Adnan Abu Amer
Middle East Monitor / March 9, 2020
After the massive Palestinian protests against the recent normalisation meetings between PA leaders and Israeli figures, a member of the Fatah Central Committee and head of the PLO’s Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society resigned.
Surprisingly, President Mahmoud Abbas rejected Muhammad al-Madani’s resignation and granted the members of the Committee complete political cover. This was viewed as a direct challenge to the Palestinian general public’s rejection of such meetings.
What is the context of this? While Abbas has spoken repeatedly about cutting all communication with Israel in response to the deal of the century, meetings between Palestinian and Israeli delegations are continuing in Ramallah and Tel Aviv at a time when the PA is demanding that the Arab states should not normalise their relations with the occupation state. It is not reasonable to demand others to reject ties with Israel while we are normalising them; they will not be more royal than the king. The normalisation issue has angered the Palestinian public, who see it as the PA challenging the popular will and breaking the promise made by Abbas to sever communications with Israel.
The latest normalisation meetings took place over several days and were attended by Palestinian officials at various levels. The process started with 15 prominent officials in the PLO, the PA and Fatah — including current and past PA ministers, members of the PLC and the above Committee — attending a conference held by the Israeli Peace Parliament to discuss the ramifications of the deal of the century at the headquarters of the Israel Journalists’ Association. Under the slogans “Yes to Peace”, “No to Annexation” and “Two States for Two People” the conference was also attended by Israeli ministers and former Knesset members, including Arab-Israeli representatives.
The Palestinians believe that the PA-Israel normalisation meetings are a stab in the back of the ordinary people who publically rejected Donald Trump’s deal. The weakness of the Palestinian position will be highlighted in the face of any Arab state’s normalisation with Israel. Furthermore, the meetings imply official Palestinian acceptance of the deal in the eyes of the international community.
The Palestinian Presidency has also hosted an Israeli press delegation at the Yasser Arafat Museum in Ramallah, during which Nabil Abu Rudeina, the Minister of Information and a spokesman for Abbas, confirmed to the journalists that security coordination with Israel is still in place and just as effective. The aforementioned Committee also hosted a group of representatives of the Israeli media.
Mahmoud al-Habbash, Abbas’s Advisor for Religious Affairs and Supreme Shari’ah judge, hosted an Israeli delegation, including journalists, at a lunch in a Ramallah restaurant before taking them on a tour of the city. It was highly provocative for bystanders, hence the tight security screen around the group. According to Habbash, he met the Israeli journalists with Madani, whose Committee organised the meeting as part of the Palestinian leadership’s efforts to confront Trump’s deal politically, legally and in the media. He added that the meeting was a way to present the Palestinian narrative and vision of a just and comprehensive peace that guarantees the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.
While ordinary Palestinians expressed their anger at the restaurant meeting, the PA and Fatah remained silent. Nothing was said through official media outlets or their spokespeople. Indeed, the meeting was met with silence from the presidency, the Fatah Central Committee, the Fatah Revolutionary Council and the PLO Executive Committee, apparently on the orders of the leadership.
The participation of senior PA officials in such meetings may be construed by Israel as evidence of a wish to return to “peace” negotiations. That’s why they were obviously planned in every respect — time, location, agenda and participation — and have American support so that Washington can boast that the deal of the century has succeeded in putting the “peace process” back on track.
The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign described the normalisation by Palestinian leaders in the middle of Trump’s deal announcement as dangerous and shocking. Our cause is facing the most dangerous project witnessed by the people of Palestine in decades, even though a breakthrough with the Israelis has proven elusive after decades of trying.
The PA’s position on normalisation should not have surprised the Palestinians, though, as Abbas himself met with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last month on the side-lines of the UN Security Council. Nevertheless, the response on the street has been angry. Molotov cocktails were hurled at the restaurant in Ramallah which hosted the Habbash meeting, prompting the management to issue a disclaimer that it was reserved by the PA with no mention of an Israeli delegation having lunch there. The Everest Restaurant in Ramallah cancelled another reservation after suspecting that an Israeli delegation would be there.
Israeli orientalist Ksenia Svetlova, a former member of the Knesset Foreign and Security Committee, believes that the Israeli-Palestinian meetings have increased Palestinian rejection of normalisation with Israel. The political stalemate and the deal of the century, she explained, has led to Palestinians refusing any rapprochement with Israelis, including journalists and peace activists. Such meetings are, she said, considered to be signs of accepting the occupation and normalisation with Israel. Nevertheless, the meetings which have been held, said Svetlova, were “warm and friendly” despite being attacked on Palestinian news sites and social media.
One of the participants, the mayor of Anabta to the east of Tulkarem, Hamdallah Alhamdallah, wrote a Facebook post about the meeting, but was forced to delete it before announcing his resignation from the municipality and Madani’s Committee. This was despite the fact that his meeting with the Israelis was held at the invitation of Fatah, headed by Abbas; his attempted justification fell on deaf ears.
Palestinian rejection of meetings with the Israelis raises two important questions: does the status quo in the West Bank hinder the work of Israeli organisations working towards a two-state solution, and the continuation of dialogue with the Palestinians? And how can the struggle for peace be continued when every Palestinian who meets with the Israelis is attacked?
Mossi Raz MK of the left-wing Meretz party, an old peace activist, said that the Palestinian refusal to hold such meetings with the Israelis is due to despair and frustration. For Shaqued Morag, director of the Peace Now movement, there is a difference between normalisation with Israel and working to end the occupation. She pointed out that in all of her meetings with the Palestinians in Ramallah, she was never been or felt threatened because she is trying to change the existing reality, not preserve it.
According to the director of the Geneva Initiative, Gadi Baltiansky, he continues to hold joint meetings between the two sides despite the difficult atmosphere created by the deal of the century, although the increase in hostility towards normalisation makes it difficult for the work of peace organisations. He added that while the meetings are not entirely cancelled, the time when they are held is affected and, due to the current negativity, Palestinian activists have asked the organisation not to publish any information about them.
The strange thing is that the Israelis, despite the public Palestinian rejection of all these meetings, have confidence that the leadership headed by Abbas affords them full coverage. Hence, Israel will continue to convene normalisation meetings even though the current atmosphere is not conducive to them taking place. In any case, the meetings prompt serious questions about the seriousness of the PA’s boycott of Israel and claim to have severed all communication with the occupation state.
Adnan Abu Amer is a Palestinian academic