The Palestinians’ Washington comeback is not going to be easy
Whatever final decision the Trump administration may take regarding the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) office in Washington, Palestinian-American relations have not made any real progress since the failure of the Camp David summit in 2000 among former US President Bill Clinton, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Now they face uncertain prospects.
In late 2001, George W. Bush was absorbed by his War on Terror and his subsequent invasion of Iraq. The US administration practically ignored the Palestinian question and American-Palestinian relations have regressed ever since. The closing of the PLO office in Washington is a natural conclusion of this trend, which will lead to a total divorce between the two parties.
Is it fair to accuse the Trump administration of abandoning the Palestinian cause, which remains the cause of an entire people? The Palestinians have always been on the political map of the Middle East. Their problem is finding a place on the geographical map of the Middle East.
The Trump administration cannot simply turn its back on the Palestinian question. This administration has been undermining the foundations that had been keeping the cause alive for nearly 70 years. It closed the Jerusalem issue and is ending the issue of the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The United States is also moving on to close the issue of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Trump’s recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the US Embassy in Israel there closed the Jerusalem issue. By all international agreements, East Jerusalem was to be the capital of the independent Palestinian state. Trump’s decision kills the two-state option that previous US administrations had held as a reasonable solution and useful step towards a final solution for the Palestinians. Even George W. Bush spoke of a “viable” Palestinian state.
The next step in the diabolical plan to kill the Palestinian cause was to cut US funding to UNRWA, the UN body created to help Palestinian refugees. By abandoning the refugees, the United States is telling the countries hosting them to absorb them. This means that the long-standing Palestinian right of return is no longer valid, an ironic fate for a principle that the Palestinian refugees and their host countries were forced to accept as part of the reality they had to contend with since 1948. The Palestinian right of return was abused by everyone who survived by selling fantasies and who had other goals to pursue and scores to settle, definitely not in pursuit of a peaceful solution.
In 2000, Arafat had made a serious mistake by refusing to accept Clinton’s settlement framework. Clinton ended up not trusting Arafat and recommended to his successor at the White House not to deal with the Palestinian leadership. Why Arafat made that mistake we will never know.
The fact remains that, since 2001, the Palestinians paid the price of every major event in the region. That year involved the militarisation of the Palestinian intifada and al-Qaeda’s terror strike at the United States. Since then, the Palestinians have lost every diplomatic, political or military battle they were involved in.
With Donald Trump in the White House, US bias towards Israel has become total. This is a fact that everybody needs to accept. For Trump, the Palestinians mean nothing and reaching a fair and acceptable settlement represents no advantage to him. He has his own agenda and it is quite different from those of his predecessors. Many Palestinians doubted America’s ability to play the role of a fair middleman and they were right.
The Palestinians had fought hard to get to Washington. Their major gain from the 1993 Oslo Accords was access to the White House. In 2000, Arafat was a frequent guest at the White House, more than any other president.
To be fair to the Palestinians, overwhelming developments in the Middle East harmed their interests and their cause. They, too, however, harmed themselves. To speak of a regression of the Palestinian cause, especially after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, is an understatement. When Iraq became a playing field for the evil games of the Iran-backed sectarian militias, the Palestinian cause took a direct hit and began to sink.
Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, kept Arafat besieged in Ramallah until his death in November 2004. Arafat’s death left such a huge void that the Palestinians have not a clue how to fill it. No one among the Palestinian leadership had thought of opening a diplomatic representation in Washington. A prize would be offered to whoever could come up with the name of a person to head that representation.
No matter how hard he tries, Trump won’t be able to bury the Palestinian cause but it may take a long time for the cause to regain its due attention. There is a need for new faces who understand the threats and opportunities in the regional context and who would be able to deal with an American administration that is not interested in dealing with them. The road to Washington had been very long. How long it will take for the Palestinians to go back there?
Regaining access to decision-making circles in Washington won’t be easy for the Palestinians. A new generation of Palestinian leaders needs to grasp the significance of the climb of the extremist right in Israel since 2000, in addition to understanding the consequences of the changes on the international scene and in the United States in particular.
There is a need for flexible and creative minds that can go beyond the old cliches used by Palestinian leaders to respond to Trump’s decisions. This is a new world and it requires a different language.