U.S. President-elect Joe Biden harvested Tuesday the first fruits in the Middle East of his election victory: The leadership of the Palestinian Authority took advantage of the transition in Washington scheduled for January 20 to justify the renewal of security and civilian coordination with Israel in the West Bank. The Israeli security establishment heaved a sigh of relief over the decision to renew the ties, the lack of which in recent months it had called “a bone in the throat.”
The deterioration in relations between Israel and the PA was the result of Donald Trump’s clear preference for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu throughout the president’s almost four years in office. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gradually cut back ties with the United States and Israel in response to American and Israeli actions.
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Things reached a head this year with the publication of Trump’s Middle East peace plan in January and Netanyahu’s promotion of annexation of the settlements in May. That plan that was shelved during the summer on the pretext that by doing so, the way was paved for the normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
The PA stopped accepting the payment from Israel of tax revenue collected for it by the state – the amount currently stands at around $742 million – after Israel prohibited PA payments to Palestinian security prisoners incarcerated in Israel. In May, Abbas ended all official channels of security and civil cooperation with Israel. Workarounds were devised and communications remained open for emergencies, such as the extraction of Israelis who mistakenly entered PA-controlled areas of the West Bank. But apart from these exceptions, coordination was suspended and there have been few meetings between the sides for the past few months.
It was the PA that paid the greatest price for the policy: The payments it declined are needed to assuage the severe economic distress in the West Bank, which the coronavirus pandemic has only deepened. The receipt of the funds is expected to follow the renewal of coordination. It will be the first thing the PA has done in a long time to improve the lot of Palestinians in the West Bank.
The renewal of coordination will probably have a chilling effect on the reconciliation efforts between the PA and Hamas, because it might lead to a resumption of arrests of Hamas activists in the West Bank.
Biden’s advent will probably be felt in the coming months in the Palestinian arena, as the Palestinians cease their self-righteous entrenchment and their refusal of any ties with Israel or the United States. Still, there will be no constructive negotiations in the near future, even after Trump consents or is compelled to leave the White House.
- Palestinian Authority announces it will resume cooperation with Israel
- Netanyahu speaks with Biden for the first time since U.S. election, calls him 'president-elect'
- Biden realizes the Palestinian Authority's importance to Israel, but expectations remain low
The Middle East in general, and certainly the Palestinian problem in particular, will not be a top priority of the next administration, which first of all must extricate the United States from the health and economic fallout of the coronavirus disaster. In foreign policy as well, the strategic competition with China is much more urgent.
Netanyahu calls Biden
On Tuesday, long after most world leaders, Netanyahu finally remembered to call Biden and congratulate him on his victory. This was after Netanyahu intentionally refrained from saying the exact words, in both the statement he released last week and his stammering response to a question in a press conference Monday. Netanyahu’s statement about his conversation with Biden came a few minutes after the release of a statement about a similar call from President Reuven Rivlin.
But the spirit of the outgoing president still hovers over us, as can be seen by a report in The New York Times Tuesday that in a meeting Thursday, Trump proposed a U.S. airstrike against the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz, and was only dissuaded under pressure from his advisers.
Meanwhile, increased Israeli-Iranian friction on the Syrian border also bears noticing. On Tuesday an IDF force uncovered a cluster of explosive devices on the Israeli side of the border on the Golan Heights, in the same area where the army killed four terrorists who has set similar explosives in August. This time too, it is believed that a local network in the Syrian Golan Heights operated by the Iranians is responsible. Based on past experience, this is not the kind of operation that will go without an Israeli response, both verbal and concrete.