Analysis: After the Abraham Accords – what next for the Palestinians?

In their steadfast opposition to the historic agreement signed last week between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have found a rare common cause.

Earlier this month, President Mahmoud Abbas hosted a meeting in Ramallah which brought together all 14 major Palestinian factions – including Hamas and its fellow terror group, Islamic Jihad – for the first time in nearly a decade.

That meeting, moreover, has reportedly paved the way for Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas to sign a cooperation agreement. Delegations from both factions arrived in Istanbul yesterday to begin talks today, with the Fatah delegation led by its secretary-general Jibril Rajoub.

While reconciliation agreements have repeatedly fallen apart in the past, this new move underlines the president’s desire to present a united front in the face of what is viewed as the UAE and Bahrain’s betrayal of the Palestinian cause – a betrayal made word by the failure of other Arab states and organisations, such as Saudi Arabia, the Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to utter a word of condemnation of the Abraham Accords. Indeed, in protest at the Arab League’s silence, the PA this week quit its role as the organisation’s rotating chair.

The vitriol poured by Hamas and its Iranian paymasters on the deal was predictable. The terror group is opposed to any accommodation with Israel. As Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh bluntly stated during the Ramallah meeting: “We as Hamas will not recognise Israel, and will not renounce an inch of Palestinian land, and Israel will remain our enemy. Our choice is one of total resistance to it.”

But, for Abbas, the choice is less clear-cut and his actions risk repeating a pattern of failing to seize opportunities which has characterised his 15-year presidency. In 2008, for instance, the president rejected an offer from then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert to establish a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital on 93.7 percent of the West Bank and the whole of Gaza together with compensating land swaps equivalent to 5.8 percent of the West Bank. Five years later, Abbas failed to sign up to the framework agreement (which Israel had accepted) presented by the then US secretary of state John Kerry. That failure – and his decision to opt instead for one of many failed “unity” deals with Hamas – led to the collapse of the Obama administration’s second attempt at brokering an end to the conflict.

The PA has also boycotted the current US peace process, breaking off relations with President Trump’s administration following its decision to unilaterally recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017. Trump’s subsequent actions – slashing US aid to the Palestinians, as well as support for peacebuilding coexistence work – failed to pummel the PA into submission, while the US president’s “deal of the century” published earlier this year offered the Palestinians the worst terms they’ve received from an American administration since the onset of the Oslo process in the mid-1990s.

Abbas’ rejection of Trump’s proposals – which envisaged a rump Palestinian state on barely 70 percent of the West Bank – was inevitable and understandable. But his negative stance towards those Arab states normalising relations with Israel – characterised last weekend by the PA as “an alliance with the Jews” – may represent a grave miscalculation. As the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, argued: “The policy of the empty chair has not served the Palestinians well, and indeed has not served the Arabs well.”

Abbas claimed this month that it was “us who have stopped annexation to this point”. In reality, it was the prospect of a peace agreement with the UAE which led Benjamin Netanyahu to indefinitely suspend his plans to begin annexing the 30 percent of the West Bank assigned to Israel by Trump’s plan. The PA’s actions – suspending security coordination with Israel and refusing to accept the transfer of tax revenues which it collects on the PA’s behalf – have proved a massive own-goal: placing further pressure on a Palestinian economy already reeling under impact of the covid-19 pandemic.

Reviving the Arab Peace Initiative

The UAE and Bahrain’s agreements with Israel may appear to have blown a hole in the strategy proposed by the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative – which offered a normalisation of relations with Israel only in return for a Palestinian state – but this, some commentators suggest, is too crude an analysis.

“By affirming the API’s linkage between normalisation and Palestinian issues, the UAE deal may light a parallel path toward gradually advancing the Palestinian-Israeli track,” suggested Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to Abbas who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy last month. “According to this approach, partial progress on the latter track can be met with similar-size steps between Israel and Arab countries.”

Dennis Ross, a former Clinton and Obama administration Middle East negotiator, similarly argued last week that “the UAE example can be used to foster a resumption of diplomacy that can change the stalemated reality between Israelis and Palestinians”. The Palestinians, he suggested, should “adjust and recognise that Arab outreach to Israel can actually build their leverage … why not engage Arab states in a discussion in which Palestinians suggest a menu of actions that Israel should take in response to Arab public outreach to the Jewish state?”

As both Ross and al-Omari indicated, the PA’s menu could range from action on major issues like settlements (in particular, persuading Israel to halt construction outside the settlement blocs which abut the 1967 Green Line and are set to become part of the Jewish state in any likely future agreement), to concrete steps on the ground, including Palestinian freedom of movement; housing construction in Israeli-controlled Area C (which could both address the shortage of Palestinian housing and provide a much-needed boost to employment); economic progress; and an expansion of PA jurisdiction in additional areas of the West Bank.

This menu of options could, in turn, be linked to the degree of normalisation – from full relations to trade and security agreements or simply participation in sports, scientific, and cultural events inside their borders – Arab states are offering Israel. As Ross noted: “The more politically visible and meaningful the steps Arab states take toward Israel, the more politically significant would be their ‘asks’ of Israel.”

Such an approach is not without risk for Abbas and would surely be exploited by Hamas. Moreover, it would require him to rise above the suspicions and rivalries which dog Palestinian internal politics, in particular, the president’s bitter feud with Mohammad Dahlan, a key adviser of the UAE’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, who is seen by many as likely to have acted as the “secret broker” of the UAE-Israel deal. Dahlan, a former PA Gaza security chief and adviser to Abbas, was forced out of the West Bank in 2011 and went into exile in the UAE. Abbas’ fear of Dahlan’s future intentions – and the suspicion that he still hopes to succeed him – is shared by others, such as Jibril Rajoub, who also have their eyes on the Palestinian presidency.

The waiting game

But, for now, aside from attempting to build a common front with the rejectionists of Hamas, Abbas seems instead determined to adopt his traditional pose of patient inaction. “The inclination among Abbas and his confidants in the PA is to wait,” reported the Times of Israel’s Palestinian affairs expert, Avi Issacharoff, this week. “An expert at waiting, Abbas has his eye on the upcoming US elections, and is optimistic.” Abbas correctly assumes that the election of Joe Biden would usher in a less hostile White House. At the same time, Abbas, Issacharoff wrote, also believes that a Trump second term might see the US president pivot towards a more balanced approach, once freed of the imperatives of re-election and the need to court his supposedly pro-Israel evangelical base.

Nonetheless, as he passes the 15th year of his five-year term, Abbas has little to show the Palestinians for his strategy of attempting to isolate Israel internationally. And in gambling on both the result of the US elections – and, potentially, the attitude of a victorious Trump – he may once again draw a blank.