On July 2, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a speech at the African Union Heads of State Summit in Addis Ababa.
The speech attracted little attention from Israeli or global media, for in many ways it was similar to Abbas’s many speeches focusing on the Israeli occupation and its consequences. It did, however, include an interesting section in which the Palestinian president called on the African leaders (many of whom are Muslim or Arab) to stipulate that any upgrade of their ties with Israel would be conditional on Israel ending the occupation.
Given that most experts concur that Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, will not take unnecessary diplomatic risks or normalize ties with Israel before the resolution of the Palestinian issue, we should ask ourselves what Abbas is concerned about.
First, Abbas, who has been heavily involved in shaping Palestinian history, knows that at critical moments, the Arab countries have followed their own separate interests. In 1979, it was Egypt under Sadat that turned its back on the Palestinians and signed a peace agreement with Israel. In 1982, during the First Lebanon War, there were no Arab efforts to save the PLO from Israel. The organization suffered defeat and was forced to relocate its headquarters to Tunisia. In 1988, Jordan unilaterally disengaged from the West Bank, following the first intifada.
Later, Yasser Arafat abandoned king Hussein by signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, despite the latter’s political umbrella during the 1991 Madrid conference.
King Hussein felt betrayed, but decided to make use of the positive regional momentum to sign a peace treaty with Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, without stipulating that the implementation of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement or the establishment of a Palestinian state were conditions of the agreement.
Abbas’ second concern is the absence of natural, consistently reliable allies, which is especially disconcerting in view of the PA’s inherent weakness and limited economic resources, and its resulting dependence on regional actors (including Israel). In the past, the PLO could automatically count on the support of the Soviet Union, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Today, all these actors have become irrelevant for the PA and its current strategy of relying on moderate states that support the peace process. Such states, however, are not always aligned with the interests of the PA. In 2017, for example, Egypt attempted to amend the Arab Peace Initiative (an attempt blocked by Palestinian objection) and is currently promoting a deal with Hamas to grant Mohammad Dahlan powers in Gaza, contrary to the wishes and at the expense of the interests of the PA.
Finally, Abbas is concerned by recent changes in Israel’s favor in the overall Arab position. In 2013, the Arab Quartet agreed to modify the Arab Peace Initiative and accept the notion of Israeli-Palestinian land swaps without demanding any concession from Israel in return. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has made a series of gestures to Israel over the past two years, including visits, meetings, and allusions to secret security cooperation against common enemies. In May 2017, The Wall Street Journal even reported that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states offered to take some normalization steps toward Israel in return for a limited settlements freeze and an Israeli decision to ease restrictions over trade with Gaza.
Over the years, various Arab countries have conducted behind-the-scenes relations with Israel. The Arab countries were afraid of being caught in public as supporting their Israeli “mistress” rather than their Palestinian “wife.” This “mistress syndrome” is still evident, but recent developments indicate that the interests of these countries, and specifically their desire to deter Iran and its allies, are served by publicizing their diplomatic or security ties with Israel. Making their relations with Israel more public also lays the groundwork for a future upgrade of ties with Israel, once the Israeli-Palestinian peace process moves forward.
Like other experts, I also believed (and continue to believe) that Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and other Arab countries will not take major steps toward normalization with Israel before significant progress is made toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nonetheless, an uncompromising Palestinian position, and the continued split between the PA and Hamas, might lead Arab leaders to prefer their national interests over their commitment to the Palestinian cause. Sadat and king Hussein made such decisions in the past, and others may follow. This is a definite cause of concern for Abbas.