ON SEPTEMBER 15TH, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al Zayani joined President Donald Trump on the White House South Lawn to sign normalization agreements between Israel and the two Gulf states. Lauded by Trump and Netanyahu as a “historic achievement,” the “Abraham Accords”—as they’ve been dubbed by the Trump administration—mostly reflect a repackaging of existing economic and security ties between the three countries, which have been developing behind the scenes for years.
To many Palestinians, the UAE and Bahrain normalization agreements have revealed with stark clarity the extent to which they have been abandoned by the international community, and in particular the Arab states once counted as allies. “Palestinians are completely on their own, political orphans,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the author of Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump. The agreements mark a break with what has been the Arab League consensus on Israel/Palestine for almost 20 years. In 2002, the loose confederation of Arab states endorsed the Saudi-brokered Arab Peace Initiative (API), which offered Israel full recognition and normalization of diplomatic relations in exchange for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Now, the UAE and Bahrain have committed to normalization in exchange for Netanyahu’s pledge to the UAE (which he has already reneged on) to temporarily suspend Israel’s planned de jure annexation of parts of the West Bank—an agreement that leaves Israel free to continue de facto annexation through settlement expansion and forced population transfer.
With even more normalization agreements rumored to be on the horizon—Sudan could very well be next—the Palestinian leadership faces a strategic dead end. Israel’s ongoing military occupation has not led to its international isolation but rather to further impunity: As Raja Shehadeh wrote in The Guardian, “Israel has managed to turn its occupation of Palestinian territory from a burden into an asset”—a testing ground for surveillance and crowd control technologies in high demand from authoritarian regimes like the UAE and Bahrain. Meanwhile, the Oslo framework for negotiations toward a two-state solution has not brought Palestinians any closer to self-determination. “If the lesson under Obama was that the US isn’t going to save you, the lesson under Trump is that the Arabs aren’t going to save you either,” Elgindy told me. Faced with this abandonment, many Palestinian policy analysts and intellectuals are asking: Where do we go from here?
There is little consensus on the answer. “There is a huge gap between civil society, scholars, activists, on the way forward,” said Carol Kasbari, a Palestinian expert in conflict resolution and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. “While some say resistance, others say diplomacy and the international community. Some want [new] elections and others want to dismantle the PA [Palestinian Authority] altogether.” Support for a two-state solution, an integral part of Palestinian politics for more than three decades, is also increasingly up for debate. Yet there remains no clear path toward ending the occupation and achieving national liberation. “Palestinians are disoriented with nowhere to turn,” Elgindy told me. “They are all over the map.” The lack of a “cohesive, credible, effective political leadership” only makes matters worse, he added. “I don’t know what the Palestinian strategy is other than to hang on and survive day to day.”
Prior to the normalization agreements, the Palestinian leadership crisis was already acute. The PA was formed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as part of the Oslo Accords in 1994, to serve as a temporary administrative body charged with managing the areas in the West Bank that Israel withdrew from—with the goal of a establishing a Palestinian state by 1999. In the nearly 30 years since, unceasing Israeli territorial expansion and the PA’s consolidation of power has turned what was meant to be a Palestinian state-in-waiting into an impotent bureaucracy, reduced to a subcontract police force for the Israeli government in the West Bank and dependent on foreign aid to pay civil servants’ salaries and avoid collapse. PA President Mahmoud Abbas—84 years old and often in poor health—has no obvious successor and has extended his term in office for more than a decade. Like the PA itself, he has become deeply unpopular. According to a September poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 62% of the public wants President Abbas to resign, the same percentage that views the PA as “a burden.”
Yet the events of the last month have highlighted the need to address the crisis of leadership with greater urgency. The normalization agreements were “a blunt awakening for people in the PA, and for a lot of Palestinians,” said Dr. Yara Hawari, a senior Palestinian analyst with Al Shabaka, an independent Palestinian policy think tank. “If not now, when is the time for a complete recalibration of strategy?” But such recalibration will not be easy, Hawari added, as the PA is a product of the same paradigm that has led to its failure. “The very strategy that keeps the PA alive—the two-state framework—is dead and being violated left, right, and center,” she said. “It can’t go against the two-state solution because that is its bread and butter.”
Even Palestinians who remain committed to a two-state solution acknowledge that they will have to find other ways to achieve one. Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian Mission to the United Kingdom and a senior adviser to Abbas, acknowledged the failure of the US-led peace process, but stressed that it “doesn’t mean we fail as a nation and as a people. If Israel rejects the land for peace formula, we need to assess other ways to get there. Hope did not end. The only thing that ended is the possibility of a US-mediated two-state solution.” Zomlot, who led the PLO mission in Washington before Trump shuttered it in 2018, did indicate that a broader reconsideration of the two-state paradigm was on the table, but stressed that “any future strategy that revisits our commitment to the two-state solution must be adopted by newly elected representatives.”