I was asked by a TV journalist recently if it isn't better for the Palestinian Authority to engage in dialogue with the US to improve the "deal of the century" rather than cut contacts. "You are [after all] a professor of conflict resolution by means of dialogue and negotiations," she added.
It seems that she is not the only one thinking like this, diplomats included. Such logic assumes that negotiations with the Trump administration in Washington do not mean agreement with the deal, and that there is a margin that should be used to improve the terms of the deal, as long as it remains the inevitable outcome. They also ask why the Palestinians refuse to negotiate with Trump, but resort to the "moderate" Arab states to send their messages and, in doing so, give a degree of power to these countries, even though they are widely believed to have abandoned the people of Palestine.
Dialogue is one of the most effective means of resolving political conflict, especially if there is political will; it is used at the appropriate time; and the major players include decision-makers experiencing a particular political crisis. However, in the case of Trump's project to liquidate the Palestinian cause, dialogue has lost one of its key pillars and the deal has lost the potential for improving its terms.
This is for a number of reasons, including the large gap between the US and Palestinian positions regarding the terms of the deal, so that the sovereignty of East Jerusalem, for example, is not even being discussed, as it was during the Yasser Arafat-Ehud Barak negotiations in 2000, or even the Mahmoud Abbas-Ehud Olmert talks in 2008. Instead, Old Jerusalem has been completely excluded from the arrangements of Trump's deal, which was followed by the denial of the Palestinian refugees' right of return and keeping the illegal Israeli settlement blocs intact, as revealed by most of the leaks and statements about the "deal of century".
Furthermore, US negotiators Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman stand to the right of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu politically; he defied former US President Barack Obama for eight years and foiled his entire negotiating approach. How can the PA improve the terms of the deal with those who stand to the right of Netanyahu?
Perhaps most importantly, many indicators suggest that the Arab moderates support the Trump efforts for a deal, as Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir has pointed out publicly. This means that these countries are practically excluded from the conflict equation, which also means that there is a gross imbalance in the balance of power. Given that negotiations are a reflection of the balance of power, this prevents any possibility of improving the terms of the deal. What will the Palestinians negotiate with?
Hence, it is only possible to thwart the "deal of the century", not improve it. The real element of power possessed by the Palestinian leadership is a boycott. This is reflected in several examples, including reports of the frustration experienced by Kushner at the Palestinians' refusal to talk to him. This prompted him to give an interview to Al Quds to send his messages to the Palestinians through one of their own newspapers, despite the fact that he very rarely gives interviews to the media and this surprised many journalists in the US who are following the situation. Hints by Kushner and Greenblatt about changing the Palestinian leadership are a true indication of the pain they are feeling because that leadership is not responding to or interacting with them.
The Palestinians' strength lies in their weakness, because without them there can be no "legitimate deal" and legitimacy is a key factor in the success of particular agreements in international politics. The US went to Iraq in 2003 without the cover of "international legitimacy" from the UN or Arab League, and it failed, despite the tens of thousands of soldiers it deployed and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the invasion. However, the danger lies in the fact that the Palestinian leaderships appears to believe that rejection alone will stop the deal and nip it in the bud; in other words, make it "stillborn". This is inaccurate and dangerous, as the US-Israeli right wing alliance will go ahead with the deal's implementation without "legitimacy" (the only Palestinian power card) and will find some "moderate" Arab states willing to cooperate with them. They will fail, ultimately, but until they do, there will be devastation that will be difficult to repair. "After the destruction of Basra, there is no point in lamenting," is an old Iraqi saying. For "Basra", read "Jerusalem".
In order for the Palestinians to thwart the deal and prevent "the destruction of Jerusalem", they need to do more than shut out Kushner and Greenblatt, and curse US Ambassador David Friedman in public. They need what the Palestinian people always call for, unity; an end to division; and a united national popular movement, such as that which toppled the Civil Administration and tribal associations' project in the early 1980s. The Palestinian leadership is not being asked to fight the US, but rather to lead an effective and peaceful popular movement, in the form of civil disobedience. The people of Palestine must be inspired by their own history and their means of confrontation, of which the 1982 intifada against tribal associations was not the only example; the 1936 strike is also an inspiration that the Palestinians need now more than ever.
We cannot improve the "deal of the century" by passing messages through "moderate" Arab leaderships. Yasser Arafat never relied on the Arab leaderships to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians, despite the fact that the Arab position at the time was better. He maintained the independence of the Palestinian decision-making process and paid dearly for doing so. Some of the official Arab statements issued nowadays regarding the need to establish a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, do not necessarily mean that "Old Jerusalem" is a condition for accepting the Trump deal. They are ambiguous and could be referring to Abu Dis and the surrounding villages.
The Palestinian leadership can thwart the deal of the century by leading a comprehensive campaign of civil obedience that stops the American train from moving towards implementation. In doing so they would prove Greenblatt wrong when he said that the Palestinians do not determine anything regarding the deal. The leadership can take action today to thwart it, instead of waiting until "the destruction of Jerusalem" actually takes place, because at that time "there will be no point in lamenting".
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 1 July 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.