The future of Palestinian diplomacy in the Trump era

Dr. Ido Zelkovitz February 2017
Op-eds / The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

The developments during the early months of 2017 show that the Palestinian Authority continues to prefer to express its opposition to Israeli policy through diplomatic means, including attempts to promote stronger international pressure on Israel. PA President Mahmoud Abbas espouses the diplomatic struggle and the recruiting of international support for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 lines. His consistent stance is that institutionalized violent struggle harms Palestinian interests.

As part of the lessons learned from the Arafat era, in which violence was encouraged and used as a political tool, Abbas wants to change the way Palestinians are viewed by Western eyes. Instead of Palestinians being viewed as peace rejectionists who adopt violence as what they think is a legitimate tool, Abbas wants them to be viewed as a nation searching for a diplomatic solution for its national tribulations, while receiving support from the global community.

However, this strategy now faces a number of challenges following the rise of the Trump administration and the new winds blowing in the White House, as well as several regional changes: the growing Russian involvement in the Middle East, and Russia’s signals to the PA and Islamic factions that it is ready to take a more active role in the intra-Palestinian arena.

The new American administration does not bode well for the Palestinians. During the election campaign, Trump issued statements that he would give Israel a green light to expand settlements and that he would relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He also appointed a right-wing ambassador to Israel (David Friedman) who supports the settlement enterprise. All these actions aroused deep suspicion among the Palestinians. Even if Trump does not carry through on the embassy relocation, due to the sensitivity of the subject and concern over the great anger it would arouse in the Arab world – the very fact that the president supports such an idea teaches the Palestinians that they do not have a friend in the White House.

One of the paths taken by the PA to protest the emerging American policy was to accept a Russian invitation to attend a summit with all the Palestinian factions in Moscow in January 2017. The close ties between the PLO and Russia are natural, as they are based on a positive historic relationship. The socialist and Marxist factions within the PLO enjoy an ideological-historical affinity with the Russians. These groups include: The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP); and the Palestinian People’s Party (PPP; communists). Abbas himself was closely aligned with the Russian regime for many years. It was in Moscow that Abbas wrote his controversial doctorate. Also, Abbas served as chairman of the Russia-PLO Friendship Association for many years.

The goal of the discussions held between the Palestinian factions under the Russian umbrella was to try to promote an internal Palestinian reconciliation, and an actual timetable for its implementation. Following the summit in Moscow, Fatah and Hamas reached a new agreement about conducting municipal elections in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in mid-May 2017. The discussions regarding the elections dates were held simultaneously with laborious talks between the various factions that attempted to create a formula for reforming the PLO’s political structure and integrating Islamic elements in PLO institutions.

But the growing Palestinian rapprochement with Russia does not only focus on attempts to achieve internal Palestinian reconciliation. It also serves to exert pressure on Israel and diminish US prestige in the region. Thus, the PA is sending out two messages, one to Russia and one to the US. They are telling Russia that the Palestinians are willing to give Russia a role in their internal reconciliation process, and they are sending a message to the US regarding the way the Israeli-Palestinian peace process should be conducted in the future. Abbas declares at every international forum that he accepts Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to an Abbas-Netanyahu summit in Moscow. He reiterates that he is waiting for an answer from the Israeli government, to jump-start the peace process.

The fact that the Palestinians do not view the US as an “honest broker” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only heightens Abbas’ achievement in convincing the Obama administration to refrain from using its veto power to block UN Resolution 2334.

Resolution 2334 is one of the salient Palestinian diplomatic achievements in the Obama era. This resolution was warmly received by the PLO. More surprising was that it also drew positive reactions from Hamas and Islamic Jihad members, despite the fact that the resolution supports the two-state solution, calls for continued security coordination between Israel and the PA and is vague regarding if and how pressure will actually be placed on Israel.

The tightening relationship between the PA and Russia against the background of the change of government in the US shows that the Palestinians are trying to tell the Trump administration that there are additional power brokers in the global arena. And, according to the Palestinians, these other entities can counterbalance what they believe will be Trump’s pro-Israel policy.

Russia’s involvement in the Middle East is growing and is expressed by the active fighting of Russian forces alongside Assad’s regime in Syria against the rebels, and also by Russian provision of advanced weapons to Syria and Iran. This involvement, together with the Palestinian-Russian alliance, creates a sense of Middle East deja-vu. Are we returning to the diplomatic principles of the Cold War?

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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