Opinion

The Palestinian Refusal to Negotiate With Israel and Trump Is a Cowardly, Fateful Mistake

As a former Palestinian negotiator, this is my urgent message to the old, stale, failed Palestinian political elite: Rejectionism won’t stop annexation or win us a state. Engage with Israel and Trump – or resign

Bishara A. Bahbah
Bishara A. Bahbah
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after a Palestinian leadership meeting in Ramallah, January 22, 2020
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after a Palestinian leadership meeting in Ramallah, January 22, 2020Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP
Bishara A. Bahbah
Bishara A. Bahbah

The self-appointed Palestinian leadership in Ramallah – the PLO’s executive committee and Fatah’s central committee – met on Sunday, May 31, 2020, to discuss how to respond to Israel’s threats to proceed with the annexation of the Jordan Valley. 

Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies interpret the Trump peace plan as allowing Israel to extend sovereignty over 30 percent of the West Bank come July 2020 should the Palestinians refuse to engage in peace negotiations.  

Predictably, besides denunciations and rejection, the Palestinian leadership has nothing else to offer. The Palestinian leadership is in a state of mental paralysis. Depressingly and damagingly, this condition is counter to the interests of the Palestinian people.

Here are eight recommendations for the Palestinian leadership to deliberate – and move forward. Before too much is lost.

You need new blood. The same, failed Palestinian leaders have been leading for the last four decades. Despite their failures, they have either retained their positions or have been promoted. Few self-respecting and productive Palestinians want to be part of that failed group of policymakers. As educated and successful Palestinians are in the private sectors, the opposite is true for those in the public sector. Expand the Palestinian peace negotiating team to include advisors from Egypt, Jordan, Arab and friendly countries.

Do something – or resign. If Fatah’s central committee and the PLO’s executive committee are incapable of making constructive, fateful decisions regarding the future of Palestine, except to say no, then please resign. There are younger Palestinians in their twenties and thirties who are capable of making better calculated and courageous decisions. Those should be the ones in power.

A Palestinian takes part in a demonstration against the expropriation of Palestinian land from the village of Haris in favor of the Israeli settlement of Revava in the West Bank, May 29, 2020.
A Palestinian takes part in a demonstration against the expropriation of Palestinian land from the village of Haris in favor of the Israeli settlement of Revava in the West Bank, May 29, 2020.Credit: AFP

Doing nothing or saying no gives Israel a green light to act. Saying no to the Trump peace plan and/or doing nothing to respond to the proposed plan is tantamount to giving Israel a green light to annex the Jordan Valley come July 2020. That is when, according to the government coalition agreement, Netanyahu can bring up the issue of annexation to the cabinet and Knesset for consideration and approval.

Better deals might not exist. In 2000, 2008, and 2014, the Palestinian Authority refused to accept peace proposals based on a two-state solution formula. There is no perfect peace agreement and there is no just peace agreement. Learn to live with the dictates of life and the realities on the ground. By comparison, those previous peace proposals look very attractive compared to the Trump peace plan. Do not waste the Palestinian people’s lives waiting for a better proposal to present itself. It might never happen!

Reject but provide an alternative, i.e., engage.  President Donald Trump, and his ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, described the Trump peace plan as "a basis for negotiations." They did not say take it or leave it. We know the Palestinians have rejected the Trump peace plan. Why not come to the negotiating table holding in hand the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative? Such a Palestinian response would force the United States and Israel to impose a freeze on Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and, it could, indefinitely delay Israel’s ability to annex the Jordan Valley. 

Biden is not better than Trump. Don’t think that a Joe Biden win in November is good for the Palestinians. I would argue that a Trump win is better for the Palestinians. Trump is the only U.S. president in modern history wielding an inordinate influence over Israeli politicians.  Fortunately, he also instills fear in them, and is thus capable of extracting concessions out of them for the benefit of the Palestinians.  Biden will not be able to do what Trump can do – because of what the current president has already done for Israel.

A Palestinian demonstrator holds an anti-U.S. President Donald Trump poster during a rally in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 11, 2020
A Palestinian demonstrator holds an anti-U.S. President Donald Trump poster during a rally in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 11, 2020.Credit: Mohamad Torokman/ REUTERS

Unite your leadership. The world has conveniently tolerated a divided Palestinian leadership – the PA in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza. Whether through elections, reconciliations, or mediations, put together a united Palestinian leadership. If you negotiate while divided, you are weaker in the eyes of Israel and the world. Put your egos aside; put the interests of your people first.

Beware of your own people. Lastly, the Palestinian political elite are financially comfortable with their monthly stipends, cars, drivers, and, most importantly, their Israeli-issued VIP passes. The rest of the Palestinian people whether in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the refugee camps do not have those luxuries. They are suffering but they see what you, the leaders, have. Be very, very alert to how capable "hungry" people can be.

It has been repeated frequently that the number one objective of the Trump peace plan has been to ensure Israel’s security now and into the future.  

If that is the case, I cannot think of a better security arrangement than the one that exists between the PA and Israel. The PA has even been called an Israeli agent working for Israel’s security service, a collaborator in the occupation. On the ground, the arrangement has worked remarkably for Israel. Now, does Israel really think that annexing the Jordan Valley is going to provide it with any better security than the one it has with the PA?  

Territory does not provide security. We are living in the age of missiles, rockets, weaponized lasers and drones. Israel can only ensure its security by signing a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians and cementing it with mutual security arrangements similar to the one that currently exists between the PA and Israel’s security services.

President Mahmoud Abbas, if I may address you directly: You have managed to become the ultimate decisionmaker among Palestinian political leaders. This is partly because all your potential successors are busy lobbying to be the next leader or are fighting among themselves to succeed you.  It is, therefore, incumbent upon you to rise above the fray and be the voice of reason and clear vision.  

Your legacy can either be leaving the Palestinians in limbo, as they are now, or taking the courageous and arduous road of resuming peace negotiations. The choice is between a dismal future for all Palestinians – or hope for an independent, thriving, Palestinian state.

Bishara A. Bahbah is the former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem-based newspaper Al-Fajr. He has taught at Harvard University, where he was the associate of its Middle East Institute, served as a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Multilateral Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security, and is a founder of the Palestine Center in Washington, D.C.