Return to the 1960s?

Maybe it’s just because I live in Israel now, but 95 percent of the news I’ve seen, read, or heard, is regarding Bibi’s meeting with the newly elected President Trump. The nation (Israel), it seems, is abuzz with reaction over what the two leaders said, what order they may have framed the topics in, and what the relationship will be like. While most people are certain that it’ll be a more fruitful, passive, and overall positive relationship than Bibi had with President Obama, no one really knows what the next few years will be like between these two. One thing however has been glaringly obvious since President Trump took the oath of office-his desire to check the growing international stage that Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinians have found themselves on over the past few decades.

Golda Meir famously said of Palestinians that, “It was not as if there was a Palestinian people in Palestine and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” Whatever side of the ideological debate you fall on (I happen to think Palestinians, as a nation, didn’t exist until they formed in opposition to Israel), isn’t important. What is important is that prior to the 1970’s and CERTAINLY before the Six Day War, the Arabs living in Gaza, and Judea and Samaria (The West Bank) tended to be grouped in with their brethren in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc. When the United States, or the UN, wanted to speak to or about the Arabs living in the territories, they spoke to Egypt or Jordan. This “neglect” of the Palestinian issue by the international community was a major reason that the Palestinians, under Fatah and the PLO banner, led by Yassir Arafat, turned to terrorism. Of course, other Palestinian splinter groups, (PFLP, DFLP, etc) also joined in. Terrorism, in the form of airline hijackings (Sabena, Entebbe), and massacres (Munich, Maalot) were the main way Arafat, Fatah, and the rest of the PLO thrust their conflict with Israel onto the global stage.

Since President Trump’s win in November, and his inauguration in January, much has been said about how US-Israel relations will improve in the absence of President Obama. We have heard that Israel will have a free hand to build in her ancient homeland (Judea and Samaria), the US Embassy will move to Jerusalem, and that the US will stand up to attempts to delegitimize and isolate Israel internationally. All of these are positive steps after eight years of daylight with an Obama administration that may go down as the worst foreign policy presidency in history. But one extremely noticeable change from the past is that President Trump, and his son-in-law turned aide, Jared Kushner have all but ignored the Palestinians.

Leading up to the Bibi-Trump meeting, rumors swirled regarding Kushner’s conversations with Arab leaders, but none of those rumors mentioned Jared speaking to Palestinian leaders. Whether Jordanian, Egyptian, Saudi, or Emirati, none of them were members of the Palestinian Authority, and that is extremely telling. This is even more so when viewed in the broader context of the key line in the press conference on Wednesday. That line being that President Trump is aiming for a Middle Eastern version of NATO that includes Israel, to check Iranian power legitimized under Obama.

The real question one should be asking now is, what will the Palestinians do in the next four years? They have had a former minister denied a position at the UN, the first salvo fired by a Trump administration prepared to take the steps President Obama was too cowardly to take, and now the PA must have a response. The truly scary thought is, what if the Palestinians revert to the last time they were a second thought in the Arab world, and a fourth or fifth thought in the international community?

The Arab world, the Palestinian’s main diplomatic patron (only barely ahead of an increasingly anti-Semitic Europe) realizes they have bigger problems than the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and that the Palestinian’s are historically their own worst enemy. Saudi Arabia is not the only Arab country to be more afraid of Iran than they are of Israel. No matter which direction one looks, whether east towards the deserts of Arabia, or west towards 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Palestinian’s are being relegated to the back-burner of world affairs.

One thing that Israeli leaders, and some (smart) analysts in the United States have been saying for a while, and especially the past half-decade is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not even close to the top of the causes of conflict in the Middle East. Bashar al-Assad isn’t cluster bombing, or gassing his people in Syria because of checkpoints in Samaria. The Libyan people didn’t depose Gaddafi because of Israeli apartments in East Jerusalem. The Middle East is a mess because Arab society has never been tied together higher than tribally, or at most, along sectarian lines. That is why Sunni and Shia/Alawite Muslims are killing each other today the same way their ancestors have since the 7th century.

Unfortunately, President Obama refused to acknowledge this and decided that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at the center of regional instability and acted as such. While I am loathe to credit President Trump for anything, one thing I must say on his behalf is that he is not as naive as Obama. President Trump sees that the countries in the region have “bigger fish to fry (Iran)” than whether Israel builds home for Jews to live in.

While President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu revel in their friendship, a friendship I am happy they have, one has to be worried how the Palestinian leadership will respond. Palestinian politics have, since day one, been filled with violence. When Arafat thought the Palestinian cause needed to be made popular, he unleashed waves of violence, and now, a man who suckled at the teet of Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, heads the PA. Abbas was Arafat’s deputy for decades, and if anyone learned the art of “popular terrorism” it would be Mahmoud Abbas. With his back to the wall, feeling as if he was placed in a corner, will he react the way his predecessor and mentor did many times?

All of this comes at a time when the future of the Palestinian movement is up for grabs. Abbas is closer to 100 years old than he is to 60, Gaza is ruled by Hamas, and the terror group is making inroads to the West Bank. Egypt is clamping down on Hamas’ tunnels (lifelines) through Sinai because of their ties to the ISIS affiliate there. This could either be the best, or the worst time for the Palestinian question to be sidelined in favor of a broader, regional, anti-Iran axis, but only time will tell if the Palestinians, backed into a corner, feel the need to lash out in the same fashion as when their grievances were last ignored — the Golden Age of international terrorism.

About the Author
Saul Mangel, a writer based in Netanya, specializes in international relations, the defense industry, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Originally from Philadelphia, Mr. Mangel holds a bachelor's degree in political science. While working at a leading intelligence firm in Israel, Mr. Mangel will continue to contribute to the Times of Israel.
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