21 August 2019

US, Israel and the Arab world- Palestine’s future?

Claudiu Nebunu

The escalation of US-Iran tensions in the Gulf seem to have shadowed the Palestinian file. After the US initiative on the elaboration of an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, Israel is more concerned with the September elections, and US with Teheran’s actions. But the problem is still out there… and events are showing that the situation is not going in the right direction… The long-awaited “deal of the century” proved to be rather an economic approach, lacking of a political solution. The Arab world seeks to adapt to the new realities… and Palestinian Authority’s (PA) future becomes doubtful!

Image source: Mediafax

An announcement that was…barely noticed

Abbas’s governments from West Bank and the Israeli authorities’ relations have worsened in the past few months. In February, Israel announced the blockage of 500 million Shekel (127 million euro) of the total amount owed to PA as VAT and border taxes the Jewish state got on products imported by Palestinians.

This sanction was imposed after paying PA some allowances for the families of imprisoned or killed Palestinians, after attacking the Israelis.

Abbas refuse to access any amount owed by Israel based on border taxes as long as it was incomplete, exposing PA to a serious financial crisis. These taxes are 65% of PA’s incomes.

Tensions have increased in the past few weeks, once with Israel’s measures to destroy Palestinians’ houses living in al-Hummus district (Sur-Bahir, East Jerusalem). At the end of last month (Thursday, 25th of July), the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, announced that PA will stop following the agreements with Israel, dues to increasing tensions. According to Abbas, the Palestinian leaders will found a committee to implement this decision. Also, Abbas confirmed that it was the time to apply the Cairo 2017 agreement, assumed by Egypt, on a reconciliation agreement between the political Palestinian groups, Hamas and Fatah.

The following day (Friday, July 26) Hamas issued a statement, backing Abbas's decision to cancel all agreements with Israel as a "step in the right direction". Hamas also called for an immediate announcement regarding the establishment of a national unity government, the cessation of Israeli-Palestinian coordination on security issues and the release of all political prisoners.

Abbas also called on the international community to take measures to stop Israel's illegal actions in the Palestinian territories, mainly on the demolition of Palestinian buildings, stressing that as long as Palestinian people’s rights will not be reestablished, there will be no peace and security in the region.

PA’s demise?

Initially a temporary government for five years, the PA emerged from the 1993 Oslo Agreement, signed by the former Palestine Liberation Organization (EPO) leader, Yasser Arafat and Israel. The agreements, got with US sponsorship, included a series of peace agreements, wherein Abbas was a key element in the negotiations.

In fact, Israelis and Palestinians are bound by bilateral agreements in various fields, from water and electricity management to security issues. If the Palestinians will not follow them, it could have repercussions on West Banks’ security (territory on the right coas of Jordan, under PA’s de facto authority, which includes enclaves with settlements or Israeli agricultural and urban settlements).

Abbas has also made similar statements on cancelling agreements with Israel in the past, but he did not go that further. But, implementing such a decision questions PA’s future…

The big picture

Before tensions between the US and Iran escalated, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict got new attention and interest, largely coming from the US President Donald Trump's peace plan initiative. Nearly two years after the idea was made public, following Abbas' meeting with Trump at the UN General Assembly (2017), plan’s full details are still unclear. The economic elements were launched during the conference held in June, in Bahrain, but the political elements are unknown and, according to media reports, will remain so until after the mid-September Israeli elections.

While doubts about the plan's prospects persist, for Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain there is at least one major reason to get in line with Washington on this topic: Iran.

Although these countries seem interested in promoting the plan and seem willing to pay for its implementation, it is unclear whether they actually have levers to bring both sides to the negotiating table.

Despite the lack of optimism, these states seem eager to do what they can, although this comes more than anything else from Washington's goal of gaining favors and strengthening cooperation with Israel to counter Iran. Indeed, Gulf states’ different perception of the Iranian threat seems to be one of the major factors shaping their position against Trump administration's plan.

What’s Gulf States’ position?

The Gulf states can be divided into two main groups, based on their stances against the American plan. Bahrain hosted the June meeting for plan’s presentation, supported by Saudi Arabia, which thus demonstrated the agreement, at least in theory, for the US initiative. The MFA emirate has stated Abu Dhabi’s position in a statement: "UAE supports all international efforts to support economic progress and increase opportunities in the region and alleviate people’s suffering, especially our brothers in Palestine."

Instead, Kuwait boycotted the event, signaling opposition to Washington's plan. Regarding Oman, the day after Presidential Counselor, Jared Kushner, announced meeting’s date, he issued a statement announcing his intention to open an embassy in Ramallah. In addition, Qatar has announced that economic prosperity cannot be achieved without reasonable political solutions for Palestinians.

In the middle of all these different opinions lies Iran and the different perceptions about the threat this country exposes. For UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Iran is a major threat, and this has been proved by recent attacks on the naval transport infrastructure and Gulf pipelines, presumed to be carried out/supported by Tehran or its representatives.

This is not Kuwait, Qatar and Oman’s case and, therefore, these states are not willing to confront Iran, preferring to focus on the Palestinian issue.

Iran- the common enemy!

Iran became a common threat for quite some time (since the 1994 visit of an Israeli delegation to Oman) calling on a closer link between Israel and the Gulf states. There are already limited cooperation relationships, although one can assume that, at least some of them, are not public. Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has been around for more than 70 years, could lead to these relations’ consolidation, an evolution that would allow Israel and the Gulf states to join forces against Iran.

Iran has a particularly tense relationship with the current Washington administration and acts more aggressively toward Israel and US, as well as towards some Arab states. Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen are a growing concern for both Saudi Arabia and Israel. Recent events in the region have increased the desire (or need) for cooperation among all countries threatened by Iran.

In order to properly face this challenge, the US, Israel and the Gulf states have sought closer collaboration in areas such as information exchange, economic relations monitoring and possibly additional ones, which are classified. Israeli’s goal -weakening Tehran's influence in Syria- is another common interest, as neither the US, nor the Gulf states want a strenghtened Iran in Syria. The US peace plan success would allow sides to rely on this cooperation and move it further, to other areas.

The Bahrain Conference

On June 25, 2019, US mobilized political leaders and businessmen in Manama to discuss "deal of the century’s” economy and promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. However, the key players were absent. The PA boycotted the event and neither the Israelis were officially present (only a few businessmen participated).

Plan’s economic elements presentation before the political ones, according to the Trump Administration, was based on the idea that establishing peace’s economic benefits first would make it more likely for Palestinians to join the negotiating table. Plan’s idea is to setting up a $ 50 billion investment fund, wherefrom 28 billion will be invested in the West Bank and Gaza, and the rest in neighboring countries (7.5 billion in Jordan, 9 billion in Egypt and 6.5 billion in Lebanon). The presented issues addresses a variety of socio-economic issues, such as health, law, education, infrastructure, economic growth and job creation.

Where to?

According to Kushner, the Trump administration is pleased with how the conference went, but now it they must wait for Israelis and Palestinians to make progress toward joint talks. However, no one mentioned it at the Bahrain meeting and media reports were pessimistic about the plan's outlook.

For now, most of the Gulf states seem willing to continue to join the negotiations, at least because of their links with Washington, but time will prove if they will succeed in convincing the Palestinians to join them.

As for Israel, the plan hardly qualifies as a debate topic now; elections scheduled for mid-September are much more concerning for policy-makers and the public.

Until plan’s political elements are published, there will continue to be speculation as to key Gulf states’ position and plan’s content.

In front of an increasing threat from Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain are interested in supporting Trump Administration's efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if that is possible. Even if the Palestinians will stand firm in their opposition to the "deal of the century," the Saudi-led bloc will win Washington's sympathy and enlarge its maneuverability with the Palestinians, allowing members to get closer to Israel to face the common enemy and counter the current Gulf crisis.

Israel, US and PA leadership

Since Trump’s administration took the power, in January 2017, there was an increasing pressure on Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to resign. It is clear that Washington no longer wants to have a dialogue with PA under Abbas’s leadership. Kushner described Abbas's decision to boycott the Bahrain conference as "hysterical and chaotic."

Meanwhile, various Israeli officials have also suggested that they hope Abbas will resign. Some, such as former Foreign Minister, Dore Gold, have gone so far as to claim that in six months, Palestinians themselves will demand leaderships’ change.

The current Israeli government has been actively trying to destabilize PA through various hostile measures, including blocking access to tax revenues. This, along with cuts in US aid, this has placed Ramallah under increasing financial pressures.

Although US and Israeli governments are trying to push the PA president on the edge of the rock, their post-resignation plan is unclear. In fact, various Israeli security officials have warned that such action could have dangerous consequences.

The battle for the line in succession

Discussions about the succession of Palestinian authority leaders have been going on for a decade. Abbas's presidential term officially expired in 2009 and was temporarily extended by the EPO that year. Since then, Palestine has not been able to hold presidential and parliamentary elections because of disagreements between Fatah and Hamas.

So far, the 83-year-old Palestinian president has resisted not only to resignation pressures, but also to those about assigning a deputy or a clear path to succession. But, as his health deteriorates, sooner or later, the problem of succession will have to be resolved. It is likely that strong pressures from US and Israel, as well as the discontent in the West Bank, which in the last two years has provoked a series of street protests, will hasten this process.

There are some people in Fatah, who are willing to replace Abbas:

- Mahmoud al-Aloul, the party's vice president and governor of Nablus, is one of the favorites. He is quite popular among Fatah supporters for his anti-Israel stance and has manages so far from staying out of any corruption scandal.

-Jibril Rajoub, one of the most prominent Fatah leaders, the president of the Palestinian Football Federation and the former head of West Bank’s Preventive Security Forces. He is famous for his major influence in the Palestinian intelligence services and the confidence he has from both US and Israeli security agencies.

- Majed Faraj, General Intelligence Service’s leader, is another strong candidate for Abbas' succession. He was the Palestinian president's confidant and led a Palestinian delegation to a meeting with US officials, despite the current PA boycott with the Trump administration.

Although all of these candidates support Abbas' boycott for the current US administration, their position may change if one of them takes he PA presidency. But this reorientation is only a possibility ...

The future PA?

Until one of the candidates changes position, the Trump administration goes to other prominent Palestinian figures outside Abbas' inner circle.

In the last two years, there have been a series of meetings between US officials and various representatives of the Palestinian political and business elites. At the same time, political figures believed to have close ties with Washington, including former Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, and Palestinian businessman, Adnan Majali, have reappeared on the political scene. The latter went as far as trying to mediate a reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, last year.

Before the Bahrain conference, the US administration managed to find a Palestinian businessman willing to ignore the boycott and attend the meeting - Ashraf al-Jabari, from Hebron. At the beginning of the year, al-Jabari, US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman’s, "friend" had announced that he would create a party in the West Bank, called Reform and Development, which would oppose Fatah.

It is unlikely for any of these personalities to have a real chance to take over Abbas' mandate, as they should win the election, but still put pressure on PA. Finally, the Trump administration wants PA to accept the peace plan and it is less important who will make it happen.

On the other hand, Israel does not just want to change Ramallah’s leadership, but also PA’s demise. Several current and former Israeli officials have repeatedly declared the Oslo Accords "dead" and suggested that it is time for the Palestinians to accept the defeat and no longer demand state recognition. A solution would be that both parts of the West Bank populated by Palestinians to be connected to Jordan and enjoy some form of administrative autonomy.

Others went even further, suggesting that Israel should seek PA’s demise and the establishment of Palestinian municipal rule based on clans and families. This envisages a form of self-governance, wherein Israel helps local leaders in different cities in West Bank to manage their administrative problems as they had done before PA’s establishment.

There are also opposing voices claiming that, if the PA begins to lose control over West Bank, coordinating Israeli security with Ramallah could be compromised and Hamas and other opposition elements may try to take power.

Declaring the Oslo Accords "dead" and considering PA’s dissolution ignores the fact that Israel was the main beneficiary and PA a guarantor of the Palestinian political passivity.

If this status quo is disrupted, what happens next may not be what Israel and US want…

Translated by Andreea Soare