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Palestinian leaders! Wake up and smell the statehood!

Two bold moves -- a phone call to Donald Trump and an Arab mini-summit -- could give your people a real future. What have you got to lose?
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting in Ramallah with the Palestinian leadership to discuss the United Arab Emirates' deal with Israel. Aug. 18, 2020 (Mohamad Torokman/Pool Photo via AP, File)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting in Ramallah with the Palestinian leadership to discuss the United Arab Emirates' deal with Israel. Aug. 18, 2020 (Mohamad Torokman/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Palestinian leaders who have been at the helm of the PLO, Fatah or Hamas for decades, never seem to learn valuable history lessons. They remain in a state of paralysis, incapable of imaginative thinking about how to get out of the rut they are in.

When you hear President Mahmoud Abbas declare, after 53 years of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem: “We are not defeated,” and we “will not bend” in the face of mounting crises, you begin to question his mental faculties.

As the AP’s Joseph Krauss reported last week, “President Mahmoud Abbas remains committed to the same strategy he has pursued for decades – seeking international support to pressure Israel to agree to a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.”

One wonders if the collective Palestinian leadership is in a coma. And, now the situation is dramatically different and more challenging than it was even a year ago.

In January of this year, the US administration unveiled its one-sided pro-Israel peace plan. And recently the UAE decided to establish diplomatic ties with Israel and break the Arab consensus that was established in 2002 when the Arab Peace Initiative (API) was adopted. API offered Israel recognition in return for the establishment of a Palestinian state in territories it occupied in 1967.

Needed: New Strategies

Instead of bemoaning their fate and pursuing a failed strategy, what the internationally recognized Palestinian leadership in Ramallah should urgently do is think out of the box and take two steps that, until now, have been unthinkable.

First, the Palestinians should pick up the phone, call President Donald Trump and ask for an urgent meeting at the White House to present the Palestinian demands for an acceptable peace plan.

Second, the Palestinians should call for an Arab mini-summit in Riyadh hosted by King Salman of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah II of Jordan, the Emir of Kuwait, the Egyptian President and, yes, the Crown Prince of the UAE.

A phone call to Trump

President Trump is the only person in the world with any sway over Netanyahu. He can dictate to Netanyahu what he wants. The Palestinians should go to the White House with a detailed peace plan with specifics of what they would accept in return for signing a peace agreement with Israel.

The Palestinian leadership underestimates the value to President Trump of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Even when he was running for president, Trump boasted that if anyone could make peace between Israel and Palestine, it would be him.

If Palestinian pragmatism sets in, they should tell President Trump the terms of their counterproposal face-to-face. If President Trump was himself engaged in negotiating a peace plan, he would acquiesce to many of the Palestinians’ demands because he would see the fairness of their demands. How do we know? Because he has said so himself.

During the unveiling of the Trump peace plan in January, President Trump reminded everyone how much he had done for Israel. He moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem, he recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and he abandoned the Iran nuclear deal. In short, Israel owes him and he, in turn, has earned tremendous leverage over Israel, and especially over Netanyahu. And then he continued:

“Therefore, it is only reasonable that I have to do a lot for the Palestinians, or it just wouldn’t be fair… I want this deal to be a great deal for the Palestinians. It has to be.”

If the Palestinians are seeking the best time to cash in on President Trump’s commitment to a great deal, that time is now. Trump would go out of his way to broker the “deal of the century” before the US presidential elections. A peace deal would give his reelection prospects an unquantifiable boost among Americans of all political persuasions. It would even earn the president the right to the next Nobel Peace Prize.

If this approach does not work, what will the Palestinians have lost? A week or a month away from cozy Ramallah? But if it does succeed, it could mean peace at last for Palestinians and Israelis.

What can the Arabs do?

The second thing the Palestinian leadership should do right now is call for a summit of a select group of Arab leaders with varying regional and international influences – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt and the UAE. The Palestinians should set aside their animosity toward the UAE. These Arab leaders and the Palestinians would brainstorm and draw a new strategy to leverage their relationship with Trump and the UAE’s move to normalize relations with Israel. Simultaneously, they could create incentives for Israel, incrementally rewarding it for significant concessions leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The UAE’s ambassador to the US wrote recently that with the UAE’s new agreement with Israel, “The UAE will remain an ardent and consistent supporter of the Palestinian people – for their dignity, their rights, and their own sovereign state.” He then added, “We closed the gate on annexation and created new dynamics in the peace process.”

Let’s be realistic. The world has changed since 2002. Israel currently has several covert relations with a number of Arab countries and is hoping that they will follow in the UAE’s footsteps and establish ties with it. However, in contrast to the Oslo Agreements in ‘93, the Arab people are not ready for such a diplomatic shift without an unwavering commitment by Israel to establish a viable Palestinian state.

The new Arab strategy would lay out the path and conditions for establishing Arab-Israel relations contingent upon real progress on the Israel-Palestine front. In other words, the UAE’s move would not be followed by countries like Bahrain or Oman unless serious and tangible progress is made on the ground on the Israel-Palestine front.

Now, these “unthinkable” ideas, as outlandish as they might appear to some, are by far a better strategy than the state of inertia that the Palestinian leadership has adopted at the present time. If peace is not worth the gamble, then what is?

About the Author
Professor Bahbah taught at Harvard University, where he was the associate director of its Middle East Institute. He was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem-based al-Fajr newspaper, and served as a member of the Palestinian delegation on arms control and regional security.
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