It is beyond question that the recent normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain have seriously weakened the Palestinian negotiation position. This explains the angry reaction of the Palestinian leadership and its denunciation of these deals as a betrayal. Indeed, the type of agreements pursued by the Trump administration have placed the Palestinians further than ever from achieving a just and peaceful resolution of their conflict with Israel.
The above notwithstanding, the normalization deals present a potentially unique opportunity for the Palestinians to liberate themselves from the illusion that the negotiations paradigm launched by the 1993 Oslo accords can one day lead to the establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian state. This in turn should encourage the Palestinians to develop a new framework for their struggle for independence in the post-normalization era.
The support of the Arab states has always been viewed by the Palestinians as a strategic asset. With several Arab governments recently normalizing their relationship with Israel in the absence of an agreement to end the conflict, this asset has been compromised. The UAE-Bahrain-Israel accords have further unbalanced the already asymmetric relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, and left Israel with no incentive, such as access to Arab markets, to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians.
Despite the potential damage to the prospects of a comprehensive peace, the recent normalization agreements should nevertheless serve as a wakeup call for the Palestinians.
Specifically, they should serve to disabuse their delusional leadership of the notion that liberation can be achieved through the Oslo Accords. This leadership has desperately chased the elusive objective of Palestinian statehood for over twenty-seven years through the paradigm of bilateral negotiations, and the major outcome has been an increase in the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank from almost 100,000 in 1993 to over 550,000 today. Furthermore, the Palestinian leadership probably needed to be shown that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, that Israel never accepted, is now being abandoned by the very Arab governments that proposed it.
In addition to the above, normalization should force competing Palestinian parties to develop collective frameworks for action. For over thirteen years, the Palestinians have been sharply divided between the Fatah movement, which embraced negotiations as the means to achieve self-determination, while Hamas adopted armed resistance. In reality, Fatah is not negotiating, and Hamas is not resisting, while the strategic inflexibility of both is paralyzing the Palestinian national project. Now, for the first time since 2007, the Palestinian factions unanimously rejected the UAE-Bahrain-Israel normalization agreements as a threat to the national cause.
Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, Arab support for the Palestinians has helped them diplomatically and financially, but has fallen short of meaningful assistance to resolve the conflict with Israel. An unintended consequence of the nature of such aid is that it encouraged an attitude of dependency entitlement by the Palestinian leadership towards Arab governments. Normalization has created a new reality; Palestinian leaders will have to reform and earn their role as representatives of a just cause if they want to continue in their positions.
Historically, there are have been three competing paradigms to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: armed resistance (1965-1993), negotiations within the framework of Oslo and the Arab Peace Initiative (1993-present), and the Trump administration’s self-proclaimed “Deal of the Century” (2018-present). While the first two failed to achieve Palestinian objectives, the “Deal of the Century” aims for full and unconditional surrender. For these reasons, and in an era of Arab normalization with Israel, the Palestinian response requires the creation of an alternative, fourth paradigm that combines soft power with popular resistance.
The major feature of Palestinian soft power is the moral force of their legitimate struggle for freedom, justice, equal rights, and dignity, which can be instrumentalized to galvanize international solidarity in a manner similar to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Extensive and mobilized international solidarity can help the Palestinians address and at least partially redress the effect of the power imbalance with Israel that has consistently prevented a just solution of the conflict. Decades of experience have demonstrated that in any military confrontation Israel holds the upper hand. Yet, as the examples of South Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States have shown, the active mobilization of moral legitimacy, an arena where the Palestinians hold the upper hand, can play a critical role in neutralizing the advantages provided by superior armed force in a confrontation with systems of discrimination and injustice.
At the same time, such soft power also has its limitations. The Palestinians will thus have to additionally engage in campaigns of popular resistance on the ground. Here it is worth noting that while armed resistance and even more so negotiations have excluded the majority of Palestinians, popular resistance as for example during 1987-1993 uprising, is inclusive and characterized by widespread participation. Indeed, popular resistance can serve to transform the Palestinian struggle into a truly national endeavor in which the entire people rather than just a narrow elite are actively engaged.
If we accept the need and efficacy of such a paradigm shift, the question is who can lead it, and whether the current leadership is capable of taking on a multi-dimensional resistance project. Simply put, and particularly in the post-normalization era, such a transformation requires inspiring and credible leadership that enjoys legitimacy and trust among those it represents. In this respect, Mahmoud Abbas is no Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr. Nor can he produce the institutional reform and mass mobilization is required.
What Abbas and the rest of the Palestinian leadership can however do is to facilitate the emergence of new leaders, of whom there are plenty, that can engage in this kind of national struggle on the ground and with international public opinion. As Marwa Fatafta and Alaa Tartir recently argued in Foreign Policy, Palestinians need to reclaim the PLO and produce a “new generation of leaders to deliver accountable governance and freedom.” In this respect, reforming and rejuvenating the PLO has been at the core of efforts to end the Fateh-Hamas schism. Ensuring that it once again represents all Palestinians regardless of location is a prerequisite to resolving the current national crisis.
Furthermore, inclusive national dialogue supported by the current leadership can definitely present a tangible approach to leading the Palestinian national project in the post-normalization era. Hence, a rare meeting in mid-September that involved all rival Palestinian factions who united to put together a strategy that responds to the challenges presented by the UAE-Israel normalization can be a step towards ending division and moving forward. It was followed by several other meetings to form a new national strategy and allow other political parties to be part of the discussion.
A successful national dialogue can additionally lead to a new social contract that allows new leadership to emerge. The success of such dialogue cannot be solely measured by the consensus of participating parties, but will need to be operationalized through new and long overdue elections. Free and fair elections would not only produce new leaders, but provide them with the popular and political legitimacy to conduct the paradigm shift required to confront the challenges in the post UAE-Bahrain-Israel normalization era.
The nature of the Palestinian national struggle has changed considerably during the past decade. Only a new leadership can respond to the resultant challenges and operate effectively in this new environment. The required paradigm shift, and not least popular resistance, requires a mentality and approach that those who have been entrenched in the Oslo process for a quarter century neither possess nor can develop. The Gulf-Israeli normalization has created new political realities in the region. Only a new Palestinian strategy, that puts moral power and popular resistance at its center, can meet the challenge.