PA’s gift to Biden is return to failed strategy

The resumption of PA-Israel coordination is a West Bank leadership welcome to US President-Elect Joe Biden (Thaer Ganaim - APA Images)

Omar Karmi

The Electronic Intifada  /  November 20, 2020

The news that the Palestinian Authority has decided to restart coordination with Israel after suspending it for six months does not come as much of a surprise.

It amounts to a welcome gift to Joe Biden, the American president-elect, while also showing the paucity of thinking within the PA leadership.

The decision to end coordination in May came in face of the threat of formal Israeli annexation of some 30 percent of the occupied West Bank.

But right from the start, Palestinian officials let it be known this would be a largely symbolic protest.

Formally, coordination between Palestinian security forces and the Israeli military would end. But Palestinian security forces would act as if coordination was still in force.

In other words, in the only arena that Israel cares for – security – the PA had backed down immediately.

The rest was posturing and self-harm.

It was posturing because, absent security coordination, this was a largely impotent move directed more at a domestic audience – look, we’re doing something – than with any real hope of having any meaningful effect.

It was self-harm because all that came of it was that the PA ended up having to do without the tax revenue Israel collects on its behalf.

And since it came in the middle of a global pandemic, it also meant some very real consequences, mostly in Gaza. There, the end of coordination meant a population already incarcerated by an Israeli blockade now had almost no possibility of leaving the territory to seek medical attention.

With a health sector on the verge of collapse as a direct result of Israel’s sanctions and siege, this has caused untold damage and pain.

PA-Israel coordination is the mechanism through which Israel imposes its permit regime on Palestinians throughout occupied territory, most acutely felt in the isolated Gaza Strip. As the occupying power, however, Israel retains responsibility for the welfare of all people under its occupation, whatever the status of coordination.

A glorious victory

Now it might be claimed – in the same way that the UAE and Bahrain might claim – that the job is done, the threat of formal annexation is over and there is no need to continue to suspend coordination, especially in light of its shoot-yourself-in-the-foot nature.

That, however, would suggest at least two things have happened, both patently false:

One, that the absence of Palestinian-Israeli coordination has in some way inconvenienced Israel so much as to make it abandon annexation.

And two, that Israel has abandoned annexation.

It is true that Israel has shelved plans to formally announce annexation of more occupied land (it has already formally annexed the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem).

But it has forged ahead with settlement building. Every settlement built is a de facto annexation. Israel is not moving people into territory it intends eventually to evacuate for a Palestinian state.

Thus, ending coordination with Israel has achieved precisely nothing for the Palestinian side.

But that hasn’t stopped senior PA officials from claiming that the resumption of coordination is a “victory” for the Palestinian people.

Surely sarcasm.

There are just two reasons the PA has resumed coordination and neither has anything to do with diplomatic success.

First, is the financial squeeze, which is real.

And second is the US presidential election. The PA is keen to present the (presumably) incoming Joe Biden administration a clean slate.

But in its eagerness to do so, the PA is going to simply restore the situation that was in place before US President Donald Trump and resume business as usual that has served no one but Israel for more than two decades.

Round and round and round

The first sign of the PA’s intentions is its haste to restore diplomatic relations with the UAE and Bahrain despite their “betrayal” in normalizing relations with Israel.

Then it needs to ensure the reopening of the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington and a resumption of relations with the US.

This might seem a promising moment to extract some concessions from an incoming administration keen to distance itself from the outgoing one.

One concession is already off the table, however: Biden long ago said he will not move the US embassy out of Jerusalem.

But Palestinians could ask that the US clarify its position on East Jerusalem as occupied territory and on settlements as illegal under international law.

These are not controversial positions internationally.

The US has over many years gradually downgraded its position on settlements, reaching its nadir when the Trump administration decreed them as “not … inconsistent” with international law. This would provide Biden a chance to immediately make a break with the Trump years.

But Biden is deeply embedded in the pro-Israel Washington culture and, in any case, regardless of which party controls the US congress, he will always face hostility when it comes to anything related to Israel.

Any concessions won’t come easy. This is especially true, since the Palestinian Authority leadership will be hard-pushed to resist once the White House makes come-hither eyes.

Thus expect no real attempt to exact any price from the US or from Israel when the Biden administration comes calling – which it inevitably will.

On the contrary, if and when a Biden administration invites the PLO back to Washington, the Palestinian leadership will waste little time.

As a result, expect to see unity efforts with Hamas – and with them talk of elections – quietly binned, as the PA tries to avoid anything to embarrass a President Biden.

PA leader Mahmoud Abbas may want to see a new kind of peace process, one led by a combination of international actors rather than the US alone.

He has voiced this position repeatedly over the past few years.

But it will take little effort for officials in a “friendlier” US administration to convince their Palestinian counterparts that they should accept a return of US funding – for the PA, or for UNRWA, the UN agency that cares for Palestinian refugees – along with the reopening of the PLO mission in Washington as first steps and hold off on other demands.

After which, it will just be a matter of time before Palestinians can celebrate another diplomatic “victory”: The return to the situation before Trump.

That, of course, worked so well for Palestinians.

Absent some fundamental change in strategy from the PLO leadership, we are about to see the same peace process car crash, all over again.

Omar Karmi is an associate editor for The Electronic Intifada and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspape