A Palestinian Landscape of Unknowns

The Palestinian-American relationship has been in a state of paralysis since President Donald Trump’s declaration in December 2017 recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That relationship, while strained at various points over the years, has been a key pillar of the US-led pursuit of Middle East peace. Now, even the appearance of such a process is not possible. Unable to even pretend that Washington can deliver on brokering peace, Palestinian leaders seem stuck, having already devoted fruitless heavy political investments in Washington. Their paralysis is also a function of various unknown variables that will not be apparent anytime soon.

Realities in Washington

Before the current administration, US policy had been fairly predictable toward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Today, however, the only predictability in Washington is the American president’s temperamental tweets. Trump has been erratic on many issues, including on the Middle East, and in the course of one year he has reversed US policy on longstanding core tenets of US peace process policy, including on Jerusalem, the goal of a Palestinian state, and funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

Palestinian leaders are perplexed as to how to pursue, develop, and maintain a relationship with the United States.

It is hard for Palestinians to formulate their approach to Washington when the relationship is already strained and the White House is unpredictable. Compounding this is the fact that the individuals in leadership positions in the Trump Administration are constantly changing. Two important personalities who should be involved are the secretary of state and the national security advisor, with whom the Palestinians may have met a few months ago. However, these officials are either gone or may not be around long enough to continue impacting policy.

Additionally, there is the storm of scandals surrounding the Oval Office itself. Day after day, news breaks about the special counsel’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s activities and alleged connections to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. Numerous Trump campaign officials and associates have been implicated or charged with crimes, and some are cooperating with the special counsel. Besieged by these investigations, it is not clear what longevity President Trump can expect in the White House; and even if he manages to complete his term in office, the constant embattlement with the legal investigation is making the advancement of policy in any serious and sustained way nearly impossible. Looking at all of this, Palestinian leaders­—and all leaders engaging Washington—are perplexed as to how to pursue, develop, and maintain a relationship with the Trump Administration.

Regional Picture

Washington is not the only indecipherable variable as there is great speculation about impending change in Middle East regional dynamics. The US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, along with the Arab Spring and attempts by various players to predetermine its outcome to their liking, have led to a widespread and increased confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran in recent years, most destructively in Syria and Yemen. At present however, just as it seems that these wars are unlikely to produce actual political change on the ground, Washington may once again aggressively stir the pot as it ponders a more hawkish stance against Iran, in alliance with Saudi Arabia. While it is not clear what shape this new policy will take, a number of signals suggest that change is coming. President Trump has removed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had acted as something of a reminder of pre-Trump foreign policy. Tillerson’s departure likely has been welcomed in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, two places that seemed to grow tired of what they perceived as Tillerson putting the brakes on a Trump Administration heading toward confrontation with Tehran. Nominated to replace Tillerson at State is Iran hawk Mike Pompeo, who has been leading the CIA since January 23, 2017.

The changes came shortly after Trump spoke with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The day after conferring with Netanyahu, Trump welcomed Ambassador John Bolton to the White House for a meeting widely seen as a likely job interview for the opponent to the Iran nuclear deal to replace H.R. McMaster as national security advisor. After returning to Israel from meeting with Trump, Netanyahu told his cabinet he believed Trump would withdraw from the Iran deal in May. Since then, the same has been suggested by Senator Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Trump also met with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, who visited Washington this week and is regarded as the de facto ruler of the kingdom. The meeting solidifies an alliance between the Trump Administration and Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, two Gulf states that have been increasingly united in talking about the need to coordinate strategy in the region to confront Iran.

One of the few constants the Palestinians can count on is Israeli policy geared toward continued expansion in the occupied territories.

The White House also recently convened a meeting to discuss the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Even though the Palestinians did not attend this meeting, the Israelis along with various other Arab countries—including Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE–did. The White House readout of the conference stated that attendees discussed “concrete proposals for finding realistic, effective approaches to the challenges Gaza currently faces. White House officials presented specific project ideas, developed in conjunction with the NSC [National Security Council] staff and Department of State officials, which the AHLC [Ad Hoc Liaison Committee] may seek to fund through discussions at its upcoming meeting in Brussels.” No specific proposals were reported in the media, however, and the World Bank issued a report the following day stating that “Any effort at economic recovery and development must address the impacts of the current closure regime. Minor changes to the restrictive system currently in place will not be sufficient.” While it is unclear what, if any, concrete proposals came out of White House envoy Jason Greenblatt’s conference on the humanitarian situation on Gaza, what is unambiguous is where Greenblatt places blame: Hamas. Writing in an op-ed in the Washington Post, he is unequivocal that everything wrong in Gaza is Hamas’s fault; indeed, Greenblatt makes no mention at all of the impact of Israeli siege policies which the World Bank and most of the rest of the world understand as devastating to Gaza’s economic viability.

Why do the Americans, who have ignored Gaza’s de-development for years as Israeli siege policies have strangled the life out of its already weak economy, suddenly have concern for the humanitarian situation on the ground there? Greenblatt’s message, which overlooks Israeli culpability and blames only Hamas, is that there is a clear political motive behind the concern. That political motive could include finding a pathway for Mohammed Dahlan, the former Fatah leader in Gaza, to reenter the Palestinian political sphere. Dahlan has long been seeking to return and the states backing him in the region, principally the UAE, along with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, have been supporting this endeavor. Last year speculation was rising around the possibility of Dahlan’s return to Gaza when he was reportedly behind facilitating a deal that sent desperately needed fuel to Gaza through Egypt. Dahlan was also recently reported to have been at an infamous meeting in the Seychelles, now under the microscope of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, along with Trump- and Putin-linked individuals.

Washington has repeatedly touted the “ultimate deal,” claiming that it is not only close to presenting an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan but that the deal is possible due to changing regional dynamics that include warming relations between Gulf monarchies and Israel. How exactly Palestine fits into this new Middle East is not apparent and neither the Americans nor the Gulf monarchies have made it a priority to demand clarity on this point. Palestinians, for their part, are right to be wary of these developments. New polling of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and occupied Jerusalem shows that 70 percent of respondents believe that an Arab Sunni alliance with Israel already exists, while 65 percent reject the resumption of contacts with Washington after the Trump declaration on Jerusalem.

Palestinian frustration with the United States has never been more explicit. Not only has the Palestinian Authority ended contacts with the US administration after the Trump declaration on Jerusalem but in recent days, comments by PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas about the US ambassador to Israel were slammed by Washington in the most recent display of the deteriorating relations.

Israeli Government and Policy

Along with the uncertainty surrounding the Trump Administration and the palpable sense of change in regional dynamics, another variable is the longevity of the current Israeli government. In recent weeks, Israeli police have recommended that the attorney general bring indictments against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on counts related to several ongoing corruption investigations. It is unknown if or when the attorney general will act, but the recommendations have led to a storm of speculation over whether the Israeli prime minister can survive with his coalition intact. Other coalition disputes have brought Israel to the precipice of new elections which Netanyahu could win, despite the controversy surrounding him, thus garnering a public mandate to stave off the legal campaign against the prime minister.

It is hard to see how Palestinian leaders can be expected to enthusiastically join a pax-Americana while their constituents are being stripped of their national and human rights.

Netanyahu may or may not face indictments in the coming months. He may or may not resign. And he may or may not call for snap elections. While the Israeli political scene is constantly shifting rightward, there is a chance that without Netanyahu at the helm, a right-wing bloc would not be as successful. In the short term, there is a real possibility that the Israeli government could take a different shape. In sum, Palestinians are looking at Washington, Israel, and the region and seeing a very cloudy horizon, unsure of what they can expect in the short term.

One of the few constants the Palestinians can count on is Israeli policy in the occupied territories, which seems geared only toward continued expansion. This past week the Israeli transportation ministry announced plans for a railway system that would connect Israel to settlements deep inside the West Bank, including reaching the settlements of Ariel and Kfar Tappuah as well as the main road junction which sits just south of the major Palestinian city of Nablus. The project, which would be massive in scale and would not be complete until 2025, is reportedly going to cost over $1 billion. These plans underscore that Israel’s intentions over the long term are to remain firmly planted in the West Bank with no serious inclination toward withdrawing from settlements, including those deep inside occupied Palestinian territory. If anything is clear in both the short and long terms, it is that Israel will continue to entrench its presence in occupied territory.

Palestinian Conundrum?

At the moment, caught between this stagnating reality and opaque dynamics elsewhere, Palestinian leaders are doing little more than fuming about their predicament. This is the direct result of limited options, which is a consequence of the power imbalance. Palestinian leaders may not be able to formulate effective policy in the short term given all that is out of their control, but they can look at ways to remedy the power imbalance where possible. Options here include rebuilding internal legitimacy through a genuine reform process for representative institutions and expanding outreach efforts to international civil society actors that are less beholden to the political actors in the region and in Washington.

However, standing by and doing nothing, as seems to be the case now, is not an option. For their part, the Israelis are not waiting for anyone as they continue to expand their colonial presence on Palestinian land. They certainly are not waiting for the Palestinians to recover their balance.

Nor is the United States Congress waiting. On March 22, 2018, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) added a finalized version of the Taylor Force Act (TFA) to the Fiscal Year 2018 Consolidated Congressional Appropriations Act, which will make the TFA a law once the budget bill is signed by the president. Briefly, the bill will limit funds to the Palestinian Authority unless the administration can certify that the PA has taken “credible steps to end acts of violence against Israeli citizens,” stopped payments to people accused of “acts of terrorism,” revoked all laws allowing compensation for imprisoned Palestinians, and pledged to condemn acts of violence.

The US Congress and administration are adding more pressure, with implicit and explicit Israeli encouragement, while Israel’s occupation gets more entrenched and the Palestinians get increasingly marginalized. It is thus hard to see how Palestinian leaders can be expected to enthusiastically join a pax-Americana while their constituents are being stripped of their national and human rights.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here