The vexed issue of normalization reared its ugly head again recently, and Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas faced a dilemma of the PA’s own making.
For hard-line supporters of the Palestinian cause, “normalization” (or “tatbia” in Arabic) is the worst political sin any Palestinian can commit. It brands any form of joint Palestinian-Israeli activity as a form of treachery, and has been adopted as a term of abuse by the Palestinian leadership and organizations which support them.
In September 2016 the PA arrested four Palestinians for sharing a cup of coffee with Jewish community members in the West Bank town of Efrat, claiming that it was a crime for Palestinians to meet socially with Jewish settlers because it promoted normalization.
In December 2018 a Palestinian court in Ramallah sentenced a Palestinian-American to imprisonment for life for brokering the sale of a house in the Old City of Jerusalem to an Israeli organization.
In June 2019 the PA sacked Radi Nasser from its education ministry and removed him as council chief of the West Bank village of Deir Kadis after a social media video showed four Israeli neighbours joining in the celebrations at his son’s wedding.
In short, in the view of the anti-normalizers, no form of joint activity, cooperation or dialogue with Israelis is acceptable – even engaging with Israeli peace activists who have the best of intentions towards them. All such undertakings must be viewed as collaboration with the enemy of the Palestinian people.
The latest episode was triggered when reports appeared on social media lambasting Fatah officials for attending a meeting in Tel Aviv organized by the Israeli Peace Parliament, a group consisting of several former Knesset members and ministers, as well as left-wing peace activists and Arab Israelis. It was soon revealed that the PA delegation were members of the “Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society”.
The committee was established by the Palestinian leadership in December 2012 specifically to strengthen relations with sectors of Israeli society. In its first meeting, it agreed to send letters to the leaders of Israel’s political parties, including Likud led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It also targeted members of the Israeli Knesset and various groups in Israel including those representing Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopian Jews and Jews from Arab countries. Dialogue channels were opened for discussions with research centers and other organizations inside Israel.
Subsequently Mohammed al-Madani, the head of the committee, secured visits by Israeli delegations to the PA headquarters in Ramallah, where they met Abbas. Meetings of all sorts have been held frequently ever since. The committee has established personal relations with many Israelis, and members have participated in conferences on Israel’s national security, such as the Herzliya Conference on Counter-terrorism in September 2019.
All this fully sanctioned activity, heavily weighted towards normalization, was occurring at the same time as the PA leadership was giving strong support to the anti-normalization activists, and punishing Palestinians found guilty of the ultimate offence.
Keeping both balls in the air eventually proved too difficult. When news of the latest joint Israeli-Palestinian encounters broke, a storm erupted on social media led by Palestinians enraged by Madani’s activities. Charges of treachery were hurled at him for promoting normalization “with the Israeli occupation.”
As the personal abuse intensified, Madani was dismayed at the ominous silence from Abbas’s headquarters in Ramallah. He decided to resign in protest at the PA leadership’s failure to defend him and his colleagues.
Finally Abbas decided to tackle the dilemma. Refusing to accept Madani’s resignation, he met with members of the committee on February 24, and expressed full support for its work despite the “difficulties and problems they have been facing.” He acknowledged that some Palestinians didn’t understand the nature and importance of the work of the Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli society, but emphasized that in meeting with Israelis “to persuade them that we want peace” it was acting in the national interest.
“We sent you on a mission,” he told them, “and we won’t abandon you.”
In short, the PA leadership want to eat their cake and have it too, for they will find it politically impossible to sideline the anti-normalization campaign, supported by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for resistance to Israel’s existence. Any joint project, it says, “that is not based on a resistance framework serves to normalize relations.”
It seems clear from what BDS and its supporters write and say that, in their minds, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not over and the state of Israel is a temporary phenomenon that will be overthrown, given sufficient time and effort. Any attempt at reconciliation, at normalization, undermines this objective. It is a sad fact that by refusing to accept that Israel is a permanent presence in the Middle East, by advocating continuing resistance and turning their backs on any attempt at reconciliation, they are essentially condemning generations of Palestinians, as well as Israelis, to a perpetual state of conflict.
There is a glimmer of hope in the fact that the PA, while endorsing anti-normalization on the one hand, is not abandoning its own committee engaged on strengthening relations with Israel on the other. But how long can it sit on that fence?