Ofer Bavly

For the Palestinians, a Time of Reckoning

The old adage says that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. For decades, their maximalist intransigence has led them to reject numerous offers for reconciliation with Israel, offers which could have led them to statehood and self-determination decades ago. Granted, accepting any of the offers laid before them in the past would have entailed giving up part of their all-or-nothing demands. But rejectionist posturing has ultimately led them nowhere, as their leadership continues to sell its people a pipe dream about keeping up the struggle until they have it all – the entire West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the “right of return” to Israel proper. But while it calls on its people to continue to make sacrifices in an endless struggle, the Palestinian leadership knows that realistically, this dream will never be fulfilled and that the longer they wait, the less they will ultimately get. Indeed, many of the Palestinians themselves have resigned themselves to the idea that they will never have it all anyway, so they might as well go about their daily business and abandon the “struggle” which has only cost them lives and money and led them nowhere nearer their imagined paradise. 

In the past, and especially since the 1967 Six-Day War, the Arab and Muslim world stood by the Palestinians in their demand for self-determination. The entire Arab nation subscribed to the three “no’s” delineated at the Khartoum Conference in 1967: no to recognition of Israel, no to negotiation with Israel, no to peace with Israel. That position was abandoned by Egypt in 1979 and by Jordan in 1994 when these two countries put their own interests ahead of those of the Palestinians, but with these exceptions (as well as minor steps towards normalization with some Gulf states and North African countries in the nineties), the Arab world by and large continued to support the Palestinian cause, giving its leadership the backing to an all-or-nothing position, supported by terrorist action designed to push the Israelis into making more concessions.  

But the Arab support for the Palestinian cause began to shift with the advent of the Arab Spring and the growing Iranian threat to moderate Sunni regimes in the region. Numerous Arab leaders across the Middle East began to realize that domestic threats to their regimes and the external threat to their stability were of higher priority than the Palestinian cause. Looking at that combination of threats, some came to realize that their regimes’ stability and survival requires alignment with Israel (and the USA), including profitable trade and commerce as well as security cooperation that would enable them to deal with the Iranian threat. The Palestinian issue, while still close to their hearts, was simply not as important as their own national interests. First the United Arab Emirates, then Bahrain and soon other Arab states will abandon the three “no’s” and establish relations with Israel. For the Palestinians, this is taken as a dramatic betrayal after fifty years of unconditional support. They view themselves as the forward outpost of the Arab struggle against Israel and feel that they have now been abandoned by their brethren. 

With the global Covid-19 pandemic and other events in the international arena, the Palestinians have also lost their place of prominence in other fora: the United Nations no longer passes its traditional automatic pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli resolutions and even the European Union and its member states are now preoccupied with other, more pressing matters. It seems that the Palestinian issue has never been so neglected, regionally and internationally.

This is a seminal moment of reckoning for the Palestinians, a junction at which they must decide whether to continue on their present course of preserving and maintaining the conflict with ever-diminishing support from the Arab world and the international arena, or whether it might be time to change course, realize that reality in the region has changed, and leverage the changing circumstances to their benefit. 

There are a number of routes the Palestinians could take if they decide to abandon the futile course of eternal battle. For example, instead of staying on the sidelines, they could take this opportunity to ensure that they are part of an all-Arab arrangement, loosely based on the Saudi peace plan but in reverse order: whereas that plan envisioned a permanent solution to the Palestinian issue before normalization with the Arab world, a revised plan might still include a permanent solution, but as part of a normalization process with additional countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia. It would include substantial regional resources to help build the infrastructure of a future state of Palestine in exchange for a final renouncement of the armed struggle.

Another option would be for the Palestinians to join, rather than reject, the Trump peace plan. While not ideal (for either side), that plan is a good starting point for the Palestinians, upon which they can negotiate final-status issues including borders and a presence in Jerusalem. The plan envisages a future independent state for the Palestinians, albeit on far less than the entire territory they claim as their own, as well as a permanent solution to their national quest, but it does not dictate the final terms – leaving those to direct negotiations between the parties.

Whether the Palestinians take the route of the Saudi plan or the Trump peace plan, the path of negotiation will likely serve their future needs and aspirations better than the path of continued conflict which has not so far paid off and will likely bring them no gains. For them, the longer the process drags on, the less their chances of optimizing the negotiation process to their benefit. Making the strategic decision to finally abandon the conflict and engage in a peace-building process is not easy, certainly not for an ailing President Mahmoud Abbas who no longer enjoys the support of his own people. But whether he makes that historic decision or leaves it to his successor, a decision must nevertheless be taken, for future generations of Palestinians – and Israelis.

About the Author
Ofer Bavly was a diplomat with the Israeli Foreign Service from 1991 to 2014, serving in Israel's Embassies in Madrid and Rome. He was Policy Advisor to two Foreign Ministers and was Israel's Consul General to Florida and Puerto Rico. He currently heads the Israel office of the Jewish Federation of Chicago / Jewish United Fund
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