US elections 2020: Why Palestinians are not joining the party

David Hearst

Middle East Eye  /  November 10, 2020

While four more years of Trump would have been a disaster for Palestine, the return of a liberal to the Oval Office will do the job for Israel just as well.

Sometimes silence is as eloquent as wild jubilation.

While liberals the world over celebrate the downfall of US President Donald Trump – daring to hope for an end to the nightmarish, Hobbesian world of ethno-nationalist dictators – Palestinians are not joining in the party. 

Nor is there much reaction on social media to the death of lifelong Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. The two are linked.

You might have thought the opposite to be the case. Exit stage right Jared Kushner and David Friedman, two of the most hated envoys, whose claim to fame will be that – for the first time in the history of this conflict – they, as US representatives, were more extreme than the prime minister of Israel himself.

Enter stage left an Obama-lite administration that will restore funds to the Palestinian Authority (PA), reopen the Palestinian mission in Washington, and re-fund UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. While welcoming the Arab states who recognised Israel in the so-called Abraham Accords, the incoming Biden administration will be cooler to the whole process. 

Brutal truth

Tony Blinken, Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, mused to Jewish Insider that neither Bahrain nor the UAE had ever been at war with Israel, and said the significance accorded to the normalisation deals was “a little bit overstating” ties that have long existed.

This is not an administration that will try to lever and browbeat any more reluctant Arab states to join the party. What’s not to like? 

You might also have expected that a veteran Palestinian negotiator, who dedicated his life to creating a Palestinian state and who in his last years was an increasingly sharp critic, would be mourned in Jericho, where he was from. But that was not the case on Tuesday on the streets of the occupied West Bank, much as western liberals, still pushing for a two-state solution, might have wanted it to be. Why?

A change of US president does not change the reality of Israeli occupation. It does not stop olive trees from being burned down, houses being demolished, land being confiscated, families being displaced, villages being razed, or settlements growing year over year in numbers that have long since become irreversible. It does not stop Palestinians’ homeland from disappearing before their eyes.

Liberal or centre-left governments in Israel and the US, who pushed for a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish majority one, have arguably done settlers a greater service than right-wing hawks.

Gold rush for settlers

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin began his term of office in 1992 by freezing construction in the settlements. The construction of units went from 7,000 a year under the previous administration to around 1,300 a year.

But shortly after signing the Oslo Accords, Rabin spent billions of shekels on the infrastructure for mass settlement in the occupied West Bank. The Ramallah Bypass, the Tunnels Road and the Hebron bypass became the transit routes of a gold rush for settlers, permanently securing safe and fast access to Israel and coastal ports. 

This network of roads ensured, even more than the presence of the army and laws, the permanent incorporation of illegal settlements into the state of Israel. This is why annexation is a fact on the ground in all but name. 

Rabin’s actions were no aberration. In the 27 years since Oslo I, Palestinian refugee numbers have soared – around five million are currently registered with the UN – while the number of settlers in the occupied West Bank has quadrupled. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported that the numbers of settlers increased from just over 110,000 in 1993 to 413,400 at the end of 2017.

Peace talks do not merely fail to impede this expansion – they actively encourage it. They have proved to be a disaster for Palestinians, as indeed they were to Erekat’s entire career.

Empty threats

How much Erekat himself realised that this was the case in his final years is up for debate. His frustration with everyone and everything around him was clear when I last met him at a conference in Rome.

Indeed, he rarely answered questions directly. Instead, he took each question as a springboard for an uninterruptible lecture on how the international community had fashioned a Palestinian authority “without any authority”, and on how the occupation was never so easy for the occupiers. 

His words were on a loop. He threatened the withdrawal of security cooperation and a formal Palestinian referral of Israel to the International Criminal Court, but these were usually empty threats – cards placed on a table that could be withdrawn.

Did he realise that the many teams of Israeli negotiators who had sat across the table from him on so many occasions, and in so many cities, had simply banked the concessions that he and his fellow Palestinian negotiators had offered them? He did in private.

The most infamous of these, according to leaked internal memos known as the Palestine Papers, was Erekat’s offer to Israel of the “biggest Yerushalayim [the Hebrew word for Jerusalem] in history”. Israel interpreted the offer as the unofficial consent of the Palestinian leadership for the wall of settlements it had already begun to build around the city. Erekat got nothing in return. 

Recurring nightmare

This process was a recurring nightmare for him. He became a permanent participant in talks that never served anyone’s purpose other than Israel’s. Each time this game resumed, Erekat restarted with a weaker hand. 

The sum total of decades of negotiation? A hollowed-out and bankrupt PA that serves chiefly to provide security for nightly visits by Israeli soldiers; a defunct Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); a Palestinian parliament that never meets; and elections that are never held.

So, the return of another generation of sympathetic ears in Washington is no cause for wild celebration in Ramallah or Gaza. Palestinians are pleased for the people of Philadelphia, but that is where the good news stops.

In more than one respect, the emergence in the Oval Office of an unrestrained supporter of Israeli settlements, eradicator of the refugee issue and defunder of UNRWA blew the cobwebs away. Trump’s team did not change the reality on the ground, but it did dispel the myth that endless rounds of negotiations would result in a Palestinian state. 

With Joe Biden’s return to power as president, this myth will lovingly and carefully be restored, like some biblical archaeological find. Israeli settlers will continue the business of cutting down Palestinian olive trees. Israeli courts will continue to dispossess Palestinians of their legal rights to their land.

Heads will shake with disapproval in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin, but nothing will be done. Many words will be uttered about the justice of the Palestinian cause, safe in the knowledge that it will never see the light of day.

Reconciliation talks on hold

In one respect, the imminent arrival of Biden has already soured the prospects for Palestinian unity, which will be the key driver of change.

The one positive effect of the contempt with which Trump’s team treated the Palestinian leadership was that it forced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to restart talks with Hamas about reconciliation and holding elections. He had done this before but broken them off at the slightest opportunity.

Hamas encouraged the initiative. It was even prepared to discuss a joint list of candidates to encourage Fatah candidates to stand, without fear they would be decimated by an angry electorate.

The signs from two rounds of negotiations in Beirut and Ankara were initially encouraging. Irrespective of which faction would have fared better, elections would have provided an opportunity to refresh and reinvigorate a tired and corrupt Palestinian leadership, without outside interference from Israel, Abu Dhabi or Washington.

This, however, is not to be. Abu Mazen put the talks on hold weeks before the US presidential election.

Gesture of good faith

According to well-placed Palestinian sources, the issues between the two sides were fundamental. Hamas wanted three elections – the presidential election, the PA one and one for the Palestinian National Council of the PLO – to be held simultaneously. Abu Mazen insisted that only elections for the PA should be held. 

Hamas also wanted some gesture of good faith from Fatah that it was serious about a partnership, such as the restarting of payments to PA employees in Gaza. Abu Mazen refused to provide that assurance.  

The arrival of Biden will lessen the pressure on Abu Mazen to restart these talks. With Biden’s arrival, the Palestinian president will have all that was taken away by Trump: money and diplomatic recognition. 

While Democrats in the US celebrate the fact that every vote in their election has counted, Palestinians will not have the privilege of voting, and that will be at the express wish of the Palestinian faction that recognises Israel and which Biden will support. Nothing will have changed – except, of course, that the Palestinian position has gotten that much worse. 

This, unfortunately, is true to form. Abu Mazen hates rival Palestinian factions even more than Israel does, and this is another reason why the status quo has proved so deadly for the Palestinian people. But this does not advance the cause of peace – nor, from Israel’s point of view, does it advance by one day an end to the conflict.

Hugging Israel

The address by vice president-elect Kamala Harris to AIPAC in 2017 is worth re-watching. It contains all the tropes and myths about Israel “making the desert bloom” that perpetuate this conflict, as she talks about her visit to Israel, “soaking in the sights and sounds and smells of Jerusalem”.

Hugging Israel will not persuade it to freeze or dismantle settlements, or undo apartheid. Only if the state and all its institutions incur the real costs of international isolation, will it start to consider making concessions that count on the ground. 

Biden could start where former President Barack Obama left off. The US abstained from a UN resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlements in December 2016, one of Obama’s last acts as president. Biden could make clear to Israel that the US considers settlements illegal. He is unlikely to. Blinken has already said the US would not “single out” Israel for condemnation at the UN.

Yes, four more years of Trump would have been a disaster for Palestine. More Arab states would have been forced by their penury to take the president’s many shillings in return for recognition of Israel. 

But the sad truth is that the return of a liberal to the Oval Office will do the job for Israel just as well. Israel will continue pushing the envelope of its de facto borders, secure in the knowledge that it enjoys international immunity for its actions.

Once again, it’s up to Palestinians to determine their future – and never more so than now.

David Hearst is the editor in chief of Middle East Eye