Editor’s note: Hani Al-Masri, Director General of Masarat, the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies in Ramallah, spoke at IPS-USA on July 12th. During his presentation, he discussed three topics: the Trump administration’s diplomatic initiative, the Palestinian schism, and Palestinian leadership succession. The following is a brief account of the presentation Masri delivered.
The Trump administration has on six different occasions stated that it is on the verge of announcing its initiative for Israeli-Palestinian peace, only to postpone it each time. While there are several factors that explain this trend of consistent postponement, three stand out:
First is the impetus for and trajectory of the so-called “Deal of the Century.” Even though the details of this initiative have remained vague, the administration’s intentions were made clear by its first statement on the formula for a conflict resolution, effectively withdrawing longstanding U.S. support, albeit nominal, for a two-state settlement. Nearly 18 months and two major US policy changes later, the “Deal of the Century” remains an elusive quest. One thing, however, is clear: the plan is designed to give Israel as much as possible from its wish list, while providing Palestinians with as little as possible from their own. Indeed, this is the endgame of relocating the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and slashing UNRWA funding. Both policy changes are designed to pre-emptively remove two core issues, the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Right of Return, from “final status” negotiations, which in the U.S. administration’s view means these are now effectively settled without Palestinian input.
The second factor is the uniformity of Palestinian rejection. The administration’s wholesale endorsement of Israeli demands while blatantly disregarding Palestinian rights has bolstered Palestinian commitment to basic principles rather than the details of any settlement. Thus, as a matter of principle, the Palestinian leadership, after decades of willing to negotiate under long-established parameters, now rejects any compromise that is inconsistent with prior understandings, let alone gives up East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital or the Right of Return of refugees.
The third and final factor is the hesitation of Arab regimes to endorse the deal. In an attempt to sideline the Palestinians, the Trump administration gambled on obtaining Arab support instead, specifically from the Sisi regime in Egypt and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. While recent regional developments warrant alarm where Palestine is concerned, Trump’s gamble has thus far proven futile. Neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia can deliver enough support for a deal. In fact, bin Salman, after some infamous remarks widely interpreted as contrary to the Palestinian position, recently delivered a joint Saudi-Egyptian message to Washington asking the U.S. to “put the brakes” on the initiative, explaining that it cannot be implemented without Palestinian participation.
For its part, Egypt remains a critical partner, not only for the Americans and Israelis, but perhaps most importantly for the Palestinians themselves. Nonetheless, Cairo too could not muster enough support for Trump’s “Deal of the Century.” Crucially, the Egyptian regime insisted that Palestinian participation through the Palestinian Authority is essential. This emphasis on the Palestinian Authority is not an inconsequential detail, but forms part and parcel of Egypt’s overall strategy vis-à-vis Palestinian reconciliation and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where a complete disintegration could spell disaster for Egypt in the Sinai. Specifically, spillover from the Gaza Strip into Sinai could once again revive plans for using Egyptian territory as a launch pad for reviving the economy in the Gaza Strip. In fact, in recent weeks, According to media leaks, the Trump team has suggested a Sinai Plan, which would include an airport, a water desalination plant, and five industrial zones inside Egypt for Gazan use. Though Egypt would be compensated in various ways, the ultimate cost would be for it rather than Israel, the occupying power, to bear responsibility for the Gaza Strip. This is a red line Egypt is unlikely to cross. Thus, the Egyptian interest in retaining a role for the Palestinian Authority is ultimately rooted in its core national security objectives to achieve Palestinian reconciliation and statehood.
Bearing this Egyptian red line in mind, the Trump administration has since been attempting to exploit the Palestinian schism between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority/PLO. At the heart of this attempt is an exchange of Palestinian rights for economic relief in the Gaza Strip. While Hamas faces insurmountable pressure in the blockaded territory that makes it particularly vulnerable, it is unlikely to compromise based on American terms for two reasons.
First, in the short-run, Hamas is wary of the brewing anger and potential backlash over a compromise that will undoubtedly appear unsatisfactory to most people in Gaza. As one commentator put it, “three major wars, thousands dead, tens of thousands injured and all we get is economic relief? No thank you.”
Second, in the long run, an unsatisfactory short-term deal does not bode well for Hamas’ overall endgame: retaining control of the Gaza Strip while participating in the PLO (which is dominated by Fatah). At the crux of this dilemma is the issue of power sharing. As far as Mahmoud Abbas is concerned, he is ready to welcome Hamas into the PLO as long as it is in the same position as other political factions, i.e. with limited decision-making powers, which effectively means giving up the Gaza Strip.
Ultimately, absent comprehensive and genuine reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority/PLO, the fundamental flaw with the American pursuit of a “solution” for Gaza independently of the Palestinian Authority and the remainder of Palestine is that it would only be a partial solution. And if the history of deal-making in the Palestinian setting is any indication, partial solutions tend to fail at achieving their intended goals.
At the end of the day, should Hamas accept a deal based on American terms, it will be difficult to escape the question of why it’s unwilling to compromise with fellow Palestinians. Here, one potential game-changer is particularly relevant: leadership succession. With its eyes set on leading the Palestinian national movement, Hamas could simply be waiting to outlive Mahmoud Abbas.
But, the question of succession is much more complicated.
In the absence of reconciliation, a leadership vacuum could be perilous for Palestinians. Especially as we observe an increased stockpiling of weapons by many factions. They could rise to the occasion or infighting could ensue. This uncertainty is attributed to a lack of prospective candidates. Long before Arafat’s death, it was well-known that Abbas would succeed him. Today, neither the Palestinians, nor the Americans or Israelis have an agreed candidate. What’s certain, however, is that if infighting ensues among influential leaders competing for succession, they stand to lose the most, just as they have been on the losing side since the last factional violence in the summer of 2007.
All of these developments reveal that Palestinians are facing an unprecedented crisis. Elections, where Israel is far from a neutral actor, are only part of the solution, and under the current toxic atmosphere they are likely to cause more harm than good by further institutionalizing the schism. Thus, what is desperately needed is a national vision that would overcome the polarization and produce a united, consensual, and democratic electoral process.