Palestinians must first make peace with themselves
There is a real risk that both Palestinians and Israelis are drawing the wrong conclusions about how the historically ground-breaking normalization agreements between the UAE and Bahrain and Israel are affecting relations between them.
In an ideal world, in other words one in which Israel is not ruled by nationalist-populists such as Benjamin Netanyahu, it should have given the Jewish state an incentive to embark on an honest and courageous peace initiative with the Palestinians.
Don’t hold your breath, however, since the view of Netanyahu and his right-wing allies is one of complacency, with no sense of urgency to change the status quo with the Palestinians. Netanyahu is not the one to seize the moment and do what would not only be strategically forward looking for Israel, Palestine and the region, but also a morally decent move. After all, peace with the Palestinians would not be a favor to them or any other international actors, but a vital Israeli interest.
Setting aside the Israeli calculus, there is a Palestinian one that for now seems to be mainly driven by anger and bitterness. Nevertheless, closer analysis may suggest that recent events are giving the Palestinians an opportunity to take stock and to recognize that the world and the region have redefined their priorities and it is now time to reconfigure and re-strategize.
Rightly or wrongly, as a consequence of international fatigue with the deadlocked peace process, the changing set of priorities regionally and internationally over the past few years, and especially in recent months with a pandemic engulfing the world, the Israeli–Palestinian issue is not one that the international community either prioritizes or believes it can have a positive impact on. Notwithstanding international factors, the divisions and disarray in Palestinian politics are also deterring any international initiative, playing into the hands of those in Israel and their allies abroad who would like to see the occupation of the West Bank and permanent control via blockade of the Gaza Strip.
If anything, the new normalization agreements, and even more strikingly the enthusiasm of the signatories to move full steam ahead into cooperation on a wide range of issues, must ring the bells of change in Ramallah, Gaza and the Palestinian diaspora.
A Palestinian government that united and had a mandate from its people could re-engage with the international community and more powerfully make the case against the entrenchment and cruelty of the occupation.
Beyond their expressions of disappointment, the onus is now on the divided Palestinian leadership and polity to first and foremost find a way to bring together all the main factions in the West Bank and Gaza, chiefly the Fatah and Hamas movements, and in the PLO, to formulate a common platform and put aside their differences. Their recent meeting and agreement on “unified field leadership” may be step toward such a unity of purpose, but for now the statements have been mainly declarations of defiance and “comprehensive popular resistance,” rather than of formulating a unity of governance, purpose and strategy to achieve it.
The talk of a unity government is unrealistic and unnecessary; instead the first step should be to restart the political process that would enable the Palestinians to elect for the first time in more than 15 years their president, and in more than 14 years their representatives on the Palestinian Legislative Council, and to also reform the PLO. A number of previous agreements between Fatah and Hamas set elections as an objective, but neither side was keen on them, deterred by the unflattering opinion polls and so content to stick with the status quo.
If the Palestinian polity would like to regain the trust of its own people and the active support of sympathetic elements in the international community, fair and free elections must be the first step. Those politicians should also be listening to the younger generation and empowering and encouraging them to be part of the political system. Without these changes, the desperately needed and critical mass support for the Palestinian leadership at home and abroad, and belief in the just cause of Palestinian self-determination and independence, will not materialize.
While some advocate a return to the armed struggle, there is no real appetite for this in either the West Bank or Gaza, and from past experience, let alone the current international environment, it is unlikely to achieve anything tangible beyond more suffering and misery. But it is not beyond the realm of possibility that certain elements in Palestinian society will conclude that this is the only way left open to them to try and break the deadlock with Israel, to attract attention to their predicament, or even just as an expression of sheer frustration.
However, a Palestinian government that united and had a mandate from its people could re-engage with the international community and more powerfully make the case against the entrenchment and cruelty of the occupation. Sympathy with the Palestinians’ just cause has not evaporated, whether in the Gulf, in the EU or elsewhere, but more than ever those actors see no dividends from investing time and resources in a failed peace process or a divided Palestinian society. It is for the Palestinians, then, to build on the normalization agreements’ success in preventing their annexation by Israel, and to mobilize the Gulf states to play a proactive role in bringing a just solution to the conflict with Israel, on the basis of presenting a realistic, constructive and workable path toward peace, in accordance with UN resolutions and international law.
The responsibility then would be on Israel to respond in kind, and to prove to those who so courageously extended the hand of peace that this is an incentive to retract the occupation, not perpetuate it, and to move toward resolving the conflict with the Palestinians. At this historical juncture, what is required of the Palestinians is to first make peace among themselves and then exploit the new regional developments to advance their cause.
- 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