Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivered what initially appeared to be a monumental statement on Tuesday, in which he declared that the Palestinians are “absolved” from their agreements with Israel including those relating to security coordination. Abbas has made such statements numerous times over the years, leading many to initially shrug off his remarks. However, mixed and unverified reports are emerging which suggest that, for the first time, he may in fact be following through.
Whether or not he fulfills his promise, Abbas’ declaration marks a critical moment for Palestinians to take stock of where their political struggle stands. While the Palestinian national movement becomes ever more divided and powerless, Israel has made significant attempts to maximize its gains at their expense. Chief among them is the Israeli government’s effort to formally annex large parts of the occupied West Bank — a move that many consider a point of no return.
Indeed, four events over the course of last week have offered a rare, symbolic distillation of how the international community — and the Palestinians — have chronically failed to halt Israel’s road to annexation.
On May 13, in spite of the global pandemic, U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo made a surprise 12-hour visit to meet with several Israeli leaders, a few days before the new unity government was to be sworn in. While the trip reportedly focused on geopolitical matters like Iran and China, some observers speculated it was partly intended to shore up support for the Trump administration among Evangelicals back home. Others believed that it may have also been an attempt to reassure Israeli officials — including Benny Gantz, Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition partner and “alternate prime minister” — of American backing of annexation.
Gantz, who had openly declared his support for annexation during his election campaign, had intimated that he would only move forward with the move if implemented in “coordination” with the international community. Reflecting this condition, the new coalition agreement asserts that the rotating prime ministers “will act in full agreement with the United States, including with the Americans in regards to the maps and international dialogue on the subject [of annexation].” Pompeo’s dramatic in-person visit may have quieted any doubts over Washington’s position that, as the State Secretary repeated in Jerusalem, “this is a decision that the Israelis will make.”
Two days after Pompeo’s visit, the foreign ministers of the European Union’s member states met in Brussels to determine a united response to Israel’s annexation plans. European leaders, including EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, had for weeks been hinting that they would take a hard stand against Israel to prevent any definitive moves that could advance as of July 1.
Some nations — including France, Ireland, Sweden, Spain, and Belgium — were said to be pushing for sanctions on Israel, signaling the potential gravity of annexation. Yet other countries within the bloc — in particular Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Greece — held back attempts to act against Israel. Netanyahu has shrewdly built strong relations with the so-called Visegrad countries in recent years, aimed in part at dividing the EU’s stances on Middle East policy, and whose decisions must be made unanimously.
Unsurprisingly, the meeting ended banally. No commitments or hard condemnations were issued — outcomes that give Israeli leaders further reason to view Europe as weak and inconsequential. “Jerusalem expressed satisfaction that the discussion ended with no concrete declarations or decisions,” Noa Landau reported in Haaretz, “and that Borrel did not attack Israel during the press conference, but rather emphasized the need to respect international law.” Israel was also pleased that Borrel dismissed a question comparing West Bank annexation with Russia’s annexing of Crimea, saying “there is a difference between annexing territory that belongs to a sovereign state and that of the Palestinians,” Landau added.
While these discussions unfolded, the Palestinian Authority was preparing to hold a meeting in Ramallah last Saturday, ostensibly with various Palestinian factions, to discuss the future of the national movement in light of Israel’s annexation plans. During a roundtable hosted by the Middle East Institute the previous week, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said that the internal Palestinian discussion could lead to the restructuring of the PA, the formal abrogation of the Oslo Accords, and a reformulation of Palestine’s relationship with Israel.
Yet the meeting never came to pass. Palestinian officials offered a number of reasons for postponing it, including the need to wait until Israel’s new government was in place. At the same time, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who, Shtayyeh said, had been invited to participate and had signaled their willingness to do so, declined to attend days before the meeting, casting their doubts on President Abbas’ seriousness to move in a new direction. Other reports suggested that European and Arab officials had pressured Abbas not to take any firm decisions until Israel’s government officially expressed its intentions on annexation.
On Sunday, Netanyahu did just that. While Israel’s new government was being sworn-in at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Netanyahu declared that “the time had come” to pursue annexation, describing it as the denouement of a “historic process.”
The process the prime minister was referring to was not merely the three years during which he has coordinated with the Trump administration to draw up what eventually became the “Deal of the Century.” Nor was it the 52 years of settlement activity, building of public infrastructure, and demographic changes in the West Bank that have made de jure annexation more of a symbolic formality than a radical policy decision. Rather, it was the more-than century old process of colonization that has brought the entire land between the river and the sea under exclusive Israeli control.
This reality has been made possible by the actions exemplified by all four parties over the past week: the backing of the United States, the acquiescence of Europe, the fragmentation of Palestinians, and the decisiveness of Israel to inexorably push forward with its Zionist project, even as it discussed partition and peace during negotiations.
The next few months will likely bring more of the same. The Trump administration will double-down on its support of Israel’s territorial maximalists, especially as the election in November draws closer. European states may take individual courses of action, but a firm stand by a united Europe is not likely in the offing. The EU may make minor changes in its relationship with Israel that will not require a consensus, but it will ultimately fail to dissuade Israel from its ambitions.
That leaves the Palestinian leadership, whose inaction and indecisiveness in the face of Israeli annexation is baffling. Abbas’ declaration to abandon its agreements with Israel, if indeed fulfilled, could be a major break from the past. But without a detailed and concrete plan of action, and with widespread doubts over the PA’s commitment to its words, Abbas’ statement simply rings as a hollow threat. Abandoning the Oslo Accords without a clear understanding of how to extricate from the structures that have entrenched for 27 years is a recipe for widespread confusion and, at worst, chaos.
Given the shifting global landscape, it has become obvious for some time that the imperative for immediate change ultimately lies with the Palestinians. It is far easier for third parties to pay lip service than to take fundamental policy actions that are politically costly to carry out. Only a real and decisive shift in the Palestinian position can force other parties to react meaningfully. Yet years of valuable time to prepare and organize have been squandered, while even the most basic steps at getting the Palestinian house in order have not been taken.
If the Palestinians are to have any chance at this late stage, the Palestinian Authority must loosen its grip on power, reconcile the disparate political factions, restore legitimacy to political institutions, and marshal its people and resources to pursue a new, popular, and effective national strategy.
The Palestinians cannot halt annexation on their own; a robust international response is necessary to reverse this dangerous path. But by deferring all political hope to the actions of others, the Palestinian leadership has ensured no change will come until it is too late.