The recent deals to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and Israel and Bahrain, have led many to conclude that the Arab-Israeli conflict has reached a significant turning point. With the exception of Egypt and Jordan, Arab countries for years have refused to recognize Israel until the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was settled.
It appears, however, that the Arab world has moved on to focus on other pressing issues of the day and of the region, including a focus on technology, economic development and hostility to radical forces such as Iran, Qatar and Turkey. This has led to questions over whether the Palestinians will find themselves increasingly isolated as Israel expands diplomacy across the Middle East and Africa.
Ido Zelkovitz, head of the Middle East Studies program at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College between the cities of Afula and Nazareth, and a senior research fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa, told JNS that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority “has hit rock bottom and is in its worst political position since the first Gulf war.”
Not only has the Fatah movement led by Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas failed to make progress on the creation of a Palestinian state, but their continued rejectionism has caused Arab states to lose patience with their cause and not wait for a change in mindset.
“The region has changed dramatically in recent years, and the moderate Arab states don’t see that they have any territorial or military conflicts with Israel,” said Zelkovitz.
Indeed, angered at the Arab world’s growing ties with Israel just one week after the signing of agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the Palestinian leadership quit their chairmanship of Arab League meetings, announced the Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister.
“Moderate Arab states don’t see that they have any territorial or military conflicts with Israel.”
The Palestinian leadership—split mainly between the P.A. under Abbas and Hamas under Ismail Haniyeh, and marked by strife over the years—is making efforts to increase cooperation in resisting against Israel, which is in the midst of a normalization campaign with Gulf states and other Arab-majority countries. To that end, the two parties were scheduled to hold talks in Turkey on improving their cooperation and joint efforts.
Still, it is unlikely that Hamas, the de facto ruler in the Gaza Strip since it ousted the P.A. in 2007, and the P.A., which administers “Area A” and “Area B” of the West Bank as per the Oslo Accords, will be able to overcome their years-long bitter feud.
‘Palestinian unity has always been a myth’
Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, says that “Palestinian unity has always been a myth, especially between Hamas and Fatah. That said, the anti-Semitic/anti-Zionist sentiment has always acted as the glue that has overcome the political fragmentation.”
At the same time, he said, “the Palestinians will continue lobbying pro-Palestinian individuals and groups in the Gulf in order to make the Palestinian case and ensure ongoing financial support.”
Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, told JNS, “I see no real progress towards true reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, as the gaps are too wide.”
He said “Hamas and Fatah are competing over the best strategy to pursue independence, and at the same time, control of the Palestinian arena.”
The INSS expert added that a key factor that should be emphasized is the varying agendas of Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar, another principle leader of Hamas in Gaza, home to nearly 2 million Palestinian Arabs. “Sinwar has a much more local agenda and focus on Gaza, while Haniyeh has a much broader agenda related to political Islam.”
“Hamas and Fatah are competing over the best strategy to pursue independence.”
Qatar, a key backer of Hamas and its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, is playing a significant role in the Gaza arena. The Gulf state supports former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Haniyeh, while at the same time supporting Sinwar, playing them off against each other to promote its interests, explained Michael.
Moreover, the Iranian threat has led Arab Gulf states to make a military alliance with the United States and Israel.
Zelkovitz said that “Israel is the only power in the region that can deal with Iran militarily.” The alliance of some Arab states with Israel is perceived as a guarantee in case the United States decides not to get involved when faced with Iranian aggression.”
The Saudis always said that normalization would come after Israel reached a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but “we see the formula has flipped.”
“The Palestinian leadership is stuck in the past and thinks the Arabs will wait forever for them,” added Zelkovitz.
‘Refocus attention via violence’
Hamas has responded to the normalization agreement between Israel and the two Gulf states mainly by firing rockets into southern Israel. It is meant to send a signal to the United States and Europe that it still is a player than needs to be dealt with, said Zelkovitz, adding that it is part of the internal struggle over the veritable leader of the Palestinians.
Regarding the radical alliance of Turkey, Qatar and Iran that oppose any normalization deals, Zelkovitz noted that Fatah is not a natural fit in this group as much as Hamas.
All of this comes at a point where polls show the Palestinians do not have confidence in their leadership and are more inclined to a one-state solution under Israeli sovereignty, he assessed.
Romirowsky added that as the modality for peace has become less about the Palestinians and more about regional stability in face of the continued Iranian threat, “the Palestinians will look to refocus the attention on themselves via violence, though the attacks will be unable to alter the regional dynamic.”
He emphasized that “Israel is shifting from being the most hated country in the region to the desired partner.”
Notwithstanding the new regional reality, continued Romirowsky, “in North America and Europe, where the Palestinian cause is thriving thanks to the BDS movement, these changes will fail to diminish their cause but will embolden their efforts towards greater anti-normalization via Israel-spewing hate and propaganda.”