Since Joe Biden was declared president-elect Saturday, Ramallah’s elite have been jubilant. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the Palestinian Authority he heads, relish the hope that the dark storm unleashed by outgoing President Donald Trump’s "peace team" may finally fade away.
But Abbas doesn't operate in a vacuum. Hamas is mourning Biden's victory, the UAE are smirking and the Saudis are sulking.
For the last four years, it’s been the administration’s trademark to humiliate, isolate and bash the Palestinian leadership, sometimes hand-in-hand with fellow Arabs. Trump’s son in-law Jared Kushner has made it his sacred goal not just to force Arab regimes to prematurely normalize relations with Israel and abandon the Palestinian cause, but to force a stampede on the Palestinians.
Now, with Biden's win, what was once the Trump administration's closest Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia, has a problem. The man Kushner helped "put on top" of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, has excelled at making his WhatsApp mate proud. Indeed, it has not always been clear who owes and owns whom the most: MBS famously bragged that he had Kushner "in his pocket."
The UAE were first to abandon Trump's sinking ship and officially praise Biden, even though they engaged in high visibility cheering for Trump during the campaign and vote count. They’ve got what they wanted – advanced weaponry, normalization with no consequences, and don't stand to lose much under Biden. That doesn’t apply to MBS.
Even UAE ruler Mohammed Bin Zayed’s close subcontractor, and former Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, was quick to call Biden’s win a "positive development that limits the extreme risks of the Trump/Netanyahu alliance." This comes after Dahlan's supportive silence on the normalization frenzy; Trump’s ambassador to Israel let slip that Dahlan is their favorite substitute candidate to lead the Palestinians, before withdrawing the remark.
While much of the Arab World congratulated Biden officially and promptly, Saudi Arabia was the exception. It took Riyadh more than 24 hours to come out with a short congratulatory message for Biden and Kamala Harris.
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The Saudis seem to believe that Biden's presidency, with a potentially troublesome interest in human rights and Mideast stability, is a direct threat to MBS's survival in power, his war in Yemen, and his blockade on Qatar. But they clearly can't burn their bridges with the news administration.
So they're nurturing their online pro-Israel trolls, performatively offering evidence of civil norms and freedoms, while sending warm signals to Israel's government, perhaps hoping Netanyahu would again intercede with the White House (as he did after the Khashoggi murder) to rescue MBS. And the Saudi government abruptly enacted nominal socio-economic reforms towards migrant workers to showcase openness toward moderation.
Indeed, the Gulf's troll ecosystem offers a concise snapshot of the region's changing winds in the wake of the U.S. elections – and its relations with the Palestinians.
MBS’s online troll project, which includes prominent Saudi royals, have relentlessly branded Palestinians as the Arab world’s number one enemy, a narrative that has fitted perfectly with the Trump administration's aggressive pro-normalization policies
With Trump ousted, the Kushner-sanctioned wave of Arab hostility towards the Palestinians seems to have subsided, although the state apparatuses in "normalized" Gulf states still maintain a heavy hand on domestic criticism of the Abraham Accords process. Remarkably, last Thursday, to the dismay of Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan voted for pro-Palestinian resolutions at the UN: they may have reached the limits of their reflexive anti-Palestinian stance.
Though some prominent UAE trolls still offer Israel adulation, their attention is now far more concentrated on Turkey than the Palestinians. The pro-normalization Gulf states are engaged in an informal economic war with Ankara, including a consumer boycott of Turkish products. That dovetails nicely with Gulf assessments that Biden will continue, as he did in the campaign, to voice critical views on Erdogan.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority leaders are reveling in the moment of respite provided by Biden’s win.
PA leaders are hopeful – almost excessively – that Biden will reverse Trump’s catastrophic imprint on their rights. They hope the Biden White House will take annexation completely off the table, restore funding to the PA and UNRWA, and reestablish diplomatic relations.
Though insufficient, these steps would surely make a difference to millions of increasingly despairing Palestinians, especially low-income civil servants whom Abbas hasn't paid in full for six months, ever since he cut relations with Israel.
But for Hamas, rulers of Gaza, relief that Trump’s era was ending is clouded by disappointment. All of Abbas’ promises over the last few months – to reconcile with Hamas, to push to lift sanctions on Gaza, to renounce Oslo, to halt security coordination with Israel and to hold national elections – are now mere dust in the wind.
Despite its barefaced hostility, Hamas saw Trump’s administration as a catalyst to increasing the relevance of its platform and advocacy.
They saw an opportunity in Abbas being isolated, but holding on: Hamas feared that the U.S.-Israel-Saudi-UAE axis would try to replace him with a Deal of the Century yes-man. Abbas' weakness, and his need to withstand U.S. pressure, meant he needed Palestinian backing from all factions, including Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.
That trigger for renewed efforts at intra-Palestinian reconciliation could have given Hamas a chance to join the PLO and influence its direction, and to push hard for unified Palestinian elections, which could have given it a significant, officially sanctioned presence in the West Bank. And a Trump reelection would have fueled the extreme rage and despair that Hamas could have exploited to ignite a third intifada in the West Bank, a possibility broached recently by Saleh Arouri, Hamas’ deputy leader.
Abbas felt compelled in recent months to put on a warmer face towards cooperation with Hamas, and not because he suddenly decided to adopt Hamas positions - that settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through negotiations with Netanyahu was an impossibility. It was because Abbas felt increasingly cornered, irrelevant, dejected, and enraged by Trump’s obscene policies, and the betrayal of his fellow Arab leaders.
Now, poised to regain its relevance and good standing with the U.S. – and subsequently with the Arab world – the PA sees no urgency to reconcile with a movement whose pro-resistance rhetoric will soon look irrelevant, if not embarrassing, when and if Biden revives the façade of the peace process.
Why would Abbas now feel the need to fast-track Hamas undermining his Fatah party's rule in the West Bank? When I asked a moderate Hamas leader this weekend about the likelihood of Palestinians elections, he laughed, bitterly: "What elections? Does anyone in his right mind think that Abbas would go for elections now?”
Sunday morning, Abbas issued a congratulatory statement on Biden's win, and expressed unconditional enthusiasm for working with the incoming administration. Tired and demotivated, Abbas is evidently willing to let bygones be bygones, even though Biden would keep the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, oppose the PA's bid to try Israel for alleged war crimes at the international criminal court, and would commend Israeli-Arab normalization.
As for Hamas, its top leader, Ismael Haniyeh, made two separate remarks regarding the incoming Biden administration: both were uncompromising. One called on Biden to revoke the Trump Mideast deal and the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; to end U.S. pressure on Arab countries (i.e. Qatar) to normalize relations with Israel; and to respect Palestinian democratic choices (i.e. elections).
In the other, during a speech at a virtual conference, Haniyeh warned Abbas that negotiations with Israel are both "useless" and a "trap," and that far more than the Palestinian cause needed soft power support from its allies, it needed support in the form of "money and weapons."
But never mind Abbas or Hamas. When Biden tries to turn back time and restore relations with the Palestinians to the pre-Trump era, he should go the extra mile. Rather than resurrecting the exact same status quo ante, Biden should push for substantial change in the lives of Palestinians, particularly in the besieged, abandoned and increasingly unlivable Gaza Strip. He should also push for Palestinian elections, as a way for Palestinians to actually have say in their own future.
If Biden and his soon-to-be-appointed fleet of envoys content themselves with same old empty talk – rhetorical frowning on Israel’s actions as "unhelpful to peace," lip service to the two-state solution – they would be assuring, at least in one way, that the incoming presidency is even worse for this part of the Middle East than Trump’s.
The Trump White House was at least blatant in its intentions: to squeeze the Palestinians until they gave up and begged for mercy. Biden has to make sure that pacifying Palestinians with aid and containing them through U.S.-sponsored PA security forces isn’t just the same strategy, but dressed up in nicer clothes.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2