As Arab Gulf starts opening to Israel, Palestinians face a reckoning

By Rami Ayyub

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s rapprochement with Gulf Arab states has left the Palestinians feeling abandoned by traditional allies and clutching an old playbook in a rapidly changing Middle East, analysts and critics say.

As the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain prepare to sign normalization accords with Israel at a White House ceremony on Tuesday, Palestinian leaders face calls to overhaul their strategy to avoid becoming marginalized in a region where Israel and most Sunni Arab regimes share a fear of Iran.

The Palestinian approach to securing freedom from Israeli occupation has for years relied on a longstanding pan-Arab position that called for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza and Israel’s acceptance of Palestinian statehood, in return for normal relations with Arab countries.

But the Palestinians last week failed to persuade the Arab League to condemn nations breaking ranks.

Tuesday’s ceremony, hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump, will be “a black day in the history of Arab nations”, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Monday.

Shtayyeh said the Palestinians are now discussing whether to “adjust Palestine’s relationship with the Arab League.”

But critics say the proposed move is too little too late, with President Mahmoud Abbas facing mounting criticism for their increasingly isolated position.

“There is very little indication that the (Palestinian) leadership is contemplating a break from its approach,” Tareq Baconi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told Reuters.

The Palestinians’ strategy centers on holding Israel to account in international legal tribunals, and trying to break the United States’ dominance over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Baconi said.

“Arab and European support in that strategy is crucial, but it is questionable that the Palestinians will be able to secure either to the level required to ensure a just peace.”


Despite signs of shifting Arab support, Saeb Erekat, Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said the underlying Palestinian strategy for achieving a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza would not change.

“To stay on the grounds of international law, international legality, to seek peace based on ending Israeli occupation and a two-state solution … we cannot depart from these squares,” he told Reuters.

While conceding difficulties faced by a Palestinian leadership under Israeli occupation, analysts nevertheless say Abbas does have some options.

After years of in-fighting between the two main Palestinian factions, Abbas’s Fatah and Islamist Hamas, long-overdue elections would refresh the president and parliament’s mandate and boost their leverage abroad by increasing their legitimacy at home, analysts say.

“We need to … rebuild the PLO’s institutions from the ground up and cement relations between Palestinians here and in the diaspora,” Gaza analyst Talal Okal said.

Over six million diaspora Palestinians, he said, “can influence the communities they live in so the Palestinian cause has a place on the agendas of their host governments.”


One area where Abbas has widespread public support – 70% in recent polls – is his two-year boycott of the Trump administration, which he accuses of pro-Israel bias over its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and endorsement of Israel’s West Bank settlements.

Frustrated by the Palestinians’ refusal to take part in Trump-led talks, the White House has sought to bypass Abbas and his team, apparently hoping they will see the deals with the UAE and Bahrain as incentives to return to negotiations.

For more than two years Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has tried sidestepping Abbas to appeal to Palestinians directly, telling Al-Quds newspaper in 2018: “The world has moved forward while you have been left behind. Don’t allow your grandfather’s conflict to determine your children’s future.”

That has had little apparent success. And the Palestinian leadership at first engaged with the Trump administration. Until, said Erekat, they concluded that “these people want to dictate a solution, not negotiate a solution … they’re the ones who are departing from international law.”

Dennis Ross, who served as a Middle East adviser under Republican and Democratic administrations, had cautionary words for both sides.

While the Gulf deals served notice that Palestinians “don’t have a veto on normalization as regional dynamics shift” the Israelis, he said, “cannot wish the Palestinians away — and standing pat also means increasing the risk of one state for two peoples.”

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Adel Abu Nemeh in Jericho and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Stephen Farrell, William Maclean)

Paraguay opens its Israel embassy in Jerusalem, second country to follow U.S. lead

Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, following the dedication ceremony of the embassy of Paraguay in Jerusalem, May 21, 2018. Sebastian Scheiner/Pool via Reuters

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Paraguay opened its Israel embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, the second country to follow the United States in making the politically sensitive move from Tel Aviv.

Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the inauguration ceremony. The United States relocated its embassy to Jerusalem a week ago, drawing Palestinian anger. It was followed by Guatemala on Wednesday.

The status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest obstacles to forging a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, who with broad international backing want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, as their capital.

Israel regards all of the city, including the eastern sector it annexed after the 1967 conflict, as its capital.

“This is a historic day that strengthens ties between Paraguay and Israel,” Cartes said at the ceremony.

“A great day for Israel. A great day for Paraguay. A great day for our friendship,” Netanyahu responded. “You have not only the support of our government but the profound gratitude of the people Israel.”

Hanan Ashrawi, an official of the Palestine Liberation Organization, denounced Paraguay’s move.

“By adopting such a provocative and irresponsible measure that is in direct contravention of international law and consensus, Paraguay has conspired with Israel, the United States and Guatemala to entrench the military occupation and to seal the fate of occupied Jerusalem,” Ashrawi said in a statement.

In December, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, reversing decades of U.S. policy and upsetting the Arab world and Western allies.

Most world powers do not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the entire city and says its final status should be set in peace negotiations.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Dan Williams and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Winds of change blow softly as Palestinian party leaders meet

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) attends the Fatah Central Committee meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah January 8, 2011.

By Luke Baker and Ali Sawafta

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Palestinian politics hasn’t seen much change in the past 10 years — President Mahmoud Abbas has been in power since 2004 and the last parliamentary elections were a decade ago.

But next week, Fatah, the dominant force in Palestinian politics for half a century, will hold its first party congress in seven years and is expected to shake up its central committee, foreshadowing longer-term political changes.

While Abbas, who is 81 and has received medical treatment in recent weeks, will remain in power at the top of Fatah and the umbrella movement, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the congress is likely to lead to the appointment of a clear number two in the party and a potential leader-in-waiting.

It would be one of the biggest developments since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, and while the outlook for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is highly uncertain as Donald Trump prepares to take over the U.S. presidency, it could lay the ground for a shift in approach from the Palestinians.

“This is very important, a crucial congress for Fatah to reorganize the movement and renew the legitimacy of the leadership,” said Jibril Rajoub, a former security chief and central committee member who is running for re-election.

“The next period should be how we reorganize the whole political system,” he told Reuters at his office in Ramallah, where party members and supplicants gathered in large numbers this week to put their views and seek his influence.


In the build-up to the meeting, much has been made of a potential threat to Abbas’s authority from Mohammed Dahlan, a former senior figure in Fatah who now lives in self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates.

Dahlan, 55, casts himself as someone to shake up the old order and bridge the differences between Fatah and the Islamist group Hamas, a rupture that has splintered Palestinian unity and blunted efforts towards peace with the Israelis.

But Dahlan has been ousted from Fatah and Abbas has limited the delegates attending the congress, cutting the number to around 1,300 from 2,500 at the last meeting in 2009, making it far harder for Dahlan loyalists to mount a challenge.

“Who is Dahlan? Dahlan is not existing, he is no one,” said Rajoub. “He was fired from the movement. He is not a solution.”

A foreign diplomat tracking the cut-and-thrust ahead of the congress underscored that view, saying he didn’t see “any broad ability to unturf Abbas” and that Dahlan “doesn’t represent a popular, significant movement in Fatah”.

Instead, Palestinian officials and Fatah leaders say, the Ramallah gathering, which starts on Nov. 29 and will last for three or four days, will cement Abbas’s position at the top while electing around half a dozen new names to the 21-member committee that sets the party’s agenda.

“I hope to see an appropriate mix between those who are now in the leading bodies and the new generation, representatives of the new guard,” said Nasser al-Qudwa, Arafat’s nephew and a member of the central committee who was Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations for 14 years.

“There will be some changes from the last meeting.”


The most important decision will come in the days after the congress, when the new central committee meets to elect from among its members a deputy to Abbas in the party.

Palestinian officials repeatedly mention four names as being in the running for that post: Qudwa, Rajoub, Tawfiq Tirawi, a former head of intelligence, and Mahmoud al-Aloul, the former governor of Nablus, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Rajoub and Qudwa both dismiss out of hand any suggestion of a shortlist — Tirawi and Aloul could not be reached for comment — saying Fatah’s rules don’t work like that. But they confirmed a deputy would be chosen shortly after the congress.

There are then plans for the Palestine Liberation Organization’s top legislative body, the national council, to meet for the first time in 20 years and potentially elect a new executive committee, which is also headed by Abbas.

If that happens in the coming weeks, Palestinian officials say, Abbas would again be reaffirmed. But critically, his deputy in Fatah may also be named as deputy head of the PLO executive committee, all but enshrining that person as leader-in-waiting.

“There are lots of hurdles to jump, but this is the way it is shaping up. Changes are coming,” said a senior Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to divulge internal discussions.


Abbas is much maligned inside and outside the party, despite retaining a large degree of influence. His leadership is seen as lacking the inspiration of Arafat, he has failed to secure the end of Israel’s occupation or an independent Palestinian state, and the split with Hamas has worsened on his watch.

None of that will change after the congress. But if a clearly anointed successor emerges in the weeks and months ahead, diplomats and Palestinian officials say it may help mend internal divisions and encourage the world to re-engage.

Trump said this week he wanted to tackle the Middle East issue and believed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, could take on the role of peace-broker in the region. It remains to be seen how serious a proposal that is and whether Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, would be an acceptable, independent interlocutor.

But among the Palestinians being talked about as potential successors to Abbas, at least one, Nasser al-Qudwa, shares common ground with Kushner — he has lived in New York on and off for the past 30 years and retains a home in the city.

(Writing by Luke Baker, editing by Peter Millership)