As the dust settles on a significant week at the UN, in which America's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital was rejected roundly by the international community, the Palestinians have made a commitment not to engage with the US in any future peace talks. Where, though, can the Palestinian President turn to next? What options does Mahmoud Abbas have?
A divided, and in some cases apathetic, Arab world has been experiencing political turmoil since the confrontation emerged this year between the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on one hand, and Qatar on the other. As young pretenders to their respective countries' thrones experiment with war and politics, the US and Israel can take a back seat in the hope that Arab states will weaken each other without any interference on their part.
Palestine is no longer a priority for some Arab countries, except where they can exert pressure on the weak leadership in Ramallah to please Washington and, in turn, the Israelis. Like turkeys voting for Christmas, they believe that they will be protected from Iran if they can deliver the complete submission of the Palestinians to Israel's wishes.
The EU, which rejected Trump's decision on Jerusalem, saw some of its own members abstain in the vote in the UN General Assembly. The Russians and Chinese, important members of the Security Council, also have limited, if any, influence on Israel or the Palestinians when compared with the Americans. The Palestinian President's options for an alternative "honest broker" that Israel will accept are thus non-existent.
It has taken Mahmoud Abbas over two decades to admit that the US is so biased in favour of Israel that it cannot play an even-handed role in the search for a just peace. Why it has taken him so long to realise this so obvious fact is a mystery. Successive US administrations have taken their lead from Israel on this issue. It was always the case that any "offer" to the Palestinians would be put to the Israelis first, and that only after they had applied their "security" test to it and given the green light would it be put to the Palestinians.
This formed the core of an exchange of letters between former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and George W Bush in 2004. "In light of new realities on the ground," wrote the then US President, "including already existing major Israeli population centres, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." He added that, "The United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel's security, including secure, defensible borders, and to preserve and strengthen Israel's capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats."
While Bush referred in his letter to UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as forming the basis for negotiations, the Israelis worked hard to ensure that the talks which followed were not referenced to any such international decisions.
The Palestinians fell into this trap by failing to insist on international law and Security Council Resolutions as the basis for any talks. This included the last "serious" attempt to bring peace by Barack Obama's Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013, which not only failed to bring peace but was also immediately followed by the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza. Kerry persuaded the Palestinians to return to talks lacking in any reference to international law.
Before leaving office, Kerry laid much of the blame for the failure of the talks he had initiated on the Israelis after, of course, reminding everyone of Obama's "deep commitment to Israel and its security". His explanation for the Obama administration's abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 2334 concerning the illegality of Israel's settlements — instead of the usual veto of anything critical of Israel — was that the vote was about "preserving" the two-state solution. "That's what we were standing up for: Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state, living side by side in peace and security with its neighbours."
The incoming Trump administration disassociated itself from Resolution 2334, with the president-elect himself promising that "things will be different" when he entered the White House. He has certainly been true to his word. While asking Netanyahu to "hold back on settlements", Trump moved away from the US position on two-states: "So I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like."
Trump's pro-Israel advisers have spent months meeting with the two sides to the conflict. While promising to put a deal on the table soon, this came to a halt when Trump announced on 7 December his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and intention to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv.
Following the US veto of a Security Council resolution rejecting its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and then a large majority voting to pass the same resolution in the General Assembly, Abbas announced last week that he is severing his ties with the US when it comes to the peace process. The Palestinians, he declared, will not "accept any plan from the US" due to America's "biased" support of Israel and its settlement policy. He also said that the US plan — Trump's much-vaunted "deal of the century" — "is not going to be based on the two-state solution on the 1967 border, nor is it going to be based on international law or UN resolutions."
In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to state that, "Abbas declared he was abandoning the peace process and did not care which proposal the United States brings to the table." Putting a spin on it that is incomprehensible to the rest of the world, Netanyahu told his weekly cabinet meeting, "I think that once again, something clear and simple emerges: The Palestinians are the ones who do not want to solve the conflict." He will do or say anything to distract us from the glaringly obvious reality that it is Netanyahu's far-right government that is fully to blame for the lack of peace.
As for Mahmoud Abbas, he has to choose between acknowledging his failure over 23 years to advance the cause of the Palestinians, or going back to the drawing board, assessing the strengths of the Palestinian people and looking for ways to raise the cost to Israel of its military occupation of Palestine. The higher the cost, the quicker that Israel will address the Palestinians' grievances as they seek to attain their rights.
The Palestinian Authority President's starting point should be to develop a liberation strategy that excludes reliance on non-Palestinians for its delivery, whilst making it supportable by others, both governments and citizens alike.
The elements of such a strategy should include the following:
- The development of options for raising the cost to Israel of the occupation.
- A declaration that the Oslo Accords are null and void. Israel has done this in all but name.
- To demand UN Security Council protection for the Palestinian people.
- To end the PA's security coordination with the occupation, as it is both immoral and a free service to Israel that brings no benefits whatsoever to the Palestinian people.
- To ask the UN to set up a coordination mechanism for necessary interaction with Israel on humanitarian matters.
- To ask the Arab League to withdraw the Arab Peace Initiative immediately.
- To restate that the Palestinian refugees' legitimate right of return is non-negotiable.
- To demand that any future negotiations with Israel are based on equal rights for all who live between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, and acknowledge that this is the only way to achieve real peace.
- To call on the UN Secretary-General to adopt the ESCWA report — "Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid" — that he has withdrawn.
- To launch cases at the International Criminal Court against Israel and Israeli officials immediately, starting with the illegal settlement issue.
- To offer unqualified support for the entirely peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and call for its escalation.
- The immediate lifting of all sanctions imposed by the PA in Ramallah on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
- The implementation of the reconciliation agreement with Hamas.
- An escalation of the peaceful and popular resistance movement in Palestine.
- The launch of a reformed and inclusive Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
- A serious engagement with Palestinians in the diaspora and a move towards elections to the Palestinian National Council.
Many of the points listed above should have been guiding principles in the past, but were overlooked in the PA's pursuit of a pointless "negotiations first and last" policy which has failed by any measure.
Such a strategy will come with a price. It will bring isolation to the Palestinians and will have an impact on them in ways that will make their lives even more difficult. However, the alternative is that they continue to be oppressed with no end in sight if the current policies remain in place. The Palestinians have shown on numerous occasions that they are prepared to pay the necessary price for liberation but they must be told how this will be achieved by a leadership that they have had the chance to elect.
Any objective assessment will conclude that the current leadership is incapable of delivering what the Palestinians deserve and to which they aspire. It must therefore stand aside and allow the younger, talented generation of Palestinians come to the fore and lead their people. The New Year cannot be allowed to bring more of the same at the hands of Abbas and his team. He has other options; he must exercise them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.