Feeling betrayed by UAE, Palestinians seek to redefine struggle

A deal to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates upends decades of Arab consensus to withhold ties with Israel until an agreement is reached on a Palestinian state. For Palestinians, it looms as more than just a blow to Arab unity and their quest for statehood, but as a reckoning for their leadership.

Feeling alienated by Arab allies and the international community, Palestinians are seeking to redefine their struggle with a renewed sense of urgency. The deal has accelerated an evolving shift in thought on the two-state solution and a peace process many now say was dictated to them.

What is percolating up from the grassroots is a desire for a dramatic move away from conventional demands. Instead of “peace,” or even “statehood,” the rising buzzwords among Palestinians on the street and among activists are “rights” and “resistance.”

“The peace process is a failed framework. The [Palestinian Authority] under Mahmoud Abbas has solely focused on negotiations and more negotiations when it was clear he should have changed strategy a long time ago,” says Diana Buttu, a former PLO spokeswoman. “Negotiations were simply a tactic, never a true strategy, and now they do not even have the Arabs with them. They have nothing.”

AMMAN, Jordan

Betrayal, tragedy, a stab in the back – Palestinians have used many anguished phrases over the past week to describe the brewing normalization deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, but one clearly defines where they find themselves: a crossroads.

For Palestinians, the UAE-Israel agreement looms as more than just a blow to Arab unity and their quest for statehood, but as a reckoning for their leadership and a final nail in the coffin of the Oslo peace process.

Feeling alienated by Arab allies, the United States, and the international community, Palestinians are seeking to redefine their struggle with a renewed sense of urgency.

What is percolating up from the grassroots also is a desire for a dramatic move away from conventional demands and diplomacy and a reliance on their political leadership. Instead of “peace,” or even “statehood,” the rising buzzwords among Palestinians on the street and among activists are “rights” and “resistance.”

The UAE-Israel deal upended decades of Arab consensus that Arab states would withhold normalization with Israel – and its associated economic and diplomatic benefits – until after a comprehensive peace deal for an independent Palestinian state that included Israel’s withdrawal from lands it captured in 1967.

The consensus, formalized by Saudi Arabia in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, was used by Arabs and Palestinians as an incentive for Israel and the international community to stick to the peace process and the two-state solution.  

With the UAE, a regional heavyweight and one of the wealthiest Arab states, now violating that consensus, observers and officials say the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinians are diplomatically and politically isolated.

Further, the deal is evidence that the Palestinians’ tactic of “shaming” Arab players who attempt normalization – previously successful in constraining Israel’s peace with Jordan and Egypt and pushing Israel-Gulf cooperation behind closed doors – no longer works.

Anger at leadership

Predictably, the announcement last week ignited protests in Gaza, Jerusalem, and Ramallah, with protesters accusing the UAE of “treason” and burning photos of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. On the streets and on social media, slogans echoed one call: “normalization is betrayal.”

It is also seen as a mortal wound to the Palestinian Authority, which is faulted for its costly pursuit of a now moribund peace process and which, after being snubbed by the Trump administration, had clung to Arab support as its strongest remaining card.

“Simply, the peace process is a failed framework. The PA under [President] Mahmoud Abbas has solely focused on negotiations and more negotiations when it was clear he should have changed strategy a long time ago,” says activist Diana Buttu, a former PLO spokeswoman.

“Negotiations were simply a tactic, never a true strategy, and now they do not even have the Arabs with them. They have nothing.”

Saeb Erakat, negotiator and secretary general of the PLO Executive Committee, addressed the internal Palestinian debate in an email interview.

“Not all Palestinians think the same, and that’s a good thing. [But] there is an overwhelming consensus when it comes to ending the Israeli occupation,” he says. Is the Oslo peace process “taking us from occupation to independence or is it being used to perpetuate the status quo of occupation and apartheid? This is the real question that has to be answered.”