The contemporary regional and international environment is characterized by two main trends: polarization and fragmentation. Here, I take a brief look at each of these, and then relate them to the Question of Palestine.
Taking polarization first, at the international level the main protagonists are the West on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other. From the vantage point of the West, tensions with Russia are primarily political and military/security in nature, while those with China are primarily economic and geopolitical. The rivalry with Russia is being played out, more than anywhere else, in the Middle East, not only in Syria but also Iran, Turkey, Libya, Egypt, and to a lesser extent Palestine and Gulf energy markets. With the exception of the Iranian file, tensions with China to date have had only marginal impact on the Middle East.
Among the more important developments during the past decade is the emergence of Russia as the indispensable actor in the Middle East, displacing or at least challenging the role once played by the United States. One need only look at the crisis along the Syrian-Turkish border, precipitated by the US government, and Moscow’s role in managing the resulting chaos, including relations between Syria, Turkey, and the Kurds, to its own geopolitical benefit. One explanation is that, unlike the United States, Moscow has shown a willingness to commit the resources to achieve its policy objectives. Another is that Moscow’s policy objectives are, in contrast to those of Washington, more realistic and achievable. A third is that unlike the former Soviet Union, Russia seeks to maintain good relations with everybody: Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey and the Kurds, Iran and Israel, Fatah and Hamas. The United States maintains relations only with its allies and clients, effectively dealing itself out of a meaningful role in numerous arenas, or limiting its activities to those of a spoiler.
At the regional level, the primary driver of polarization is the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and their struggle for regional influence. A third pole, consisting of Turkey and Qatar, also aspires to a regional role, and although not aligned with and often opposed to Iranian policy, acts primarily in opposition to the axis led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This reflects the pro-Islamist, and particularly pro-Muslim Brotherhood orientation of Turkey and Qatar, and the Saudi-Emirati determination to eradicate Islamist movements that seek power through popular mobilization and/or advocate republican forms of government. Saudi Arabia looks to the Arab world as its natural sphere of influence, one where it should enjoy leadership by right. Iran sees the region as its insurance policy, particularly against what it views as the continued determination of its adversaries to isolate Tehran and pursue an agenda of regime change. It is worth noting that what is termed Iranian or Shia expansionism in the region is less the product of a purported Persian grand strategy than of Tehran’s ability to profit from the strategic blunders of its adversaries: Israel in Lebanon, the United States in Iraq, Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip. Israel has been a key proponent and active promoter of regional polarization, reflecting its conviction that this will marginalize if not liquidate the Question of Palestine, strengthen relations with conservative Arab states, and weaken and isolate its adversaries.
It is noteworthy that those Arab states that in previous eras set the tone of the region’s politics, particularly Egypt, but also Algeria, Iraq, Syria, and to a lesser extent Lebanon and Kuwait, are today of only secondary importance. There is no indication this will change in the foreseeable future. This is significant because their involvement with the Question of Palestine has traditionally been more active and assertive than those leading the region today.
International and regional polarizations also have mutually reinforcing dynamics and consequences, often feeding upon each other. To give one example, it is unlikely that the Palestinian schism could have been sustained at the level and for the duration it has persisted without the active involvement of various regional and international coalitions. One could make similar observations with respect to Syria, Yemen, and Libya.
Turning to fragmentation, perhaps the best way to visualize it is to think of a puzzle composed of increasingly smaller pieces. At the international level, what we call the West is marked by unprecedented tensions if not hostility between the United States and Europe, between the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe, and between what former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld termed Old and New Europe. The United States under present management seems determined to dismantle the institutional order that it established after World War II, and to replace the so-called rules-based international system championed by the European Union with one where raw power is the sole arbiter of international relations. In this neo-Machiavellian world view, might makes right not only in practice but also in principle. More than the US renunciation of the Iranian nuclear agreement, the decisions taken by the Trump administration with respect to Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the PLO, and of course the Palestinian refugee question are the clearest expressions of this policy. In this respect, we should take particular note of the failure of either the Europeans or the international system and its institutions to obstruct these policies in a meaningful manner. And these are not going to reverse themselves once Trump is no longer in office.
Within the region, the pieces of the puzzle are even smaller. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), since the eruption of the Qatar Crisis in 2017, is at war with itself, and in Yemen, the key allies prosecuting that conflict, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are now engaging in open warfare with each other. Before the Qatar Crisis, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey were constantly feuding for control over the Syrian opposition they were collectively supporting. The rupture between Hamas and Damascus, and until recently with Iran as well, makes it difficult to speak of an axis of resistance when its politically most symbolic member was based in Doha and working overtime to return to the good graces of Riyadh. In a similar vein this coalition’s newest member, Iraq, has been dependent on US military support for its very survival. And although formally aligned, Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow have pursued different and at times incompatible policies in Syria. Extending this analysis of fragmentation and strange bedfellows to the Palestinian arena, suffice it to say that while both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are opposed to Hamas, Riyadh has been fairly consistent in its support of the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas while Abu Dhabi sponsors his sworn enemy, Muhammad Dahlan.
Fragmentation in the Middle East has additionally produced weakened states. More than generating a larger role for so-called non-state actors, it has created a reality in which such movements, like Hamas, the Houthis, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, and ISIS, have acquired quasi- or explicitly governmental roles and functions. Lebanon seems to be the only example in which a form of power-sharing between a non-state actor (i.e., Hizballah) and the state has been achieved. In other cases, polarization and fragmentation are once again mutually reinforcing dynamics.
Turning finally to the implications for the Palestinians, a comparison with previous eras is instructive. The regional polarization of the 1960s and international polarization of the 1970s helped catapult the Question of Palestine to center stage. The Lebanese Civil War transformed the PLO into a central actor. Today’s crises and conflicts have, by contrast, marginalized the Question of Palestine and, whether in Syria or Gaza, effectively reduced it from the pre-eminent international political question to a local humanitarian matter. The world today, although very different in character, once again deals with the Question of Palestine as it did between 1948 and 1973: as an issue to be resolved on the basis of a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Arab states, which addresses only the humanitarian needs of individual Palestinian communities.
The best evidence that this approach will not succeed lies in the so-called “Deal of the Century” promoted by Trump and piloted by his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. To put it simply, the much-touted Plan Kushner does not exist. This is in contrast to other aspects of the Trump administration’s agenda vis-à-vis the Palestinians that are being implemented. And much as certain Arab leaders would like to and may have persuaded themselves that they can normalize relations with Israel absent Palestinian self-determination, they remain unable to raise the Israeli flag in their capitals in the absence of a Palestinian banner in Jerusalem. Those operating under the illusion that the Arabs are no longer bothered about the fate of Palestine and the Palestinians need only refer to the inaugural statements by the newly elected president of Tunisia, Qais Said, who equated normalization with Israeli with “high treason”, and whose open embrace of the Palestinian cause according to analysts helped propel him to victory.
These and other encouraging realities notwithstanding, complacency and inertia will get us nowhere. The graveyard of history is littered with just causes. Among the strategic errors committed by the Palestinians is that they have immersed themselves in rival coalitions rather than stand above them as the one issue that unites the region. Their inability to speak with one voice on account of their enduring schism makes that voice weak, factional rather than national, and easy to ignore. And it is in large part on account of this schism that rival Palestinian movements have submerged themselves in polarized coalitions and become beholden to them. In short, the Palestinians need to find a way to trouble, to disrupt the order of things, to once again make the world heed their demands and recognize their cause as more than a humanitarian crisis, and to elevate the Palestinian reality as a litmus test for the kind of world we want to live in.
The challenge for Palestinians today is to revitalize their national movement and find a way to make the polarization and fragmentation over which they have little control work for rather than against them. The efforts to revitalize the Palestinian refugee question present one such opportunity. These are doubly important because perhaps even more than Jerusalem, the refugee question serves as the battering ram to dismantle the concept of Palestinian self-determination and provide the Question of Palestine with an exclusively Israeli response.