Scenes of Palestinians burning pictures of Arab leaders who decided to sign peace agreements with Israel and accusing them of betraying the Islamic Arab nation and the Palestinian people have repeated themselves time and again throughout the history of the Palestinian national movement.
When Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Yasser Arafat charged that he had sold the dignity of the Arabs, of Palestine and of Jerusalem for a fistful of sand in the Sinai desert. Fourteen years later, Arafat’s fury dissipated, and he himself recognized the State of Israel, signing the Oslo Accord in 1993. He did so after realizing that being exiled to Tunis would render him irrelevant, leading to the reins being transferred from his hands to those of the home-based Fatah leadership and other oppositional Palestinian factions.
Arafat in turn was accused of betrayal by those very factions and received letters of resignation from his fellow travelers, who thought he could have achieved a better deal that included recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. His reply was that the accord made the Palestinian Liberation Organization an equal partner in the negotiations with Israel and had put the Palestinian people on the map of the Middle East, enabling their leaders to return to Palestinian territory: They could fly the Palestinian flag, issue Palestinian passports and currency, and establish government institutions.
A year later, in 1994, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a peace treaty with Israel, and Arafat was infuriated anew. He accused the king of abetting the breach of Israel’s promise to discuss the future of Jerusalem. Yet again though, his anger waned, as did that of his successor, Mahmoud Abbas. Both continued to view Jordan’s king and Egypt’s president as the address for their complaints against Israel.
The same process has happened in Hamas, which has overcome its opposition to the Oslo Accord. Khaled Meshal, who was distanced from the arena of conflict, understood that if he did not update Hamas’s political vision, turning it into something more practical and legitimate, he would vanish from the political stage. In May 2017, Meshal launched a new Hamas manifesto which included the acceptance of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. He hoped that with the help of Qatari pressure on Israel, he could return to the arena and play a major role.
However, in his absence, Yahya Sinwar had been elected as the head of Hamas’s political bureau in Gaza, and he had different plans. Sinwar preferred cozying up to Egypt and to Mohammed Dahlan, the protégé of UAE ruler Mohammed bin Zayed. Israel did not exploit the opportunity to promote a diplomatic move that would have included Abbas, Dahlan, Meshal and Sinwar. It ignored Meshal and weakened Abbas. It froze out Dahlan and humiliated Sinwar, by turning him into a neighborhood bully collecting protection money from Qatar in order to guarantee Israel a quiet border.
The peace agreement between the UAE and Israel, expected to be signed in September, is opening another window of opportunity, although it also exacerbates the power struggles between Abbas and Dahlan within the Fatah movement, and between Meshal and Sinwar within Hamas. The warming relations between Israel and the UAE could strengthen the Dahlan-Sinwar duo while weakening the Abbas-Meshal one. It could also diminish Qatar’s and Turkey’s influence on the Palestinian arena.
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Qatar and Turkey will try to sabotage the accord in order to perpetuate the Palestinian dependence on them and in order to prevent the UAE from gaining a foothold in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. The two countries have already embarked on an extensive media assault aimed at stoking the anger of both Palestinians and opponents of bin Zayad in the UAE, in the hope that this will lead to his ouster. This subversive pattern of behavior by Qatar was already evident during the Arab Spring in 2011.
This is the context in which a recent report by the website Arabi 21 should be understood. The website claimed that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had told Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban that Saudi Arabia prefers to conduct its business with Israel under the radar, out of concern of being attacked by Qatar and Iran, which could cause chaos in his kingdom. Since this website is funded by Qatar, it’s not certain that bin Salman indeed said this, but he clearly knows his Qatari neighbors and their subversive proclivities.
As the defender of the holy sites in Jerusalem, the Saudi king will not wish to open a front against more than one billion Muslims, and will wait and see how other countries react to the accord with the UAE, particularly Morocco’s king, who heads the al-Quds Committee, and the Palestinian Authority, in the hope that it casts off its mourning garb and starts viewing normalization with Israel as an opportunity, not a threat.
In the geostrategic reality that has formed, Palestinians will have to understand that only when Israel feels less threatened by Arab states will it become more flexible, allowing them to establish an independent state alongside Israel. Abbas must place national Palestinian interests above his own personal ones and reconcile with Dahlan, link arms with Sinwar and move towards a comprehensive diplomatic agreement with Israel, under the aegis of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Israel, on its part, will have to meet this challenge and return to the negotiating table without embarrassing its Arab allies. Qatar and Turkey must be advised to re-examine their conception of normalization. One of the two has had full diplomatic relations with Israel for decades, while the other has close relations with senior defense establishment and political officials in Israel. Why would they quibble over the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE?
Dr. Marzan is a researcher of Palestinian society and politics, and holds a Chaikin Chair at the University of Haifa