Expectations at rock bottom as Bennett heads to Washington

More settlements, more protests, more anger - And the lack of any political horizon means Palestinian anger is increasingly directed against the PA itself (Nidal Eshtayeh - Xinhua)

Omar Karmi

The Electronic Intifada  /  August 24, 2021

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s prime minister, is due in Washington this week for his first tête-à-tête with Joe Biden, the US president.

Iran, by all accounts, tops the agenda. The Palestinians come second.

The visit marks the culmination of a flurry – or perhaps more accurately, a gentle breeze – of activity that has seen America’s top three diplomats on Palestine meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders over the past several weeks.

Last week’s visit of William Burns, the head of the CIA, was the culmination of a series that also saw special envoy Hady Amr and Secretary of State Antony Blinken push for a return to some normalcy after the clownish turbulence of the Trump years and the boorish bravado of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Little has come of these visits. Little was expected. And, as the announcement of new settlement tenders in occupied territory during Burns’ visit attests, or indeed the opening of a gleaming new settlement mall at the same time, little has changed on the ground.

Shaky coalition

No change suits both Bennett and Biden. But no change is unsustainable in circumstances where the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is on its last legs, and Gaza is on the chronic brink of a full-blown humanitarian disaster.

Bennett is head of a fragile coalition government that will be hard pushed to withstand many shocks. Already, the coalition has weathered a spike in COVID-19 cases and forest fires outside Jerusalem.

But an increasingly fraught ceasefire in Gaza can end any time as long as there is no easing of Israel’s draconian 15-year closure that has seen Palestinians in this battered and impoverished strip of land unable to develop or even rebuild after repeated deadly Israeli assaults.

Any conflagration in Gaza would likely end a coalition that spans Israel’s political spectrum from the United Arab List and Meretz to Bennett’s right-wing Yamina and Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu.

With just a one-seat majority there is no feasible approach to a confrontation – from no attack to all-out assault – that would sustain such a bloc.

Some kind of easing of the blockade on Gaza, therefore, is necessary. Hence the resumption, announced on 19 August, of Qatari payments to Gaza.

This is unlikely to be enough. Money is useless without something to spend it on.

But Bennett will hope – against hope – it will do for now.

No appetite

Biden too will try to do as little as possible to maintain business as usual for as long as possible.

The US administration has no appetite or desire to take on Israel’s supporters in Washington, and its priorities lie elsewhere: It wants a deal with Iran to complete what Barack Obama started, and pivot away from the Middle East in order to take on China.

Specifically, Biden will hope to avoid any “tricky” questions about the US embassy in Jerusalem, which his administration long ago announced he wants to keep as is. He also would be glad to skirt the issue of funding for the Palestinian Authority – which could meet congressional resistance and be subject to anti-terrorism legislation that Biden himself backed when in Congress.

The US embassy move, signed off on by Donald Trump, was seen as legitimizing Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem in contravention of international law and undermining any aspirations for a two-state solution.

Powerless and unwilling to move it, the Biden administration is trying to fudge this issue – after all, it preempts final status negotiations – by promising to re-open the US consulate to Palestine in the city.

So far, that hasn’t happened. And if it is up to Israeli legislators, it won’t.

But that leaves Biden with precious little he can offer in support of the wobbling Palestinian Authority, which the US has propped up for decades.

Both reopening the Palestinian mission in Washington and restarting direct financial aid to the PA to bolster the credibility of its ageing head Mahmoud Abbas, whose approval rating is barely in double figures, will be met with significant congressional resistance.

Unless the PA ends its payments to families of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel or killed by Israel for “security” reasons, there is no clear legislative way for the Biden administration to restart funding.

But ending those payments – welfare for families likely to have lost their breadwinners in what they and Palestinians generally see as a legitimate struggle against a belligerent and illegal Israeli military occupation – could well seal the PA’s fate.

A sinking boat

Much like Israel’s coalition government, the PA leadership is in a precarious position.

The mishandling of protests after May’s Israeli aggression on Gaza, the death in PA custody of Nizar Banat, a prominent dissident, and the complete lack of any political horizon means Palestinians have lost all faith in the West Bank leadership.

So far, with one of the highest ratios of security forces to civilians in the world, the PA has survived.

But unlike the Israeli coalition government, having cancelled elections to the PA legislature and presidency, Abbas has left no outlet for Palestinians to vent their frustrations.

Popular anger is therefore increasingly turning away from Israel’s occupation and toward the immediate cause of stagnation and oppression: the PA itself.

And as Afghanistan has shown, once ruling structures start to crumble, the collapse can accelerate exponentially.

Both Bennett and Biden will be aware of this when they sit down together in the White House on Thursday. But neither has much appetite to tinker, and nor is there much pressure on them to do so: As has been the case since the Oslo agreements were signed 28 years ago, policy on Palestine is entirely a negotiation between Israel and Israel’s supporters in Washington.

And though it is in their interest to sustain the PA as is, the PA is unsustainable under the current status quo.

Neither leader will want to rock the boat, but the boat is sinking. Everybody can see this, just like everybody could see what was unfolding in Afghanistan if not the speed with which it happened.

Omar Karmi is an independent journalist and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper