On September 15, Israel signed agreements at the White House with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain to establish diplomatic relations and normalize ties. They became the third and fourth Arab states to do so, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. The Palestinian reaction was rapid and harsh, with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud ‘Abbas calling it “a stab in the back.”
Shortly thereafter, ‘Abbas’ Fatah movement began talks with Hamas under Turkish auspices to discuss elections and, potentially, reaching a power-sharing agreement. It is uncertain if these intra-Palestinian talks will succeed, given the failure of previous reconciliation efforts. But with the Arab world divided and the United States on the eve of a very consequential election, what options do the Palestinians have to advance their national agenda in a difficult environment?
President Donald Trump spoke of Arab normalization with Israel as “the dawn of a new Middle East,” but in fact it is more a manifestation of ongoing regional trends than a revolutionary change. Over the past decade, the central geostrategic feature of the region has been its division into two antagonistic blocs: the main Sunni Arab states (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt) plus Israel on one side; Iran, its allies (the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah, and the Houthis), and a collection of Islamist Sunnis (Qatar, Turkey, and Hamas) on the other. Despite the obvious fault lines within each group, the component parts on each side have come more closely together spurred by the threat they perceive from the other side. In the case of the Sunni states and Israel, they have drawn ever closer over their shared antagonism toward Iran. Supported by the United States, their logic was simple: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
The geopolitics of normalization were reinforced by the transactional nature of the peace deals. For the Emiratis, the key deliverable was the prospect that they could obtain American F-35 fighters, something they had long wanted. While Israel has concerns about losing its regional monopoly over F-35s, it is likely that a modified version of the fighter for the UAE will ultimately be approved.
For Israel, normalization allowed it to achieve a longstanding goal of opening relations with the Arab Gulf states, without paying a price in terms of concessions to the Palestinians. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to give up on annexation in the West Bank, this initiative was already going nowhere in the face of domestic opposition. The Israeli center-left opposed annexation as a threat to the two-state solution, and the extreme right believed that Netanyahu’s proposal to annex 30 percent of the West Bank would eventually lead to a Palestinian state in the remaining 70 percent, something they adamantly oppose. With annexation blocked, the price Netanyahu paid for giving it up was more theoretical than real.
The deal between Israel and the UAE did remove the immediate threat of annexation, but beyond that it did nothing to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Normalization has deeply alienated the Palestinians from their traditional Sunni Arab supporters and pushed them toward the opposing regional bloc. The weakness of the Palestinian situation has been laid bare, but this hinders rather than helps peacemaking.
The Palestinian sense of betrayal over normalization is reinforced by another ongoing regional development: the decline of the Palestinian narrative of dispossession as a central driving force in Arab politics. Arabs once turned out in the streets regularly to support the Palestinian cause, but that is rare today. Even when Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, there was little reaction in Arab countries. The Arab world has many other concerns today, and Palestine is just one on a long list of problems.
The Palestinian leadership viewed the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002 as important leverage in negotiations with Israel. Under the terms of the API, normalization between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world would come only after a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. While it’s unclear that the hypothetical leverage of the API ever affected Israeli decisionmaking, ‘Abbas put great stock in the idea and was furious when the UAE changed course. The API has been turned on its head: normalization first, peace maybe later.
The Palestinians initially turned to the Arab League for support, but faced opposition from the UAE and its principal allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who dominate the institution. Rebuffed, ‘Abbas shifted his attention to resolving internal Palestinian divisions and began discussions with Hamas in Istanbul. Fatah has emphasized that these talks are about elections only, not broader reconciliation, but ‘Abbas surely wanted to signal to the Arab League and Israel that he had other options.
In reality, however, ‘Abbas has few good options. Palestinian elections are necessary to resolve internal Palestinian divisions and restore political legitimacy, but any deeper rapprochement with Hamas or alignment with Hamas’ regional allies will only leave the Palestinians more isolated. A repeat of the 2006 legislative elections that were won by Hamas would seriously complicate Palestinian relations with Israel and the West.
The reality for both Palestinians and Israelis is that there is no way of bypassing the other. The fundamental problem between them has not changed and will not go away. There are roughly an equal number of Jews and Arabs in the territory west of the Jordan River. Neither the Jews nor the Arabs who live there are going anywhere, and without a Palestinian state the existence of a stateless and disenfranchised Palestinian population will eventually undermine Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature.
Some Israelis believe that normalization allows them to circumvent the Palestinians—what Netanyahu calls “peace for peace”—but this is a misconception that will only create a worse problem for Israel down the road. Similarly, the idea that Palestinians can achieve their national goals without the support of the main Sunni Arab states or direct contacts with Israel and the United States is equally farfetched. Palestinians should work to repair their relationship with the Gulf states and resume contacts with Israel and Washington. Maintaining the Palestinian boycott on contacts with Israel when annexation is no longer a viable option makes no sense.
Resolving this deeply entrenched conflict will require outside help, and here the United States should again play a central role. Much will depend on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. The Palestinians are clearly waiting until after November 3 to make any decisive moves. This is understandable, as a Biden administration could potentially bring a more nuanced view toward regional politics and Arab-Israeli peacemaking than Trump’s transactional approach. But Biden—if he wins—will want to concentrate on America’s domestic problems first and may not be eager to jump into Middle Eastern politics. The Palestinians would be wise to temper their expectations and recognize that outsiders will not resolve their problems for them. There is no bypass road on the way to peace.