the normalizing states repeatedly stuck in the backs of Palestinians like him who were willing to compromise on a two-state solution. He added, “after all, together with the Arabs, we approved the Arab Initiative in 2002 and suddenly they decide to establish a kind of Arab NATO with Israel against Iran ... We tell the Arabs that the real threat to the Arabs is not Iran or Israel but the Arabs themselves, who need to fix the difficult problems within them.”

Erekat’s death (from coronavirus) a few weeks after the interview, may have bolstered those in the PA among the younger cadres currently enjoying Abbas’ support, who think a more practical approach should be adopted. The political and economic constraints that both the PA and Hamas face are quite clear. First, the Palestinian leadership did not expect to reap any domestic political benefit from boycotting the normalizing states. Second, the Gulf states still economically support the PA and even the Gaza Strip, which is under Hamas rule. Some 600,000 Palestinians work in the UAE and others in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the undeclared patron of the normalization agreements. Third, the PA has an interest in restoring its relations with Israel and reaching agreements with it regarding the transfer of Palestinian funds that Israel holds. With the election of President Biden, the PA announced the resumption of security coordination with Israel, as an expression of its desire to improve relations with the new U.S. administration. The resumption of security coordination further marginalized the “Old Guard” leaders belonging to Erekat’s group, including Hanan Ashrawi, who announced her resignation on December 9.

Most importantly, the change in Palestinian policy seems to reflect an approach that calls for working with the normalizing states to lead to a settlement between the Palestinians and Israel “from within,” through close engagement, as opposed to the traditional Arab pressure on Israel “from without,” through boycotts, military measures, etc. This turnaround, which included returning the Palestinian ambassadors to their stations in the Gulf, and was received relatively quietly even in Hamas, aligns with the normalizing states’ claim that their access to Israel in fact protects Palestinian interests: An example would be the UAE’s claim that by normalizing relations with Israel it halted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex portions of the Jordan Valley in the West Bank. This raises the question of whether the Palestinians will build on the strategy of dealing with Israel “from within,” and whether by working more closely with the UAE and others, it will produce the tangible results the Palestinians expect.