Analysis

Israel-UAE Normalization Deal Reveals Failure of Palestinian Diplomacy

Palestinian President Abbas is paying the price for his decision to cut ties with the UAE, but now that the threat of Israeli annexation has receded, will Palestinian cooperation with Israel resume?

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinians burn pictures of the UAE's crown prince and Mohammed Dahlan in Ramallah, August 15, 2020.
Palestinians burn pictures of the UAE's crown prince and Mohammed Dahlan in Ramallah, August 15, 2020.Credit: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The first impression from the statements in the Palestinian media over the past few days is that the declaration of normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates has brought the Palestinian leadership momentarily closer to the Palestinian public.

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Those quoted are condemning the agreement and what they label the cynical exploitation of the “Palestinian issue” and of opposition to annexation to upgrade economic and security ties between Israel and the UAE, which have long existed and were no secret.

But the rapprochement between the Palestinians and their leadership is fleeting and for show. They’re closer but they’re not together. And in any event, some say that the Palestinian public – people whose opinion is not sought by the media – is rather indifferent to the recent developments.

“Condemnation” is one of the most common terms senior Palestinian leaders use, but their condemnation doesn’t create policy. On the contrary, generally and certainly in this case, they betray a lack of policy, which has been supplanted by a show of anger and many years of diplomatic failure. Ties between the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas and the UAE have been severed since 2012, although tens of thousands of Palestinian businesspeople, engineers and other professionals live there permanently and pursue their professions there without interference.

In Ramallah, this disconnect is explained mainly as the product of a dispute involving the former head of Palestinian preventive security, former senior Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan. He is politically and economically very close to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, while Abbas and the Fatah movement he heads treat Dahlan as public enemy No.1. Bin Zayed’s attempt in 2012 to reconcile them and to lower the heat directed at Dahlan was not successful, a Dahlan associate says, although the source got the impression that Abbas had been ready to do so.

In June, in the middle of the current public health and economic crisis, the Palestinian Authority rejected an aid shipment offered by the UAE to the Palestinian Health Ministry because it came without coordination with the PA and was sent via Ben-Gurion airport in Israel. A Palestinian show of diplomatic flexibility now would not have stopped the normalization train, but nor has the Palestinian decision over the past eight years to forgo in advance any official diplomatic activity in the UAE capital. In fact, it may have actually speeded it up.

It can be assumed that such a diplomatic presence would not have changed the UAE’s interest in closer ties with Israel, but perhaps such a presence would have been able to raise the price of normalization a bit, beyond postponing Israel’s annexation plan, the timing of which was not clear in any event. “We know how to act in countries that support us, not in countries that don’t support us,” a Palestinian diplomat in Ramallah summed it up.

In addition over the weekend, in a Pavlovian response, Abbas called on the Arab League to hold an urgent meeting on the UAE’s normalization plan. A member of the PLO Executive Committee and of the Fatah Central Committee, Azzam al-Ahmad, said he didn’t believe the meeting would take place due to the numerous disputes among the countries involved, and because airing the disagreements publicly would only weaken the Palestinian position.

On June 17, the Palestinian Authority submitted an official request to the Arab League for monthly $100 million loans until the crisis over the transfer of funds that Israel collects on the PA’s behalf, and which the PA is refusing to accept, is resolved. So far, no country has responded. According to Palestinian political leader Jibril Rajoub, “on instructions from the United States, all of the Arab countries except for Algeria” have stopped supporting the Palestinians.

Al-Ahmad said in an interview on the Voice of Palestine radio station that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (who remains outside of Gaza, mainly in Qatar) placed a call to Abbas to express his condemnation of the normalization. Al-Ahmad expressed the hope that this would permit “a united internal front” and called for a popular uprising. That’s the usual statement that senior Fatah members make from time to time to show that they’re still relevant.

It’s hard to know if he really believes that the Palestinian Authority and Fatah can motivate the public to act. Despite its efforts in the media, the PA hasn’t even been able to get the residents of the West Bank to take the necessary steps to curb the coronavirus outbreak. Every day, between 400 and 500 new infections are being reported, and as of Saturday afternoon, there were 112 deaths from COVID-19 in the West Bank and Gaza.

Tel Aviv city hall lit up in the colors of the UAE flag.
Tel Aviv city hall lit up in the colors of the UAE flag.Credit: Moti Milrod

The data don’t include Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem – who have evaded the Israeli ban on mass gatherings by holding wedding receptions in Palestinian Authority enclaves in the West Bank. Such gatherings are banned there too, but the desire or capacity of Palestinian officials to enforce the rules appear to be very half-hearted.

Following the condemnations, this week the time will come to ponder the fate of the Palestinian decision to halt security cooperation – and particularly civilian cooperation – with Israel, as long as the threat of annexation remained. Now such a threat has been lifted, at least “until further notice.”

Most Palestinians have not lamented the absence of security cooperation, but the absence of civilian cooperation with Israel has harmed everyone. That is particularly because on Abbas’ instructions, the Palestinian Finance Ministry has refused to accept the money that Israel collects in taxes and import duties (in exchange for a fat commission) on merchandise heading to the West Bank and Gaza. The taxes and duties constitute about two-thirds of the PA’s revenues. The direct result has been cuts and delays in the payment of public employees’ salaries and missed transfer payment to municipalities, which in turn have cut salaries to the municipal employees and suspended activities.

On Thursday, prior to the normalization announcement, the Palestinian Finance Ministry issued an unusual statement in which it denied rumors that it had received import duty payments from Israel, and that the salaries would soon be paid. The rumor was an indication that people have been hoping that the PA will get out of the corner that it has painted itself into and take the money it is owed.

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