The Collapsing Arab Consensus and Options for the Palestinian Leadership

President Mahmoud Abbas, who is also the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), characterized the agreement to normalize relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel as a “stab in the back of the Palestinian cause.” Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the Executive Committee of the PLO and long-time negotiating official, described it as the birth of “Arab Zionists.” With the UAE and perhaps other Arab states moving toward normalized diplomatic relations with Israel, the Palestinian leadership is now urgently faced with the task of choosing how to address the expected deficit in Arab support and to devise a national plan for leading the Palestinian people’s struggle for national rights into the future.

Abbas and the Arab Consensus

Few events define the Abbas era of PLO chairmanship and Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership more than the Arab Peace Initiative (API). The API was put forward by then-Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah in 2002 and was affirmed by the Arab League in its Beirut summit in March of that year. At the time, the United States was just beginning its post-9/11 march to war in Iraq while the second intifada was raging in Palestine as Israeli tanks besieged Palestinian cities. For the George W. Bush Administration, which had close ties with the Saudi monarchy, a semblance of engagement on Arab-Israeli peace served as a useful foil as the United States sought to invade Iraq. Further, in line with the administration’s objectives of launching a “war on terror” and democratizing the Middle East, Bush Administration officials turned away from former PA president and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat—who was besieged in his compound in Ramallah—and began to promote the idea of Palestinian elections as a precursor to peace talks, in line with the “Roadmap for Peace” for which Washington advocated.

The year 2004 brought Arafat’s death and George W. Bush’s letter of commitments to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon regarding settlement blocs. Elections in 2005 resulted in Mahmoud Abbas succeeding Yasser Arafat as president of the PA as well as PLO chairman. That year, the Arab Peace Initiative was also affirmed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which meant that it was the consensus position of over 50 Arab and Muslim states.

The Arab Peace Initiative was important for several reasons. First, it brought together in a consensus position a wide range of Arab and Muslim states that had varying interests and relationships with Israel and the United States. Second, it offered Israel normalized relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds, an unthinkable shift from years prior. Third, it codified a sequence, specifically that normalization—the payoff—would follow Israeli-Palestinian peace. Fourth and finally, it made international law the framework in which peace had to be achieved and this made it part of the Arab consensus.

The API vs. Settlements

The emergence of the API around the time of the Bush-Sharon exchange is an important start to what would become a dynamic that characterized the next decade of peace processing between Israel and the Palestinians. As negotiations around an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would continue, with a Palestinian state as the end goal, both the Bush and Obama periods of the peace process were defined by Israeli settlement expansion. The Israelis sought to normalize the notion that they would keep the large settlement blocs, amounting to nearly 10 percent of the occupied West Bank; at the same time, the Palestinians saw settlement expansion as a violation and sought to prevent the normalization of Israeli land acquisition by force. With little leverage, the Palestinians struggled to stop Israeli-imposed changes on the ground but worked to ensure they ceded no diplomatic and political ground by rallying Arab states and other international actors to hold the line on international law. The key instrument for doing so was the Arab Peace Initiative.

To be sure, the Palestinians succeeded in holding the Arab consensus together for so long that Washington sought to have the API amended to include the possibility of land swaps between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

To be sure, the Palestinians succeeded in holding the Arab consensus together for so long that, despite being the weaker party by far and living under Israeli military occupation, Washington sought to have the API amended to include the possibility of land swaps between the Palestinians and Israelis. This was desired in order to create more political space for negotiations to go forward as the Israeli electorate returned to power, one right-wing government after the other.

Time and again, the API was invoked—by the Arab League, the OIC, and the Quartet that was helping the peace process (the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations). Abbas made it his central talking point in capitals around the world. If Yasser Arafat was known for his intricately folded headdress, Mahmoud Abbas would be known for parading the Arab Peace Initiative everywhere. The challenge, of course, would be to make sure it does not merely become a decorative prop; and as Arab normalization with Israel picks up steam, that might just be what ends up happening.

Will the Consensus Collapse?

The United Arab Emirates is the third Arab country to establish relations with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan. Egypt, however, got Sinai back in the process and Jordan had water, territorial, and economic interests tied up in its accord with Israel as well. What sets the UAE accord apart from the others is that there was no direct and immediate compelling national interest involved behind the deal. Even if one is to believe the payoff for the deal was Washington’s agreement to supply the UAE with the F-35 advanced jets, which is yet to be seen, upgraded military hardware is hardly reason enough to break from the regional consensus. It is because of this that the UAE still needed to publicly rationalize its decision as helping the Palestinians by preventing annexation—again, yet to be seen—since abandoning or betraying the Palestinians simply for some fighter jets is unlikely to be an appealing message in the Arab world.

Since the deal, Abu Dhabi seems to have been left out in the cold and appears to have been played for a fool.

Since the deal, Abu Dhabi seems to have been left out in the cold and appears to have been played for a fool. While the UAE spoke about stopping annexation and acquiring F-35s, the Israelis and Americans spoke in unison about annexation being paused, not stopped, without acknowledging the issue with the planes or promising to deliver them. Seeing this, others in the region might have gotten cold feet. Sudan, Bahrain, and Oman were thought to follow suit but have so far balked. America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the president’s son-in-law and envoy, Jared Kushner, got engaged throughout the region in what appeared to be an effort to shore up support and perhaps twist arms in Khartoum, Manama, and Muscat.

The Saudis, for their part, have stuck true to the Arab Peace Initiative, and that should not be surprising at this stage. After all, the API was a Saudi initiative and was touted as a major part of the legacy of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who is the immediate predecessor and brother of the current King Salman. Much has been made of the impending transition between Salman and the current crown prince, his son Mohammed, better known as MbS. The Arab Peace Initiative might well be one of the casualties of such a transition, when it happens; but at this moment at least, the Saudi position has been to maintain the sequence of the API: normalization in exchange for peace.

The consensus is undoubtedly weathering turbulent times, however, and the UAE and the United States will likely exercise leverage to help make sure that Abu Dhabi is not left standing alone. Therefore, what will be the implications on the Palestinian leadership of the final collapse of this withering consensus, one that has shaped much of the Palestinian leadership’s foreign policy for the past two decades under Abbas? What options could it consider?

A Break Is Coming

The Arab Peace Initiative is increasingly becoming a historical document with less and less relevance in the real world. This shift is not due to a change in Arab attitudes—not public attitudes at least, which continue to oppose normalization with Israel before peace with the Palestinians is reached. But there is an increasing, and undeniable, willingness by Arab regimes to throw in their lot with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump. This is due to shared interests around regime preservation, which are threatened by Iran’s political and military presence as well as by demands for democracy. The API is also becoming obsolete because it no longer represents a reality on the ground; it is now but another casualty of the death of the two-states consensus in which the initiative is grounded. Indeed, if Israelis, Americans, and, increasingly, Palestinians no longer believe that is viable, why should the Arab states continue to hold the line?

The international community, including the Arab and Muslim countries that profess to support the Palestinians, have failed to deliver any just resolution from their dealings with Israel.

For the Palestinian leadership, the deteriorating consensus is a moment for reevaluation that arrives at a crucial time. The idea that the answer to the Palestinian struggle will come from outside has been tried and it has failed. The international community, including the Arab and Muslim countries that profess to support the Palestinians, have failed to deliver any just resolution from their dealings with Israel. In reacting to this reality, Palestinian leaders would seem to have three possible avenues for action:

  1. Give up on the statehood idea and give in to apartheid. This is precisely the fantasy of the Israeli right and Benjamin Netanyahu, likely their primary motivation for seeking to break the Arab consensus on Palestine. If, their thinking goes, the Palestinians can no longer count on Arab diplomatic backing, they will be forced to negotiate from an even weaker position and thus inevitably accept much less than their minimum aspiration. Statehood, however, was always a means to an end for Palestinians and never an end in itself. The point of statehood, and the sovereignty that is inseparable from it, is the ability of Palestinians to secure their own rights. The end of the statehood bid would thus not be the end of the rights struggle but, moving forward, would constitute a different phase of it. Even if the current Palestinian leadership felt pressured to the point where they would consider such an alternative, it is unlikely to ever be accepted by the Palestinian people, who would inevitably continue to rise up in protest against unending conditions of injustice.
  2. Pretend nothing is changing and stay the course. Not changing their approach would be a very familiar response for the Palestinian leadership, based on their record. After all, they have remained committed to the statehood project despite nonstop settlement expansion, the continued reelection of right-wing Israeli governments, the deterioration of Palestinian institutions, and the loss of faith by their public. The demise of the Arab consensus could just be added to the list. But agitation from another direction will continue to make this more difficult over time; a younger generation of Palestinians who knew nothing but the failures of the Oslo process since the 1990s will be pressing for a different direction. The price of inaction for a leadership overseeing a perpetual crisis will eventually come due.
  3. Build power from within. A different response from the Palestinian leadership would be to turn inward—and not into the all too familiar smoke-filled rooms of the old guard, but rather to reach out and enfold the Palestinian people more broadly. This could be the moment to realize once and for all that no one—not the international community, not international law, and not even the Arabs—is coming to save the Palestinians. It could further be an opportunity to reconnect with popular mobilization efforts and institutions, which the leadership has allowed to decay, and with Palestinians across Palestine and across the world, from Yafa to Haifa, to Gaza, Jerusalem, and the diaspora. These communities are certainly not in the league of possessing powerful F-35s, nor can they claim to represent dozens of regimes, but they are a different type of “facts on the ground” from which Palestinians can derive strength and build leverage. This path will not be a short or easy one, but it would afford Palestinians an opportunity to build the kind of power they need to chart a different course with Israel.

A younger generation of Palestinians who knew nothing but the failures of the Oslo process since the 1990s will be pressing for a different direction.

The collapse of the Arab consensus comes at a time when the two-state solution consensus is evaporating and as Mahmoud Abbas approaches the second half of his eighth decade. The stage is increasingly being set for significant change. The current Palestinian leadership has the opportunity to try to get ahead of it. Should they move past their old modus operandi and take this opportunity to change course, however, they could profoundly shape the future direction of the Palestinian struggle, for better or worse. If they don’t, they might be ceding the opportunity to those waiting in the wings in Ramallah, Gaza, or perhaps Abu Dhabi.