Opinion |

How Brutal UAE and Bahrain Autocrats Outplayed a Tired, Deluded Palestinian Leadership

Today, at the White House, the Middle East crosses a point of no return on normalization with Israel. Why didn’t Palestinian leaders put up a better fight?

Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada
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Palestinians burn a poster of Bahrain's King Hamad Al Khalifa and Benjamin Netanyahu at a protest against the UAE and Bahrain's normalization deal with Israel, Gaza City, September 15, 2020.
Palestinians burn a poster of Bahrain's King Hamad Al Khalifa and Benjamin Netanyahu at a protest against the UAE and Bahrain's normalization deal with Israel. Gaza City, September 15, 2020Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS
Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada

Today, the Middle East crosses a point of no return.

But when Israel, the UAE and Bahrain are signing the U.S.-brokered "Abraham Accords," at the White House Tuesday, Palestinian leaders – weak and divided – are still lagging behind, unable to develop a new, concrete strategy that would salvage the wreckage of their ‘disappearance’ from what is being touted as an unprecedented era of peacemaking.

Not that any Palestinian leader could have halted the normalization frenzy between the Gulf and Israel. But the feebleness, cynicism and fragmentation of the Palestinian leaders now in office have critically undermined any potential capacity to prevent, delay, engage with or respond meaningfully to the UAE and Bahrain’s groundbreaking groveling to Israel, and to Donald Trump.

>> Follow Haaretz's live coverage of the White House signing ceremony

That didn’t stop the Saudi and UAE troll armies investing their efforts in blaming the Palestinians for their own abandonment, offering no clear reasons for their regimes’ jettisoning what was once the region’s consensus cause.

This week, one Palestinian leader mustered fighting words, at least. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh declared Monday that "Tomorrow, the Arab peace initiative dies, as will the Arab consensus…[it is] a dark day in the history of the Arab nation and of the Arab League."

Palestinian Foreign Minster Riyad al-Maliki delivers a speech during an emergency meeting on Trump's peace plan at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Feb 3, 2020Credit: AFP

It was a contrast to the exhausted and despairing performance given by the Palestinian Foreign Minister, Riyad al-Maliki at the virtual Arab League meeting last Wednesday. He made a mild 30-minute speech, in which he described in detail the suffering that Palestinians go through every day, and Israel’s accelerated de facto annexation of the West Bank.

He perhaps hoped it would provoke sympathy and solidarity from his fellow Arab foreign ministers. But he was always on a losing ticket.

The problem with Gulf monarchs – infamous for brutally suppressing their own populations – has never been their lack of awareness about the tribulations Palestinians endure. Their fatal flaws are their lack of conscience, absent moral compass and their prioritization of selfish interests: to keep their thrones and advance their regional hegemony.

No emotional or even eloquent speech could sway autocratic Arab regimes to back down from selling the Palestinian cause on the cheap, only drastic actions. Palestinian Authority leaders knew this all too well, but they failed to manage that risk: they fell back on speechifying.

It’s been crystal clear for the last four years that Arab regimes have been moving towards normalization. While the PA has invested great efforts in deepening its relationships with European governments, it did far less to strengthen its relations with Arab countries in its own backyard - and even less to counter the race for normalization.

Instead, PA officials assured us at every turn that its regional standing was superb, and that no Arab state would ever dare to break away from the long-standing consensus on the Arab Peace Initiative.

Serially and unwisely, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has challenged Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to name one Arab country with whom Israel had improved its relations.

More recently, Erekat declared that Bahrain was "fully committed" to the Arab Peace Initiative, meaning no unilateral recognition of Israel without progress towards a Palestinian state. Six days later, the Bahrain-Israel deal was announced. Was Erekat naïve, exploited, or blind to what he didn’t want to see?

Throughout the last four years Palestinian leaders have willfully presented Gulf regimes’ meaningless official statements as cast-iron promises. That served to assuage the public’s concerns, assuring them (incorrectly) that their interests and rights were being protected. In the meantime, those Palestinian leaders failed to react strongly enough to the mounting on-the-ground evidence of creeping normalization.

This strategy was born of a radically out-of-date, if not self-deluding, set of assumptions about much of the Arab world. The Palestinian Authority took a baseline Arab regime’s loyalty to the Palestinian cause for granted: that was a fatally false assumption. It believed the Palestinians cause still enjoys the same symbolic power as ever, not least for Arab rulers who traditionally wielded the issue to mobilize, appease and distract their publics.

But the Middle East is embroiled in other conflicts, crises and distractions.

The Palestinian Authority also labored under the incorrect assumption that the fairness and justness of our cause would still be enough to garner sympathy and support from Arab rulers. "What binds us with the Arab world is not just relations or interests, it's blood and blood will never become water," a senior PA official once told me.

That false confidence led the PA leadership to sit in the audience but then, shocked, scrambling to act whenever news broke of Arab countries inching closer to full normalization

The PA’s strategy, or lack thereof, stemmed from an assumption that right will always inevitably prevail over falsehood, injustice and oppression. All they had to do was sit tight, withstand the pressure, and wait until conditions would ripen to their advantage.

"Despite everything, we’ve maintained the façade of relations [with Arab countries] to protect the cumulative efforts as represented in the Arab League… hoping for a miracle to occur, but miracles in our days are over," concluded Foreign Minister Al-Maliki at the Arab League last Wednesday. For the PA, a miracle would have been Jeremy Corbyn winning the 2019 UK elections and Bernie Sanders winning the U.S. Democratic primaries; they’d settle these days for Biden ousting Trump.

But this endless gamble on a future miracle is inimical to keeping the Palestinian struggle for freedom and dignity alive. The more the PA has anxiously waited and has stuck, however bitterly, with the status quo, the more they've lost. As the Arab adage goes “A right is never lost, as long as someone strives to claim it.” The current Palestinian leaders fell far short of adequately striving for Palestinian rights.

Mahmoud Abbas (R) and PLO Sec-Gen Saeb Erekat (C-R) look on as Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit (C) reads a statement during an Arab League, Cairo, February 1, 2020.Credit: KHALED DESOUKI / AFP

For a start, achieving Palestinian unity should have been their overriding priority, so that the international community could take us seriously and that neither Palestinian camp would undermine the other.

To keep the struggle alive, to make headlines rather than always react to them, Palestinian leaders should be participating in acts of popular, non-violent resistance, rather than attending endless summits in glossy conference halls. Mobilizing more active sympathy and support in the Arab world would put a price on Arab rulers who try to move on from the Palestinian cause.

The PA should have amplified its value for Gulf rulers: by joining the coalition against ISIS, or by cultivating efforts to increase positive Palestinian visibility, like cultural exchanges and trade.

And those leaders should have kept the struggle active diplomatically by offering an alternative to the overbearing ‘normalization with no concessions’ narrative: putting their own creative peace proposals on the table. Salam Fayyad recently called for the PLO to modify its charter to include calls for both the one-state and two-state solutions simultaneously. Abbas mentioned only once, and in passing, that he would support an Israeli-Palestinian confederation, but no official proposal has ever been made.

Israel won its new era of relations with Arab regimes through decades of lobbying, cooperation, countless meetings, bribes, appeasement, manipulation, trust-building and other tactics that paved the way until the opportune moment emerged with Trump’s desperation for electoral expedience, while the PA lost by decades of inadequacy and unearned confidence in its obsolete tactics.

Now that we've actually passed the point of no return, the Palestinian leaderships have finally woken up and got their act together. They have launched a unified national committee for popular resistance, which called on Palestinians to begin acts of non-violent civil resistance: hoisting the Palestinian flag on the day of the signing of the accords, and to march to the West Bank’s roadblocked or walled-off borders a week later.

Palestinian refugees tread on images of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu protesting the Israel-UAE deal. Bass camp, Tyre, Lebanon, August 15, 2020Credit: AFP

Although this is a positive acknowledgement of the enormous devastation Palestinian divisions have caused, it again falls critically short of living up to the crucial challenge Palestinians now face.

The news of the committee's founding and its first statement barely made headlines in local media, and those that did quickly faded. They failed to resonate with the public who sees this as merely another unaccountable, unelected form of power-sharing between obsolete and increasingly irrelevant Palestinian leaderships.

The current Palestinian leaderships have become understandably low-energy and demotivated after decades of holding office. They have exhausted their political capital domestically, regionally and internationally, and hence anything they come up with now will inspire little hope, let alone engage even modest crowds.

Change starts when Palestinian leaders from all factions turn to their actual publics rather than to one another, treating the Palestinian people as an electorate not as subjects, allowing them to decide who’s most deserving of leading the Palestinian cause and in what direction. The least that should be done now is to hold national elections that reenergize the public, give them a say in their own fate and make them visible again to their leadership.

It’s time to inject new blood into the PA and PLO from younger generations far more responsive to the public’s priorities and dire needs, and not as focused on safeguarding their sinecures.

The Palestinian public should decide, through elections, if they want a leadership that engages with, or resists, the new reality in the Middle East. Only fresh, more transparent and accountable leaders can reach a genuine breakthrough for the Palestinian future.

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

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