Why do the Palestinians say no?

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Why did the Palestinian Authority (PA) instantly and vehemently reject the Trump Vision for Peace as it was announced on January 29, 2020?  Why indeed had PA President Mahmoud Abbas already rejected it, sight unseen?  Why had he and the Palestinian leadership refused even to contemplate the economic leg of its Middle East peace plan: Peace to Prosperity?  Subtitled A New Vision for the Palestinian People, the 40-page document set out in considerable detail a scenario under which, with a huge input of funding and economic aid, prospects for the Palestinian people would be immeasurably transformed for the better.

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In the document’s own words: “with the potential to facilitate more than $50 billion in new investment over 10 years, Peace to Prosperity represents the most ambitious and comprehensive effort for the Palestinian people to date.  It has the ability to fundamentally transform the West Bank and Gaza, and to open a new chapter in Palestinian history – one defined not by adversity and loss, but by freedom and dignity.”

The economic plan, covering all aspects of Palestinian life from education and health care to taxes, roads and railways, was based on three pillars – the economy, the people and the government.

A main goal of the economy pillar – to connect Palestinian-occupied areas to regional and global markets – included integrating Gaza and the West Bank “through an efficient, modern transportation network, including a transportation corridor directly connecting” the two areas.  “Billions of dollars of new investment will flow into various sectors of the Palestinian economy,” said the document, which also detailed how “hospitals, schools, homes and businesses will secure access to affordable electricity, clean water and digital services.”

The second pillar aimed to “improve the well-being of the Palestinian people” through educational programs, vocational and technical training, expanding the female labour force, reducing Infant mortality  and increasing average life expectancy.

The third pillar proposed a range of reforms in the Palestinian government including reforming the tax structure and increasing exports and direct foreign investment.

Root and branch rejection from Palestinian leaders and spokesmen was immediate.  Abbas said “there can be no economic solution before there’s a political solution.”

There are several causes for this downright refusal to engage.

One is how deep “anti-normalization” has penetrated the Palestinian psyche.  For hard-line supporters of the Palestinian cause, “normalization” (or tatbia in Arabic) is the worst political sin.  It has been adopted as a term of abuse by the Palestinian leadership and by organizations which support them, including the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.  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 must be viewed as collaboration with the enemy, the “colonial oppressors” of the Palestinian people.

The elephant in this room is the fact that every day some 130,000 Palestinians cross into Israel from the West Bank to work for some 8,100 employers. They bring home about 5 billion shekels ($1.4 billion) each year. Their average salary is two-and-a-half times the average salary in the Palestinian autonomous areas.

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In addition to the Palestinians who work in Israel, around 36,000 are employed in Israeli firms in the West Bank, many earning up to three times the average Palestinian wage. Israel has established several industrial zones there, comprising around 1,000 businesses in all.

This on-going demonstration of Palestinian-Israeli joint activity on a massive scale is rarely referred to by the anti-normalization activists, perhaps because of the sheer number of Palestinians, multiplied by their families, involved.

So turning a blind eye to this inconvenient aspect of the issue, the anti-normalization campaign has devised a long and detailed rationale for its programme.  One of the document’s core assumptions is that Israel is a “colonial oppressor”, a charge made repeatedly in the paper.  It is shorthand for the argument that Israel was created as the result of invasion and occupation of the Holy Land by Western colonialists, and that the Jewish people have no historic connection to it.  As a logical consequence, the anti-normalization document calls for resistance to Israel’s existence.

The paper asserts that joint cooperative initiatives aimed at fostering peace “serve to normalize oppression and injustice.”  The two-state solution is rejected out of hand. In its view acknowledging Israel’s right to exist at all “advocates an apartheid state in Israel that disenfranchises the indigenous Palestinian citizens”.

It seems clear from what BDS and its supporters write and say that, in their minds, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not over and Israel is a temporary phenomenon that, given sufficient time and effort, will be eliminated,. 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.  The PA leadership seems to view this prospect with equanimity.

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Then, of course, there is the undoubted fact that the PA leadership  has painted itself into a corner. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, it has glorified the so-called “armed struggle”, making heroes of those who undertake terrorist attacks inside Israel, and reiterating the message in the media and the schools that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian and the creation of Israel was a national disaster. The end-result of its own narrative is that no Palestinian leader dare sign a peace agreement unilaterally with Israel based on a two-state solution. They dare not even give a tacit nod towards peace negotiations.  The consequent backlash from within the Palestinian world, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, have made it impossible.  The only hope of progress towards an eventual accord lies in the creation of some sort of Arab umbrella – a group of Arab states prepared to back a return to the negotiating table.

The PA position seems to be that Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is carved in stone and is non-negotiable, that it is a case of take it or leave it.  That is not the situation.  In the words of the document itself:   “We hope that the parties will seize the opportunity, embrace this vision, and begin negotiations.”  A Palestinian leadership genuinely committed to reaching an accommodation with Israel could take the proposals in Vision for Peace as a starting point for negotiations, especially as there is so much on offer to the benefit of the Palestinian people.

The plan proposes four years in which to come to an accord.  It is time that should not be wasted in unproductive rejection for rejection’s sake.

About the Author
Born in London and educated at Oxford University, Neville Teller has worked in advertising, management, the media and the Civil Service, and has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years. He has also written consistently for BBC radio, and in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2006 was awarded an MBE "for services to broadcasting and to drama.” He made aliyah in 2011.
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