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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

When Old Conventions Fall

Filed under: Palestinians, Terrorism, U.S. Policy

When Old Conventions Fall

Developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent weeks, and some we can expect to unfold in the near future, have caused increasing frustration among Palestinians.

This is due to the erosion of Palestinian power, which until now has ensured that the Palestinians are treated with kid gloves, as well as perpetuating the realization in Israel that there is no Palestinian peace partner, particularly in light of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ recent speeches.

First, U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the ensuing reactions reflected a real change in the international community’s stance toward the conflict and the weakening of the Palestinian camp. The U.S. didn’t just recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but it also undermined completely the convention that the problematic Palestinian narrative – which rejects the existence of a Jewish people and its sovereign and historical link to the land of Israel – must not be challenged. The U.S. decision put the myth of the dreaded Arab and Muslim street backlash to the test and proved that the perceived threat was baseless all along.

The feeble reaction on the ground, the lack of Arab support, and the vote by only 128 countries in favor of the Palestinian-proposed U.N. resolution (Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dejectedly confessed to expecting the support of least 160 countries) are all a testament to the declining Palestinian position. The American threat to curb financial aid to countries that support the resolution was far more effective.

Now the door has been opened for the U.S. to threaten to cut aid to the Palestinians and to UNWRA; for U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman to declare that Israel’s control of Judea and Samaria is not an occupation; for additional countries to relocate their embassies to Jerusalem; and for Scandinavian countries (even them!) to stop funding Palestinian NGOs essentially controlled by terrorist organizations.

The Palestinians are about to face two more problems.

One is a considerable drop in available cash to fund the PA, following the ratification of two laws in the Knesset and Congress – the Stern bill and the Taylor Force Act. These laws condition the transfer of at least NIS 1 billion (some 6% of the PA budget) on ceasing salary payments to terrorists and their families, and on abolishing the law facilitating such payments under the classification of terrorists as the Palestinian fighting sector.

This legislation, and the threat to slash funds to the Palestinians over their refusal to renew diplomatic talks, will challenge another vital element of the Palestinian position – the threat of the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. According to this logic, the PA cannot be asked to honor its commitments under the Oslo Accords to stop encouraging terrorism, and certainly no economic steps can be taken against it, because doing so could cause the PA to collapse or at the very least cease security coordination with Israel. The assumption is that the PA’s existence and its security cooperation are such key Israeli interests that no one would dare put them in jeopardy.

But the legislative process in Congress is pressing forward, and the PA will almost certainly not fall as a result, because its existence is first and foremost a Palestinian interest. This was evidenced during the metal detector riots, when the Palestinians terminated security cooperation with Israel but renewed it shortly afterward – without fanfare – because it was no less a Palestinian interest than an Israeli one.

The second problem at the Palestinians’ doorstep is the Americans’ ongoing push to present their own peace proposal. Only a small handful of people in the know are familiar with the details of the proposal, but the impression thus far is that it puts a far greater emphasis on Israel’s security needs than previous proposals, including the demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the democratic national home of the Jewish people and acceptance of a permanent Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley.

The constant Palestinian threat, whereby any final status agreement must first and foremost address Palestinian sensitivities – an important component of their power of deterrence – effectively marginalizes Israel’s security needs (essentially the crux of the American security proposal under former President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, otherwise known as the Allen Plan). However, not only has this threat not deterred President Donald Trump’s Middle East team, it no longer enjoys the support of Arab countries.

In the meantime, the PA’s attempt to prop up its crumbling posture by flaunting a fictional reconciliation with Hamas has also floundered, because Fatah and Hamas both refuse to budge on conceding any real assets.

This frustration and anxiety, to this point, has produced Pavlovian emotional responses: days of rage; a diplomatic campaign, predicated on assured Western European support, that includes butting heads with the U.S.; and releasing the pressure valve from Gaza in the form of limited rocket fire at Israel. Simultaneously, the Palestinians are trying to escape the looming American peace plan.

But their emotional outbursts will not save them. They are approaching a decisive juncture and must decide whether to cling to their rejectionist policies and armed struggle – amplifying their anti-Israel activities and exacerbating tensions with the Trump administration until things blow over (while sustaining the blow of an aid cut to continue paying terrorists’ salaries) – or come to terms with the new reality and the consequences of their limitations.

It certainly stands to reason that in the first phase they will prefer the path of conflict (and in this context Hamas is already reinforcing its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah), but if American, Israeli and Arab pressure intensifies, it is possible Fatah will be forced to examine, for the first time, its ability to adhere to the anti-Zionist narrative, which is the primary obstacle on the path to a peace deal. The chances of this happening are still very small, and Abbas’ advanced age and the consequent power struggle in this regard reduce the chances even further.

In Israeli right-wing circles, there is a growing desire to exploit the current Palestinian weakness to advance construction in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria, which under effective Palestinian deterrence could not be done without a significant price. This trend is perilous because it could bear the opposite of the desired results in Israel and provide a new tailwind for Palestinian power.

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This originally appeared in Israel Hayom on January 10, 2018. (