Challenges Facing Palestinians and Israelis

On October 22, 2020, the UCLA Center for Middle East Development and its partners hosted a public online event to discuss the impact of the recent Abraham Accords between Israel and two of its Arab Gulf neighbors: the UAE and Bahrain. The event’s speakers were Ibrahim Dalalsha, a Palestinian political consultant based in Ramallah, and Ehud Yaari, an Israeli Middle East TV commentator and analyst. They discussed the challenges and opportunities this agreement presents for Israeli-Palestinian relations and assessed options for future action.

From the Palestinian perspective, Ibrahim Dalalsha explained that the Abraham Accords are one of many blows contributing to Palestinian erosion of trust in the peace process over recent years. The Trump Administration’s actions, including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, defunding UNRWA, and proposing the Trump Plan, have caused substantial harm to Israeli-Palestinian relations, making the Accords a particularly serious blow in an already long list of setbacks.

The Accords have caused Ramallah to lose much of the bargaining power that the Arab Peace Initiative (API) provided. The API presented a framework in which Israel would be granted normalization with the Arab world in exchange for ending the occupation of Palestinian territories. However, by taking steps toward normalizing relations with Israel without an end to the occupation, Bahrain and the UAE have reduced Israel’s motivation to meet Palestinian demands for statehood. Dalalsha was quick to note, however, that this loss of leverage would not cause Palestinians to back down from their demands. Rather, it may only lead to further entrenchment and extremism on both sides of the conflict.

Dalalsha predicted that in spite of the deteriorating relations, the Palestinian leadership will remain consistent in its messaging and its actions: the PA will continue pursuing nonviolent means of resistance and will maintain its commitment to security. It will remain dedicated to finding a political solution built on the parameters Palestinians have called for repeatedly in the past. Additionally, Fatah and Hamas will continue working toward a lasting reconciliation agreement that is acceptable to both parties and to the international community.

Ehud Yaari argued that the Abraham Accords mark two substantial developments for the region and for Palestinians in particular. The first is that the Accords indicate a move toward a regional alliance that goes beyond insular bilateral agreements. Such an alliance would likely expand existing regional cooperation in the East Med Organization and the Red Sea Council. The Agreement could also present an economic opportunity for the Palestinians: the newly formed $3 billion Abrahamic Fund may pledge substantial sums in investments in the PA territories, and if Palestinians play their cards well, this could spell assistance for crucial infrastructure upgrades, including a network of railways to the Gulf.

The second development brought on by the Accords is a further weakening of the current Palestinian leadership. Yaari argued that the Palestinians’ crumbling economy, coupled with their continued failure to exert leverage over Israel—now made more pronounced by their loss of veto power over Arab-Israeli relations—has led to a serious reckoning among Palestinian leadership as to how to proceed. In the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah party face a critical lack of support among the Palestinian people. Yaari suggested that this dissatisfaction has already led to discussions in some quarters of staging an attempt to “storm the Muqata’a” to oust Abbas. He pointed to the fact that tens of thousands of disgruntled Israeli-employed Palestinian workers have been joining a new union in response to perceived PA exploitation. Yaari added that the PA instability has led to a chaotic scramble for Abbas’s seat and a dangerous “pseudo reconciliation” between Fatah and Hamas which would only serve as a temporary fix to a deepening crisis.

Dalalsha acknowledged the lack of trust in the Palestinian leadership, but rejected Yaari’s assertion that an attempted overthrow of Abbas was imminent, stating that if there had been such a plan “we would have heard (about it) here in Ramallah.” He also pointed out that one of the reasons Abbas is unpopular among Palestinians is because of his pragmatism and accommodation toward Israel. Dalalsha further warned that rocky internal Palestinian dynamics should not stand in the way of Israeli engagement with current Palestinian leadership—in the same way, that Israel’s domestic political turmoil does not stop Palestinian leadership from engaging with Netanyahu as Israel’s current leader.

Despite their differing perspectives on the likely Palestinian reaction to the Abraham Accords, the two speakers agreed on several issues. Foremost, they agreed that this development would not lead to a long-term break in Palestinian-Arab relations, despite Palestinian frustration and a sense of abandonment. Although the PA has withdrawn its ambassadors from Manama and Abu Dhabi, both speakers expected normal relations to resume in the near future, explaining that Palestinians are dependent on the Arab Gulf states and that they continue to view themselves as a part of Arab society. Dalalsha stated, “We’re Arabs at the end of the day, and nothing will change that.” Yaari and Dalalsha also concurred that the trajectory of the conflict over the coming years largely depends on the outcome of the US elections. Both Israelis and Palestinians will need to adjust their approach, depending on which candidate prevails.

The speakers expressed optimism that ultimately the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be resolved, though they were unsure how long this would take. Dalalsha pointed out that despite the many setbacks, long-term progress has been made in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Yaari added that a negotiated two-state solution was the only viable option for peace, but that in the meantime, Israel would be more restrained with regard to the PA and would not allow the West Bank or Gaza to collapse.

You can also watch the entire webinar by clicking here.