The UAE-Bahrain-Israel peace accord is a positive development. This is not because it signifies a new era of peace in the region, but because the betrayal by the Arab world will force the Palestinians to rediscover their own struggle and forge ahead with national unity. The Arab world’s facade of genuine support for the Palestinian cause and the equitable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a major hurdle to Palestinian mobilization against Israel’s domination for decades. It has been used by the out-of-touch Palestinian leadership to continue its commitment to the Oslo framework, which Israel uses to entrench its stranglehold over Palestinian life. Now, finally, that facade has been ripped away like a stubborn Band-Aid.
Ironically, the Gulf’s open embrace of Israel was facilitated by the demise of the two-state solution. Continued Israeli settlement expansion and the entrenchment of Israel’s matrix of control over Palestinians forced Arab attempts at a two-state solution (like the flawed Arab Peace Initiative) into utter irrelevance.
As the Arab consensus on Palestine evaporated into insignificance, individual rulers were free to pursue their own interests with Israel. From surveillance technologydesigned to repress to military deals, there are substantial mutual interests between Israel and its Arab partners.
Even the talking points used to validate this deal in the Arab world hold no weight. The UAE proclaimed that Israel would freeze West Bank annexation in exchange for peace after the deal was announced in August. The text of the accord, however, makes zero mention of annexation. It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic.
The Palestinians need a new plan
The Palestinians’ biggest failure was sticking to the two-state solution despite all the signs it would only drive them to ruin. They refused to recognize the obvious fact that their fate lay solely in their own hands. The United States, Europe, and their Arab brethren haven’t come to their aid. This is all the more tragic considering virtually no attempt was made to craft an alternative vision despite organic civil society initiatives from the boycott campaign to the March 15th protest movement from 2011 and the more recent Gaza March of Return.
The divide between the Palestinians and the Arab world will define the next chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reality is that the shocking lack of unity on display this week is nothing new. For decades, the Palestinians have been left to fend for themselves as Arab rulers paid lip service to their cause. The signing of the Abraham Accord between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain, countries that have never fired a shot at each other, only makes official this long-standing reality.
This is not to say that there isn’t popular Arab support for Palestine. If anything, support has only grown stronger over the years. Consider Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, where public hostility to ongoing occupation created a cautious balance between warm diplomatic and military co-operation alongside cool cultural relations. While the countries have had peace for over 40 years, the Egyptian people remain steadfast in their support for Palestine despite Hosni Mubarak’s acquiescence to Israel.
When Egyptians finally removed Mubarak from power in 2011 and freely took to the streets, one of the first things they did was set the Israeli embassy on fire. This is emblematic of the deep and vibrant support among Arabs for the Palestinian cause.
The Palestinian leadership needs to seize on the support it enjoys in the Arab world and use it to bring about fresh pressure on the international community to push back against Israeli intransigence. It’s a tall order but given the gravity of recent events, a seismic change is long overdue.
A crisis is an opportunity
Back in 2011, I wrote the following (with my friend Jesse Rosenfeld) about the nascent March 15 protest movement in the West Bank:
The Palestinian Authority has clearly shown its fear that Palestinian civil society will directly take up the struggle for liberation, negating the PA’s role and contesting its investment in a negotiations process that has failed in the eyes of Palestinians. It seeks to pre-empt further protest, realizing that Palestinians could build on the model of popular resistance of West Bank villages as they react to the demands for change sweeping the Arab world. The PA now fears this could be the writing on its wall.
The utter abandonment of the Palestinian cause and the inability of the Palestinian leadership to come up with new approaches to the struggle should push civil society into a new stage of resistance. That resistance doesn’t require Palestinians to confront Israel’s occupation right away. The first step is dismantling the divides in Palestinian society itself and forging ahead with genuine national unity. There have already been murmurings between Hamas and Fatah as a result of the UAE deal. It might take time but these are the contours of Palestine’s next chapter.