The Palestinian leadership’s precarious balancing act

The Palestinian leadership’s precarious balancing act

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a Security Council meeting at the United Nations in New York, U.S., February 11, 2020. (Reuters)

For the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah to steer their unsteady ship through the stormy waters of their domestic political environment, the ever-complex and hostile relations with Israel as neighbor and occupier, and the wider regional and international community is an arduous act of navigation at the best of times. And these are far from being easy times, especially as the looming annexation of the West Bank now hangs over the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) like the sword of Damocles. In the coming days and weeks, these political organs will face some of the toughest challenges in their history.

For years, the PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas have encountered growing criticism from almost all directions. While Israel continues to use the PA and its president as a punch bag to justify entrenching the occupation and its intransigence over negotiating a peace agreement in good faith, there is also growing criticism from within the PA that accuses it of being self-serving, tainted with corruption and, above all, acting as a tool to perpetuate the occupation. For many Palestinians, the security cooperation with Israel is the most disturbing aspect of their relations with that country, especially as there is no political solution in sight and the possibility of an independent Palestinian state in the near future has almost evaporated. Hence, the Palestinians’ entire self-governing apparatus is perceived as a tool of the occupation, not as something that mitigates it, and certainly as nothing that will lead to a just political solution.

Add to that the pressure the continuing separation from Gaza and the breakdown of relations with Hamas, together with the rift with the Trump administration, which has cut off all aid to the Palestinians, and the picture of a PA struggling for a purpose and for its very survival becomes clearer. Annexation might just be the last straw that will lead to it either cutting all ties with Israel or abandoning this sinking ship altogether and handing over responsibility for the Palestinians to Israel. Both options would have grave consequences for both sides.

In the face of the agreement by the two major partners in Israel’s new government, Likud and Blue and White, to annex a third of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, as early as next month, a tough response from the Palestinian leadership was inevitable. It is an expression of anger and frustration, but equally an attempt to regain some credibility among its own people.

In this context, the statement of May 19, in which Abbas declared an end to the agreements and understandings signed with Israel and the US and handed responsibility for the Occupied Territories back to Israel, was both a warning and a desperate attempt to catch the attention of the international community so that it might not only come to the Palestinians’ rescue, but also save the PA from either a chaotic breakup or the resumption of full military occupation of the West Bank. Either of these results might lead to the ascendance of the more radical elements of the Palestinian polity, with consequences also for the international community, particularly if it meant a return to the armed struggle and a new wave of refugees.

To argue that the plan to present an annexation bill to the Knesset next month spells the end of the two-state solution is to wrongly assume that there is much life left in it anyway. However, the pretense of a peace process with an end goal of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and a fair and just solution for the Palestinian refugees, has left a flicker of hope. Equally, it has served as a pretext for maintaining Abbas’ power base and the vested interests associated with it. With the election of Donald Trump to the White House, the formal burial of the two-state solution, or any other peaceful solution, became merely a matter of time, particularly with the introduction of the so-called “peace plan” at the beginning of this year. The annexation derives from this plan, as does Trump’s earlier relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

If the annexation bill becomes law, it will confirm and formalize what has been a reality on the ground for decades: A complete disregard for Palestinian interests, while humiliating its leadership in the process. There is little choice left for Abbas and the PLO, which is the legitimate representative of the Palestinians in negotiations with Israel, but to remind Israel and its US ally that if, they deal with the West Bank as if it belongs to them, let them take full responsibility for it and the well-being of its people.

Conveniently, despite expelling the head of the Palestinian diplomatic delegation in Washington and cutting all funds to the UN Relief and Works Agency and the PA, the US is still happy to maintain its trilateral security cooperation with the Israelis and Palestinians. This is the component that Israel is most interested in, as the PA and its security apparatus have been functioning as Israel’s security subcontractor, albeit under duress and with very few benefits. Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian politician and scholar, described the irony of security relations between Israel and the Palestinians as follows: “We are the only people on Earth asked to guarantee the security of our occupier... while Israel is the only country that calls for defense from its victims.”

For the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, the partnership with Israel has been one of increasingly diminishing returns.

Yossi Mekelberg

For the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, the partnership with Israel has been one of increasingly diminishing returns. Since the early 2000s and the outbreak of the Second Intifada, the number of Palestinians working in Israel has fallen, Israel has arbitrarily stopped returning tax revenues that it is obliged by previous agreements to transfer to the PA, and the daily abuse and humiliation of Palestinians by Israeli security forces continues.

Annexation is a game-changer, as it questions the viability of a Palestinian elite that doesn’t wish to disturb the status quo and also wants peace with Israel. This elite is becoming even more vulnerable to accusations of being self-serving, surplus to requirements and, even worse, facilitators and collaborators. Every step toward formal annexation is a step toward either the collapse or the sidelining of the PA, which would see it abandon the political and diplomatic route and dangerously return to the armed struggle.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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