Mohammed bin Salman Has Thrown the Palestinians Under the Bus

The United States and Arab governments have abandoned the Palestinian cause and believe they can browbeat Mahmoud Abbas into submission.

Mahmoud Abbas waits to address the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 20, 2017 in New York City.
Mahmoud Abbas waits to address the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 20, 2017 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner — U.S. President Donald Trump’s hand-picked advisors on Middle East peace — last week to discuss humanitarian projects in the Gaza Strip. The duo then moved on to Qatar for more talks on how to ease conditions in Gaza as part of an effort to promote Trump’s much-vaunted peace plan.

The focus on Gaza will likely raise the ire of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Even before it began, the trip was characterized by top Abbas aides as “meaningless” and a “waste of time,” but Greenblatt and Kushner’s whirlwind visit to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Qatar, and Egypt is happening — with or without the Palestinians.

The Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership has been boycotting U.S. officials since December, when Trump announced he would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he then proceeded to recognize as Israel’s capital.

For months, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has eyed the close ties between the Trump administration and some Persian Gulf states with disdain. In a closed-door meeting in New York in March with Jewish leaders, Mohammed bin Salman reportedly slammed the Palestinians for missing opportunities for peace, downplayed the importance of their cause, and said they should accept any deal offered to them.

His remarks, according to the Israeli journalist Barak Ravid, citing a source who was in the room, stunned attendees to the point that some “literally fell off their chairs” — a far cry from when then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz threatened to break off ties with the United States in 2001 unless Washington acted to stop Israel’s attacks on Palestinians during the Second Intifada.

Saudi Arabia’s increasingly warm bilateral ties with Israel have not gone unnoticed by the PA, which has also noted Trump’s insistence — from the outset of his presidency — that striking an “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians would require the involvement of the broader region.

The PA watched in shock as Riyadh gave permission to Air India to fly to Tel Aviv through Saudi airspace and later as Mohammed bin Salman, in an interview with the Atlantic, acknowledged Israel’s right to its “own land.” And while the PA boycotted a White House meeting on Gaza’s humanitarian crisis in March, several Arab countries — including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia — attended, as did Israel.

Palestinians are no longer the focal point of the regional agenda, and PA leaders have grown increasingly uneasy as some Arab leaders have shifted their attention to Iran, fixating on Tehran’s involvement in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.

Arab leaders frequently profess support for the Palestinian cause, but Palestinians know that these proclamations are often sanctimonious. Much of the aid pledged by Arab donors for Gaza’s post-2014 war reconstruction never materialized, and the flow of government aid to the region has all but dried up. Instead, the diplomatic focus of Arab governments has veered primarily to domestic woes and stability, regional adversaries such as Iran, inter-Arab disputes, and fighting off Islamic militancy.

Arab leaders “now not only have their own priorities that subordinate the question of Palestine, but they have every incentive” to stop the public from rallying around the Palestinian cause “because they see it as a threat,” said Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Whereas these governments once were able to “use public obsession with Palestine as a distraction, now people use it as a wedge because they can’t confront the government directly” on local grievances such as unemployment and poverty, Telhami added.

Though Mohammed bin Salman has paid lip service to the Palestinians in public — claiming that closer ties between Riyadh and other Gulf states and Israel could only happen with significant progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — he has demonstrated a willingness to leverage the region’s various conflicts and Riyadh’s fear of Iranian influence to shift the focus away from their cause.

Palestinians now realize that they can no longer depend on their traditional allies in the Arab world. The asymmetry of power between Israelis and Palestinians, coupled with the Palestinians’ internal divisions and utter dependence on external aid, has also left them with very little leverage.

One of their last options would be to turn to the international community, as they have in recent years, by seeking to join international organizations, treaties, and conventions as part of their strategy to achieve statehood through global forums or lodging international criminal complaints in the hope that it would pressure Israel and call it to account for its actions.

This tactic has proved successful at times. But the current international climate differs immensely from the one that existed under President Barack Obama, and the Trump administration has made it clear that it will be a strong opponent to the Palestinians at the United Nations.

“The opportunities [for] bilateral engagement to get some sort of recognition of a Palestinian state, which had been the go-to international diplomatic strategy of the PLO, [do] not seem to have as much traction today,” said Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

The lack of external assistance provides an opportunity to look inward. Palestinians have to deal with a domestic legitimacy crisis: The PA has no succession plan to speak of despite an aging leadership headed by an 82-year-old Abbas, who has been president since 2005.

The progress made on the intra-Palestinian reconciliation between the PA and Hamas last year dissipated after what the PA labeled an assassination attempt on its prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, and intelligence chief Majed Faraj in Gaza in March and the recent crackdown on Palestinians in the West Bank protesting the PA’s punitive measures in Hamas-run Gaza.

Without a unified government or a clear, solid succession process, the PA leadership may very well find itself having to pick one of two bad options. The PA can either participate in a rigged peace process under even less favorable terms than in the past — or forge its own path without the support of Western donor aid that the administration is dependent on to function. This would mean that the livelihoods of 145,000 civil servants in the occupied Palestinian territories would disappear.

But for ordinary Palestinians, it has presented an opportunity to further engage in peaceful resistance, whether by supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel or by participating in other nonviolent tactics like the “Great March of Return,” a monthlong protest held along the fence separating Israel from Gaza, which was met with lethal force from Israeli soldiers.

This grassroots activism has the potential — further down the line — to give rise to a leadership that is more reflective of its constituency. (According to a recent poll, more than two-thirds of Palestinians want Abbas to resign.) Though BDS has not made much of a dent on Israel economically, successive cancellations of trips to Israel by world-renowned actors and singers have done more damage to the country’s reputation than the PA joining the European Federation of Crohn’s & Ulcerative Colitis Associations.

Palestinians’ frustration with the PA’s failure to bring them closer to independence and the shift in Arab states’ priorities have made the contours of a U.S.-Saudi-Israeli deal more evident: a demilitarized state without Jerusalem as a capital, territory with limited sovereignty and geographical contiguity, and an inadequate solution to the question of refugees.

According to a report in the New Yorker, Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman have outlined a Middle East strategic alliance that would focus on thwarting Iran and getting the Palestinians to agree on a peace deal. The Saudi crown prince reportedly said, in describing their strategy to get the deal done, “I’m going to deliver the Palestinians, and he [Trump] is going to deliver the Israelis.”

The king-to-be’s comments no doubt came as music to the Israeli prime minister’s ears. Benjamin Netanyahu believes that this new regional reality makes reaching a solution with the Palestinians less pressing — or even entirely unnecessary.

That’s a far cry from 2002, when the Arab Peace Initiative, championed by Saudi Arabia, presented Israel with an opportunity to integrate itself into the region in exchange for withdrawing from the Palestinian territories it still occupies to this day. Israel refused the deal, instead peppering the West Bank with more settlements as successive U.S. administrations engaged in an endless cycle of peace processing and turned a blind eye as Israelis established new facts on the ground.

Now, regional changes have paved the way for another opportunity for Israel to formally normalize relations with its neighbors — but this time without a peace deal. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have moved from secretly courting the Israelis to overtly conveying their readiness and desire to build a relationship beyond their current clandestine links.

Today, most of Israel’s traditional enemies have either been weakened or neutralized: The Palestinian leadership has been co-opted through U.S. largesse; Jordan and Egypt’s peace deals have weathered even the thorniest of diplomatic crises; and Iraq and Syria have been carved up by the campaign to oust the Islamic State.

But not everyone is convinced that a de facto alliance with some Arab states against Iran will yield regional peace without real progress on the Palestinian issue. “Those who see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not in terms of win-win but in terms of zero-sum think they could use better relations and an alliance of interests between Israel and the Arab world as a way to bypass the Palestinian issue,” said Nadav Tamir, a senior advisor for governmental and international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace, speaking at J Street’s annual conference in April.

Netanyahu and the Trump administration, however, agree that a deal can be reached by virtue of Israel’s warm relations with Arab countries that will in turn pressure the Palestinians into submission. As far as the Trump administration is concerned, “this is a transaction — you just have to find the selling price,” said William Quandt, a former National Security Council member in the Nixon and Carter administrations, speaking at a conference in Washington in March. “And if the Saudis are prepared to finance it, how can the Palestinians … say no to the Saudis?” added Quandt, who was part of the U.S. negotiating team at Camp David that led to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979. “We’re stuck with an American policy that leads nowhere, and when it fails, there’s no fallback.”

Palestinians have learned from their past that Arab governments’ support is as volatile as the region’s changing political terrain. Once again, Palestinian leaders find themselves isolated and fragmented while Arab and Western governments ratchet up the pressure. Their choices today are limited: They can end security cooperation with Israel; dismantle the PA altogether and force Israel to take responsibility for its military occupation; or embrace civil disobedience and the tactics of the BDS movement on a national level.

They could also acquiesce to Mohammed bin Salman and his co-conspirators’ plan for the region while focusing on isolating Hamas and punishing Palestinians in Gaza for having the misfortune of being born there — but not without facing the wrath of their own people.

Dalia Hatuqa is a multimedia journalist based in the United States and the West Bank. Twitter: @daliahatuqa