By: Nour Odeh
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh, and Hussein Al-Sheikh, Minister of ‘civil affairs’, announced that relations with Israel would “return to normal” on 17 November 2020. The deci-sion entailed resuming security cooperation and accepting Palestinian tax revenues (collected on behalf of the Palestinian government by Israel in exchange for a hefty fee). The step was seen as a Palestinian attempt to ease the path for the incoming Biden administration.
The announcement sent shockwaves throughout the Palestinian political scene, including members of the PLO leadership who apparently were left in the dark about this decision. Almost immediately, PLO factions as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad issued stern statements of condemnation against what they described as a gratuitous decision that undermined reconciliation efforts and offered Israel a free gift.
While it is an absolute Palestinian imperative, achieving national reconciliation apparently scares some Palestinian leaders who fear that reconciling with Hamas could shut the White House doors before they have a chance to reopen. Observers also point an accusatory finger at Hamas, which has wasted a lot of time in the past months and refrained from sending its writ-ten commitment to holding elections. But while unity talks mosey on, the Palestinian cause bleeds hope and opportunities. In the end, allowing this division to persist will break the Pales-tinian political system’s back and render it ineffectual.
In addition to these steps vis-à-vis Israel, the Palestinian leadership has also signaled its readi-ness to deliver on other US-Israeli demands. Specifically, there is talk about amending the social security law for Palestinian prisoners and ex-prisoners as well as a review of the Palestinian curriculum that pro-Israeli occupation groups accuse of incitement. Both issues are domestic fireballs and these official signals will be read as acquiescence to Israeli pressure and misin-formation.
At their core, the latest developments reveal that enough power players within the Palestinian leadership have chosen to revert to the comfortable routine of repeating the mantra of years gone by while trying to win the good graces of the incoming U.S. administration by ticking off from the “deliverables” list required by Israel through the White House. This is informed by a misguided worldview that regards the relationship with the US as one of subservience and con-ditionality.
In exchange for returning relations with Israel to ‘normal’, these power players believe the Palestinian leadership would receive financial assistance and political engagement from the U.S. administration. But this quid pro quo failed to produce any breakthroughs in the past. In fact, the opposite happened. Successive Israeli governments understood that they would face no con-sequences for their intransigence, no matter how egregious, so they continued colonizing Palestinian land and disappearing the two-state formula that negotiations were supposed to deliver.
The official Palestinian message has been that the Palestinian leadership is ready to “re-engage in negotiations.” This mundane message is only newsworthy because it is so detached from re-ality and it reflects a lack of creativity about how Palestinians can break away from prior and failed policy molds.
After four destructive and potently toxic years of the Donald Trump administration and in light of lessons learned from past failures, everything has changed. So must the Palestinian strategy.
First and foremost, Palestinian factions must regain public trust by holding elections. This must not be a matter of if, but when. All Palestinian factions have a responsibility to quickly and deci-sively build on some positive and promising developments related to ending the division. Ideal-ly, the Biden administration should be dealing with a united Palestinian leadership that is not weakened by division and internal strife.
This approach is not without complications or cost. But these difficulties are not insurmountable if there is enough political will to move from a Palestinian approach that suffices with surviving to one that is energized, empowered, and able to set a Palestinian agenda for change and peace.
Engaging with the Biden administration will empower a united Palestinian leadership to face the predictable American and Israeli backlash, especially given the widespread international support for unity efforts.
The Palestinian political leadership also needs to re-imagine its political approach and create a new dynamic for international engagement based on Palestinian national priorities and needs. Palestinians are not without options, if they choose to try them.
On the Palestine-U.S. track, the Palestinian leadership must change the conversation entirely. First, they should engage the Biden administration on building a bilateral relationship that is independent from the now non-existent ‘peace process’ with Israel. Palestine must not be an appendage of Israeli relations for the US government. This means building a relationship based on respect, mutual benefit, shared interests, and common values.
And in order for US-Palestinian relations to be constructive and genuine, the incoming Biden administration needs to realize what is obvious and in plain sight. For one, that peace is made between enemies, not friends. So long as Israel continues colonizing Palestine and oppressing the Palestinian people, no Palestinian with any semblance of dignity will view Israel in a friendly light. The expectation, indeed demand, to pretend that relations between Palestine and Israel are ‘normal’ is unrealistic and oppressive. In fact, it is an extension of a colonial mentality that requires the colonized to be thankful and respectful towards their tormentors. Hence, petty and demeaning demands of altering the Palestinian curriculum or changing Palestinian laws to be in sync with Israel’s definition of acceptable must not be entertained.
Palestinians must also insist that the Biden administration endorse the fact that the only ac-ceptable and natural path towards peace is ending the Israeli occupation and the materializa-tion of a viable, sovereign, and contiguous State of Palestine. The path towards this goal is in-ternational law, not Israeli diktats, which means rejecting and confronting Israel’s agenda of extraterritoriality, land grab, and denial of Palestinian rights.
Finally, Palestinian engagement in the US must not be limited to the White House and Congress. The past four years have demonstrated to all keen observers that change in the US is happening from the bottom up. The US electorate is younger, more diverse, and increasingly more pro-Palestinian. Palestine is a cross-cutting issue endorsed by advocates of social justice, human rights, gender equality, environmental justice, among other causes. Palestinians must not shy away from engaging these allies. Rather, they must break away from the outdated approach that conducted relations with the US the way relations with undemocratic regimes are carried out. This approach has failed. It’s time for the Palestinian leadership to adjust course.
Ultimately, how the incoming Biden administration deals with the Palestinian issue depends as much on Palestinian strategy as it does on internal American dynamics and US interests. For now, the Palestinian leadership’s inability to adjust and reformulate its approach to relations with the US only offers deep dismay and frustration for Palestinians.