Who will stand up to US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, dubbed the “deal of the century”, which he unveiled alongside Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House last week? That is the question the Palestinian people might be asking themselves following what was a sad day for their aspirations of nationhood.
European countries, collectively or individually, will not oppose the proposed deal. The most they can do is improve the economic and financial offer extended to the Palestinians while taking measures to prevent the inflow of refugees. Russia will not oppose the US as the erstwhile Soviet Union had done when the Arab-Israeli conflict was a key component of the Cold War. Today, Moscow could perhaps recall international resolutions and revive the "quartet”, comprising the United Nations, the US, the European Union and itself. It could also convene an international conference and encourage negotiations, but little beyond this. For its part, China will adhere to its traditional position on the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as international principles enshrining the Palestinian right to statehood, but Beijing will not bring this issue into the calculations of its relationship with the US.
The Arab countries meanwhile are divided in an unprecedented manner. Some have highlighted shortfalls in the proposal, while others have called for negotiations to improve the terms and others still have encouraged the Palestinians to focus on the positives.
Iran and Turkey will engage in one-upmanship, using the issue to fulfill their domestic and regional agendas. Beyond the use of shiny slogans devoid of meaning, neither country is interested in having a direct confrontation with Israel or risking further US sanctions – particularly if they engage Israel through their proxies.
Now, there is no doubt that the proposed deal – meant to serve the electoral purposes of both Mr Trump and Mr Netanyahu – prejudices Palestinian rights, and defies international law and UN resolutions. Mr Trump has also in effect retracted from commitments made by several US administrations over decades to the two-state solution. However, the one positive from the proposed deal is that Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law and the plan's architect, has persuaded Mr Netanyahu to at least postpone annexing the West Bank settlements as well as the Jordan Valley. The latter is a strategic area occupying 30 per cent of the West Bank and gives Israel the ability to lock in the Palestinian state, thereby denying it sovereignty.
However, given that there would be no way for a Palestinian state to emerge without US approval, its leaders need to take a hard look at their policy of refusing to talk to US or Israeli authorities, and begin thinking of the tactical steps they could be taking in order to prevent further loss of territory to the Israelis. President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority must stop engaging in verbal posturing and be smarter as the PA hopes to resist the implementation of the plan on the ground.
The leadership’s current bid to oppose the deal will not have much impact on the ground, except garnering applause at the UN General Assembly or the Security Council, which Mr Abbas intends to address. However, he is unlikely to receive as much moral support as before, and the Palestinian draft resolution might not even obtain the nine votes needed for adoption by the council.
Palestinians must no doubt engage with the rest of the world but their movements in international forums must complement a plan to rejoin negotiations in coordination with key Arab countries that would be compelled to put their weight behind a common strategy. Refusing to talk to the US only gives Israel licence to annex whatever it wants with American blessings. The posturing, which includes calling for resistance and boycotts, almost always takes place at the expense of Palestinians. They might even pay the price for incitement because they are on the verge of becoming a hopeless and possibly permanent burden.
The Palestinians should also realise that Iran, a proponent of the policy of maintaining stubborn refusal, will be unable to deliver on any promises of resistance and retaliation against the “deal of shame” – as Tehran has called it.
Indeed, the Trump administration will be extra-vigilant against Iran and its proxies, and is intent on holding it responsible for any escalation of regional tension. When he spoke about the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani during the unveiling of the deal, Mr Trump was clearly threatening Tehran and daring it to use the peace plan as a means of presenting itself as the leader of the resistance against the deal. Some say that Tehran is developing a strategy of escalation against the deal because this would allow it to deflect attention from its internal economic problems and unrest, in addition to other benefits of engaging in one-upmanship with Arab states. Others say Iran will refrain from escalation, having fewer resources and less support to execute its schemes, especially under penalty of US sanctions.
A Palestinian source involved in the failed peace process said: “We must compartmentalise the battle and create options.” The priority, he added, must be to “move to prevent Israel from implementing the plan unilaterally” by agreeing to negotiate “on the condition that Israel refrains from implementing any terms” beforehand. This way, it might be possible to stop Israel’s rush to annex territory and thwart Mr Netanyahu’s bet on Palestinian rejection. In other words, the Palestinian leadership must have a shorter-term practical plan to prevent or postpone annexation while shoring up intra-Palestinian unity.
And as one Russian official who asked not to be named said, the Palestinians must “not to overdo contrariness” and should “adopt a flexible tactic rather than absolute rejection of what has been proposed”.
Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute