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The Collapse of Palestinian Grand Strategy

By Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman, Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The Palestinian quest for an internationally imposed “solution,” which would not require them to negotiate a compromise deal with Israel, has failed. Palestinian leaders may attempt this again after Joe Biden becomes US president, but this will fail yet again, since the collapse of their past strategy is due to much more than the policies of the Trump Administration. Indeed, evolving regional and global realities allow for a new Israeli peace initiative, which can preserve the underlying principles of the Trump outline for peace.

During the US presidential transition period, Israel faces a challenge and an opportunity regarding the Palestinians. The challenge may result from a Palestinian attempt to co-opt the incoming US Administration and revive its “grand strategy” of international coercion against Israel. However, the underlying assumptions of that strategy are now largely passe. The attempt to isolate Israel and boycott it in the international community, and thus force it into surrender, have thoroughly failed. This is not simply the result of President Trump’s policies (although they contributed to this outcome). Palestinian failures, rather, reflect a profoundly changed landscape, regionally and globally.

Foundational aspects of the regional order have changed. There has been a breakthrough towards peace and normalization with three Arab countries. Moreover, the Arab League (under Egypt’s guidance) refused to consider the Palestinian complaint against “normalizers” and the Abraham Accords. Even European position(s) towards Israel are showing signs of reconsideration, against the background of a violent challenge by Islamist terror.

Rather than reduce the prospects for peace and stability, these developments make them more likely. Many countries around the world want to engage with Israel. Consequently, the Palestinians would be wrong to assume that their strategy of isolating Israel can be revived with Trump’s departure.

Hence the opportunity for Israel. A well-designed and active Israeli policy – a new peace initiative – can (and should) preserve the basic strategic outlines of the Trump Plan (“Peace to Prosperity,” January 2020). Speaking the language that Democrats in the US prefer to hear, the point can be made that the real options for progress towards peace lie with abandonment of the fantasy of coercion, alongside a resumption of negotiations towards an implementable compromise between the two national movements.

It would be useful to reiterate (as did the Trump plan) the principles laid out by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in his last speech before the Knesset in October 1995. (Rabin is considered hero of peace in the eyes of many Americans; among Democrats in particular.) On this basis, Israel should work in close coordination with its peace partners, both veteran partners (Egypt and Jordan) and new partners (specifically the UAE, whose geo-political weight in world affairs far outweighs its small size). A coherent Israeli plan for negotiations over an interim or permanent status agreement should also include a clear and reasonable list of conditions for the resumption of talks, such as an end to Palestinian terror and incitement.

Such an initiative may help neutralize any attempts in Washington or in western Europe to resurrect the notion of an internationally imposed solution. A bipartisan “Sense of Congress” resolution could usefully proscribe any attempts at diplomatic coercion, too. An Israeli initiative would fit in with the desire of the incoming administration to demonstrate a new approach, while tacitly pocketing the significant advances made by the previous administration.

The Palestinian “Grand Strategy” and its Origins 

A recent event illustrates in dramatic light what has befallen the Palestinian plan for the diplomatic isolation and coercion of Israel. Saeb Erekat (Secretary General of the PLO Executive Committee) long has decried any form of normalization with Israel. Some say that he was the “father” of the anti-normalization strategy. Yet it was to the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem that he asked to be taken when he struck by COVID-19. His death there, on November 10, adds a somber endnote to the collapse of the policies he had advanced for years.

The “grand strategy” he masterminded also called for the abandonment of negotiations with Israel, thus avoiding the need for compromise and for mutual recognition between the two national movements. Instead, it envisioned an imposed solution by the international community leading to a return to the 1967 lines, the partition of Jerusalem and some redress on the so-called “right of return.”

In March 2014, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas went to Washington. But his crucial meeting with President Obama failed to produce a breakthrough. Abbas never offered a coherent answer to the US peace initiative. Even before the meeting in Washington, and without awaiting its results, Saeb Erekat (who was at the time chief Palestinian negotiator) published a paper which could be described as a blueprint for an alternative grand strategy for attaining Palestinian goals.

As it happened, it was Israel which chose to have this text – “Dirasa” (study) no. 15 of the Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department – translated and disseminated worldwide. It was the needed proof that Israel had not undermined Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table. Erekat’s paper suggested, and Abbas followed his advice, that the Palestinians abandon the negotiations initiated by US Secretary of State John Kerry; avoid any response to President Obama’s proposals; and revert instead to a quest for international coercion of Israel.

Erekat’s paper also rejected two of Kerry’s baseline propositions for the negotiations. The first was that there be mutual recognition between the two national movements, i.e., the Jewish-Zionist project and Palestinian nationalism. The second was that Israel’s legitimate security needs be taken into consideration. Erekat’s paper rejected both elements out of hand. Instead, Erekat suggested a path that would avoid such “concessions,” specifically reliance on “international legitimacy” to bring about “solution” imposed on Israel. Erekat also proposed dialogue and reconciliation with Hamas in Gaza to overcome the schism in the Palestinian national movement, a split which reflected badly on the credibility of the two-state solution.

Back in November 2012, the UN General Assembly recognized “Palestine” as a non-member state. In the spring of 2014, in line with Erekat’s strategy, the PA took the decision to join several international agencies, most significantly, the Statutes of Rome and the International Criminal Court (ICC). This, too, was part and parcel of the grand strategy based on isolating Israel in the international arena and placing its leadership in the dock. This was the act that brought Kerry’s efforts to a full halt.

Instead, Erekat outlined three directions for Palestinian policy:

  1. De-legitimization of Israel and tarring it with the brush of “apartheid,” presumably leading to a system of boycotts like the one deployed against South Africa in its day.
  2. Staking out the Terms of Reference for negotiations that would be imposed in advance from outside. These would include total Israeli withdrawals, perhaps with minimal land swaps; Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem (including the Temple Mount), which must be the Palestinian capital; and a recognition of the legitimacy of the so-called Palestinian “Right of Return.” Together, these constitute the Palestinian interpretation of the concept of “international legitimacy” – shar’iyyah dawliyyah, in Arabic – which in Palestinian eyes has been cemented by tens if not hundreds of UN (mainly UNGA) resolutions.
  3. Restoring Palestinian national cohesion, namely reconciliation with Hamas. This could be done based on the above policy outline, which does not require either side in Palestinian internal politics to compromise on its basic positions nor accept any compromise of historical significance with Israel.

The basic idea was not new, and in some respects goes back to the 1950s and 1960s. The deliberate terrorist campaign in the autumn of 2000, often referred to as the “Second Intifada” was to a large extent knowingly and even manifestly designed to bring about himaya dawliyyah, international intervention; meaning “protection” that would replace IDF forces in the territories. Moreover, the UN Conference on Racism in Durban (2001), and particularly the NGO forum associated with it, laid out the foundations of a strategy of boycott and isolation.

Still, Erekat’s contribution was the incorporation of these concepts into a coherent grand strategy, which circumvents negotiations altogether, and makes the future of the Palestinian national movement dependent upon a mechanism of international coercion against Israel.

“The Arab Peace Initiative,” as endorsed (incorporating Syrian demands) in the Beirut Arab League Summit in March 2002, amounted to an inflexible set of demands that Israel would be required to accept. These demands combined with the principles collectively endorsed by Europe (albeit not by every member state on their own) basically reflected Palestinian and Arab interpretation of “international legitimacy.” Together, they fed into the grand strategy of seeking an imposed solution. As indicated, the latter gained momentum with the UN General Assembly vote in November 2012 regarding recognition of Palestine as a non-member State.

Unfortunately, the Palestinian actions which torpedoed the negotiations in 2014 were paradoxically rewarded. Kerry chose not to do what Clinton did in 2000, i.e., to blame the Palestinian side. Instead, Kerry described Israeli settlement activities as the cause of failure. Furthermore, UNSC 2334 in December 2016 gave formal UN sanction to the Palestinian conceptual framework regarding the illegality of a Jewish presence in the “Occupied Palestinian Territories,” and to the parameters of a permanent agreement. The Obama Administration was actively involved in bringing this resolution about and chose not to veto it.

Indications of Collapse

Some four years later, many of the assumptions underlying this Palestinian “grand strategy” either have fallen apart or become irrelevant. American policies and actions hastened the collapse but were not the sole reason for it.

The priorities of many Arab countries today are focused on existential threats from Iran and from Erdogan’s Turkey. The recent breakthrough towards normalization of Israeli relations with the UAE and Bahrain, and with Sudan, is but the overt manifestation of what has been in the works for years. To some extent, it was the common opposition to Obama’s position on the Iranian nuclear issue which led to the enhancement of cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states, at first covert, and now overt.

This, in turn, has been having for some time a direct impact on Israel’s standing in the world at large. In Asia, countries such as India, Japan, Vietnam, and other major players no longer must worry whether a warm relationship with Israel will incur the anger of their Arab trading partners. The same is true for Moslem nations in Central Asia, for African nations, and for most Latin American countries (except radicals such as Maduro in Venezuela). Nations big and small are now free to assess the value to them – in terms of technological innovation, investment, infrastructure, training and/or military hardware – of a relationship with Israel. Changes in the energy markets, even before COVID-19, have further reduced Arab leverage too.

Moreover, the utter ruin of countries such as Syria and Libya point to the deeper problems besetting the Arab world, which go well beyond the Palestinian question. This also has underlined the legitimacy of Israel’s security concerns.

Thus, the grand effort by Palestinians to mark Israel out as an international pariah, and to impose economic boycotts and diplomatic isolation on Israel, has come to naught. This was true already in 2017, well before the full impact of Trump’s policies kicked in.

It needs to be said, for the benefit of those who still speak in outdated terms, that Israel’s enhanced standing is now secure. This, to use a phrase favored by Biden (and Obama) is where the “Arc of History” bends. It reflects a profound shift in regional realities, as well as Israel’s capacities as a powerhouse of technological innovation. Even if the BDS movement does gain some attention in “progressive” and radical circles in the West and even at the margins of the Democratic Party in the US, the dominant trends point towards growing legitimization of Israel. (This realization may be further advanced by an essentially pro-Israeli Biden/Harris Administration).

Such realization is now being reflected even in aspects of European policy. EU institutions, and the foreign ministries of the main member states, still issue standard and semi-automatic denunciations of every building project in Judea, Samaria, or eastern Jerusalem. But the once-solid position on the parameters of a permanent agreement is beginning to fray. There are signs of comprehension that blind support for Palestinian positions has made an agreement less likely. French Ambassador to Israel Eric Danon admitted in a recent in an Israeli radio interview that his country is reassessing its stance in this regard.

This tallies well with the significant alignment of Israeli and French positions and interests in the eastern Mediterranean. There also are other countries in Europe whose national interest and/or sentiment leads them to adopt a firm pro-Israeli stance. Greece and Cyprus face and an acute Turkish (neo-Ottoman and Islamist) challenge – and so does Israel. Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic also are oriented in favor of Israel for a combination of historical, sentimental, political, and economic reasons.

European countries which for years have subsidized Palestinian institutions – including education – have begun to raise question marks about abuse of funds and about incitement in schoolbooks. EU members also have made further aid, at least in part, dependent upon Palestinians willingness to abandon their rejectionist posture and accept tax monies collected for them by Israel. (Until recently, the PA refused to take the money because Israel deducts the funds that the PA spends on supporting imprisoned terrorists and their families.)

In economic terms, as well – from high tech to the future of gas in the eastern Mediterranean – the ability of the Palestinians to isolate Israel from its immediate strategic environment is rapidly declining. After all, the PA itself was brought by the Egyptians into a significant framework – the EMGF (Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, created in 2019 and made into a regional organization in September 2020) – in which Israel is a legitimate and even important member. With the horizons for Israeli-Gulf cooperation rapidly expanding, the prospects for a strategy of boycotts look dim indeed.

The Essence of the Trump Plan Remains Relevant 

In effect, the “Peace to Prosperity” plan of the Trump administration reflects, rather than creates a new reality. It signals that the so-called “EKP” – shorthand for the “Everybody Knows Paradigm” – is no longer the relevant blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Erekat’s grand strategy clearly failed. The “Peace to Prosperity” document systematically refuted the underlying historical and legal arguments which he and other Palestinian nationalists had been advancing.

The “Peace to Prosperity” text openly challenges – as Israel must continue to do – the utility of the Palestinian interpretation of “international legitimacy.” It mentions that some 700 UNGA and 100 UNSC resolutions did not bring the two sides any closer, and that in any case some of the key texts remain ambiguous.

Back when it was adopted by the UNSC, Trump bluntly attacked Resolution 2334, and even used his position as president-elect to persuade Egyptian President Sisi to pull it off the table. (It was then revived, apparently with Kerry’s blessing, by Malaysia and New Zealand.) The January 2020 document laments – legitimately and persuasively – that latching on to such UN resolutions had enabled political leaders (without mentioning Erekat or Abu Mazen by name) to avoid coming to terms with the complexity of the conflict, and with the need for compromise.

Usefully, when it comes to the relevant aspects of international law, the document asserts that countries are not obliged to withdraw from lands taken in a defensive war – and indeed, rarely do so. This also raises a question as to the validity of the claim that the “occupation” is illegal – even more so when the territory in dispute lies at the heart of the Jewish People’s historical homeland.

The following line, which goes back to the Bush letter of April 2014, must be viewed as the key to any implementable agreement: “The State of Israel and the United States do not believe the State of Israel is legally bound to provide the Palestinians with 100 percent of pre-1967 territory.” (p. 11)

It is only if this conceptual framework (dangerously abandoned by the US transition team in 2008-2009) is maintained that we may see progress towards peace with the Palestinians.

There are three other important conceptual aspects embodied in the present bipartisan American position which undo the Palestinian unrealistic posture and need to be preserved in any future initiative.

  1. The unequivocal determination, which again goes back to 2004 and even earlier, that there will not be a “right of return” for Palestinians into Israel’s borders. Moreover, the legal standing of this matter is weak, given that international law does not recognize multi-generational refugee status.
  2. In parallel, the present position (echoing President Clinton in 2000) does recognize that two symmetrical refugee problems arose because of the conflict – that of the Palestinians, and that of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries. This stance, backed by Congressional legislation, is significant in terms of its historical and moral import. The plan suggests that matters of restitution and compensation (including a recognition of the costs incurred by Israel in absorbing those who had been uprooted) need to be dealt with separately, not in the Israeli-Palestinian context.
  3. The demand of Palestinians – as a precondition for progress towards an agreement – to cease and desist not only all terror activities but also incitement in all its forms, as well as attempts to boycott Israel and denounce it in international fora. These demands have broad support in the international arena. They are enshrined in the so-called “Quartet conditions,” making an imposed solution in accordance with Palestinian aspirations an unrealizable dream.

What Israel Should Do

The Palestinians have not bothered hiding their hatred of Trump. They hope that a Biden administration again will usher in an era where they can pursue again a strategy of isolating Israel and imposing parameters of a permanent status agreement, in line with Erekat’s vision.

This may be true if the Democrats come under the influence of radical forces such as Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who openly espouse the Palestinian narrative. Latching on to such hopes is in itself an indication of the depth of the crisis that Palestinians are facing, and their lack of realism.

Israel should proceed from the opposite assumption: that the election results and American political dynamics do not sustain such Palestinian expectations. While pressures from academia and the progressive left are matters of some concern, the firm foundations of support for Israel are still strong on both sides of the aisle. The radicals must not be ignored, but neither should they be portrayed as the face of the Democratic Party.

As already indicated by Biden’s response to the embassy move to Jerusalem and to the Abraham Agreements with Gulf States, the mainstream in both parties will continue to be attentive to a balanced and well-argued Israeli position. It is also (still) possible to count on mobilizing key American Jewish organizations to support the propositions suggested below; and to rely on the deeply ingrained support for Israel among a majority (at least two thirds) of all Americans.

Forging a new diplomatic framework and political reality as early as possible is of great importance – especially in a presidential transition period. Israel’s ability to do so will be enhanced if it initiates a legitimate counterstrategy to the Palestinian strategy. Clearly, this is a tall order at a time of political cleavages in Israel and of major distractions due to the coronavirus. But Israel can and should present a vision for peacemaking based on the essentials of the Trump plan, which remain relevant and vital.

Such principles should include a willingness to return to the table with the Palestinians and to negotiate a compromise that would make it possible to establish a Palestinian state. The latter should be subject, however, to strict criteria, and all arrangements should secure Israel’s rights and necessary security measures. Such an initiative can play a formative role in the critical period which lies right ahead, especially since many Arab countries agree with these principles.

Such an Israeli initiative is needed also to minimize tensions with the US if Washington endorses a different view on how to treat the Iranian nuclear issue.

Israel should act soon, reaching out to both regional partners and key players in the Biden transition team. By working to undo what is left of the deleterious Palestinian grand strategy, and by offering a reasonable alternative path back to the negotiating table, and by working with its new regional partners – the “Everybody Knows Paradigm” (EKP) can be dismantled alongside any expectations of an imposed solution.

Here are several steps that Israel should undertake.

1. Israel should adopt the essential aspects of the Trump “Peace to Prosperity” plan (which has not been done so far) – with a specific emphasis on the acceptance of the concept of mutual recognition between two nation states.

2. Israeli public diplomacy should give prominence to the specific aspects of the plan which correspond with Israel’s legitimate expectations – security arrangements; the strategic importance of the Jordan Valley; the unity of Jerusalem as a living city; historical and legal justifications for the presence in territories gained in a defensive war; rejection of the “right of return” concept and the recognition that there are two refugee problems; the need to end Palestinian incitement, BDS efforts, and support for terror and terrorists.

3. Above all, it is vital to bolster the principle – and the insight – that there cannot and will not be an imposed solution. The events of the last few months have made this manifest to all. Despite the likely objections from a radical minority, it is safe to assume that this can be “set in stone” in legislation, or at least in a bipartisan “Sense of Congress” resolution.

3. Israel should engage with Israel’s long-term peace partners regarding the best way to draw the present Palestinian leadership (or its successors) back to the table based on the concepts outlined above. Egypt’s role should be paramount, given the broad range of common interests between Cairo and Jerusalem at this time. It is also of importance to build upon the affirmation of the status quo in the holy places in Jerusalem, included (albeit in passing) in the plan. This is an issue of great significance for both the Hashemite royal family in Jordan and to Israel. Both Europeans and the incoming US Administration should be made aware of this irreversible (and quietly agreed) position.

4. Based upon the Manama workshop in 2019, Israel’s new peace partners (mainly the UAE) should be encouraged to offer investment initiatives. Specifically, they could play a role in creating “transportation contiguity” for a Palestinian state, i.e., the capacity to travel between Palestinian-held areas without having to go through checkpoints. This is an issue regularly raised in the Trump Plan, due to its far-reaching implications for daily life and the level of friction between Palestinians and the IDF. Major infrastructure projects in this regard can be undertaken without waiting for a permanent status or an interim agreement. Moreover, in the efforts which lie ahead for post-pandemic economic revival, such ventures can serve to generate growth for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

5. In line with the emergence of the EMGF as a regional organization, and potentially expanding its realm of cooperation beyond energy production and marketing, it may be useful to explore the ideas outlined in the plan for the utilization of Israel’s ports for Palestinian trade. Chapter 12 (p. 29) of the document suggests a project for the establishment of Palestinian docks – under tight Israeli security controls – in Ashdod and Haifa, and a possible arrangement in Jordan’s port of Aqaba. This, too, could serve as an engine of growth for the Palestinians, Jordan, and Israel.

6. Alongside the work in Washington suggested above, efforts should be made to familiarize key European players – who hitherto have been dismissive– with the potential for progress. German willingness to host a highly symbolic meeting of the foreign ministers of Israel and of the UAE was a sign that Berlin – like others in Europe – no longer lines up with every Palestinian whim. Israel’s growing scope of cooperation in the Mediterranean (including a Nov. 12 trilateral meeting of defense ministers in Cyprus), and the growing commonality of interests with France in the face of Erdogan’s provocations, can generate a basis for discussion also of the Palestinian question (and of the need to stand together against Iran).

Such a multi-faceted policy, if formally adopted, can set the stage for high-level diplomacy. Israel, at the highest level, should then engage with Egypt and Jordan, as well as the UAE; work with key European players, with a special emphasis on the rapprochement with France; and above all, work in Washington with the transition team and with Congress to outline an agreed approach.

At several levels, these messages also can be conveyed discreetly through Arab and European interlocutors to the attention of Palestinian leadership. It will continue to face very poor prospects unless it comes to terms with the need to devise a new and workable strategy. The time has come for Mahmoud Abbas to realize that despite the angry rhetoric, a makeshift alliance with Erdogan against the “normalizers” will only make his predicament worse.

There already are some indications of a more pragmatic and sober attitude in Ramallah. Palestinian leadership apparently is willing to lift its veto over diplomatic ties with Washington and to take tax monies held by Israel. It would be overly optimistic, however, to expect Abbas to respond positively to the Israeli initiative suggested above. A breakthrough towards realistic negotiations may have to wait for emergence of a new Palestinian leadership.

Still, an Israeli initiative is needed to help shape US policy in presidential transition period; to mobilize pro-Israel forces within the Democratic Party; to firmly dismiss notions of an imposed solution; and to regain the high moral and diplomatic ground.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.