Palestine Dispatch

by Mouin Rabbani
published in MER283

Palestinian adherents of what is known as the peace process never quite entertained the illusion that the United States is a neutral arbiter, let alone honest broker in matters Israeli-Palestinian. Rather, they allowed themselves to believe that, precisely on account of its close relationship and therefore influence over Israel, Washington would be an effective mediator and as such serve as the midwife of Palestinian statehood. It was on this basis that Palestinians embraced the framework of exclusive American sponsorship of bilateral Israel-Palestinian negotiations divorced from the existing international consensus, devoid of a clear timeline or agenda, and lacking effective arbitration or meaningful enforcement mechanisms.

As evidence mounted that successive American administrations were using their influence to support rather than temper Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories, the dwindling band of advocates of the 1993 Oslo Accords, most prominently Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, held fast to their convictions, much as late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was fond of asserting that in the Middle East, the United States holds “99 percent of the cards.”

President Donald J. Trump’s December 6, 2017 recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, and of the Holy City as Israel’s capital, without any commensurate recognition of Palestinian rights, in this context disrobed not one but two emperors. For Palestinians, it represents the terminus of Abbas’s pursuit of unicorns. They have almost unanimously come to understand that he not only has no alternatives, but is incapable of changing course and presiding over the implementation of a different strategy. This realization explains why Abbas’s approval ratings are even lower than Trump’s, and why his condemnations of Trump’s forfeiture of Washington’s assigned role have done nothing to revive his credibility or legitimacy.

It has been evident for some time that there is a need to develop a new strategy to more effectively confront Israel. Trump’s December declarations made it a matter of urgency. Whether one believes the “Deal of the Century” allegedly being prepared by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is as lopsidedly pro-Israeli as press reports have indicated, or dismisses it as hot air by a Metternich wannabe, Palestinians have come to realize they are facing a collective moment of truth. The challenge they face is to transform the various and often contradictory political slogans being circulated into a coherent program.

In this respect, talk of a “third intifada” falls considerably wide of the mark. In contrast to the 1987–1993 and 2000–2004 uprisings, Palestinians today lack both the organizational infrastructure that sustained the former and supportive leadership that nurtured the latter. To the contrary, the Palestinian body politic remains bitterly divided, and whether formally or otherwise, its various leaderships are committed to maintaining quiet with Israel. They fear that popular mobilization will serve their Palestinian rivals and undermine their authority rather than Israel’s control.

From the vantage point of the Occupied Territories and the Palestinian diaspora, the Trump era presents Israel with a unique opportunity to liquidate the Palestinian cause, and to do so at a moment of unprecedented Palestinian weakness and Arab disinterest—or worse. Thus, Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, which US officials asserted does not seek to pre-determine the final status of the occupied east of the city, was claimed by Israel as doing precisely that. It has also emboldened Israeli leaders to formulate further proposals to annex additional West Bank territory and, in what is best described as an attempt at demographic engineering, redraw Jerusalem’s boundaries in order to increase the number of Jewish residents and reduce the proportion of Palestinians in the city. [1]

Similarly, the campaign led by Nikki Haley, the extraordinarily vulgar US envoy to the United Nations, to terminate US contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has led to renewed efforts by prominent elements of the Israeli leadership to abolish altogether the agency that serves Palestinian refugees. Palestinians, in other words, are experiencing 2018 as a year in which Israel, supported to the hilt by Washington, is seeking to permanently settle the status of the West Bank and transform the Palestinian refugee question into a matter to be resolved by the Arab states.

The existential threats and enormous challenges notwithstanding, many Palestinians nevertheless see a silver lining to Cloud Trump. His proclamations, it is widely believed, have driven the final nail into the fantasy that Oslo can lead to an end to the Israeli occupation, and made it impossible for the Palestinian leadership to participate in further attempts to revive its framework or engage with Plan Kushner. The purported American proposal whereby a Palestinian entity based in the Gaza Strip and extending into Egyptian territory in the Sinai Peninsula would cede the West Bank to Israel and renounce refugee rights, is therefore seen as stillborn. [2]

On the ground, Palestinians note they successfully defeated Israel’s attempts to alter the status quo at the Haram al-Sharif (also known as the Temple Mount) during the summer of 2017, and did so without effective support from their leaders or political movements. Since that time, there has been continuous talk that the status quo could not hold for much longer. Few ventured an opinion on what form the next eruption would take or how it would come about, but many suggested it would need little more than a spark. Trump has delivered what might better be characterized as an explosion, and Palestinians throughout the Occupied Territories, and indeed around the world, have consistently taken to the streets since then. Whether they can sustain prolonged mobilization independent of existing political movements, compel the latter to actively participate, or develop alternative frameworks of their own, will become apparent in the coming weeks and months.


[1] Ilan Ben Zion, “New Israeli Law Would Make It Harder to Divide Jerusalem,” The Washington Post, January 2, 2018.
[2] Ben Caspit, “Trump’s Peace Deal: A Gaza-centered Palestine,” Al-Monitor, January 8, 2018.

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