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The Palestinians can undermine US-Saudi designs and rescue their national struggle

If the Oslo Accords gave birth to a Palestinian Authority without authority, then Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal” looks set to offer the Palestinians a state without statehood.

The potential spoilers are the Palestinian people themselves. The protests over recent days are an indication of the potential impact of popular mobilisation, and its ability to undermine US – and Saudi – plans for an “ultimate deal” that will ride roughshod over inalienable Palestinian rights.

The background is familiar. For some years, Saudi Arabia has pursued closer ties with Israel in response to both the perceived threat posed to its interests by Iran, and the (relative) decline of US power in the region.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has accelerated this trajectory.

Anti-Iran animus

Meanwhile, the White House is occupied by a president who shares the anti-Iran animus of Riyadh and Tel Aviv, and whose electoral base includes diehard, evangelical supporters of “Greater Israel”.

Trump, Saudi Arabia and Israel want to focus on Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia want to consummate their marriage. But there is a ghost at the feast: the Palestinians.

Not, of course, because any of the parties have the Palestinians’ best interests at heart. In the words of one analyst, “the very rationale” for Washington and Riyadh focusing on Israeli-Palestinian “peace” is the desire to birth “a visible Saudi-Israeli alliance that will deter Iran”.

Hardly a promising start.

No, rather it is because, despite everything, the Arab populations of the region have not forgotten the Palestinian cause – and any leader who contributes to its liquidation would pay a heavy price.

The problem for the US and Saudi is that the contours of the “peace plan” being formulated by the Trump administration are unacceptable to Palestinians.

Though US officials have remained tight-lipped, various reports have suggested that the Palestinians will be offered a form of “self-rule” in parts of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), with issues such as refugees and Jerusalem’s holy places postponed.

Even if Jared Kushner and his team spring a surprise, it is inconceivable that any “blueprint” they produce will be an improvement on past packages, that themselves never bridged the gap between the maximum Israel is prepared to offer, and the minimum Palestinians are able to accept.

Palestinians: Potential spoilers?

Nothing is new under the sun – and never more so than in the efforts to square the circle of settler colonialism in Palestine/Israel.

The Americans and Saudis may believe – unfortunately, with some justification – that criticism of their proposal can be neutralised by its framing as a mere “interim” agreement. Palestinians, and others, however, may recall that the Oslo Accords were also “interim” agreements whose transitional period was supposed to end in May 1999 – 18 years ago.

Palestinian self-rule that stops short of genuine sovereignty? Again, nothing new here. In 1995, Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin declared that the Oslo peace process would lead to a Palestinian “entity which is less than a state”. Fast forward to 2017, and Netanyahu wants a Palestinian “state-minus”.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia’s reported idea that “Palestinians could have Abu Dis, a suburb of East Jerusalem, as their capital,” there is an echo of the suggestion by “optimistic Israelis” in 2000 that Yasser Arafat could call Abu Dis “Al Quds” and “establish his capital there”.

There was a time when the resolution of the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” was said to be the key to regional stability and prosperity. This shallow cliché was later replaced by another – that the Palestinian issue is irrelevant to more pressing regional concerns.

Now, however, through the shared priorities of the Trump administration, Riyadh and Tel Aviv, as well as the Emirates and Sisi’s Egypt, the Palestinians find themselves in the position of potential spoilers of a plan for a regional makeover, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Mahmoud Abbas is under immense pressure and in a tight corner. Admittedly, it is hard to feel any sympathy for a man who, to mix metaphors, finds himself in a blind alley of his own making.

Permanently-temporary occupation

There are plenty of examples over the years that caution against underestimating Abbas’ capacity for clutching at straws, especially when it comes to remaining in the White House’s good books. Consider the troubling remarks made by one unnamed Palestinian official in September: “We are willing to give Israel time if they are willing to give us land,” he said.

“We told them [US officials], if the plan states clearly that the ‘ultimate deal’ is to have Palestinian statehood on the 1967 borders with a slight land swap, we will accept the first stage of it, which [is] establishing a state with provisional borders.”

Yet that very same official noted concerns that “Israel will make the provisional deal final”. Well indeed – but in then in which case, why even consider presenting Israel with such a golden opportunity to continue what it does best: permanently temporary occupation.

Abbas could withstand the US-Saudi pressure and reject the proposal – but then what? Will he resign – or be forced to resign? Any successor unwilling to break with the decades-old paradigm of internationally supervised “negotiations” will face the same set of dilemmas.

Those promoting Saudi normalisation with Israel are certainly banking on a failure of Palestinian imagination that they hope to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: this is “the only game in town,” they say, with no “other obvious path forward for Palestinians”.

There is another spoiler, however, one that the Americans and Saudis cannot directly pressure or replace – the Palestinian people living under Israeli apartheid.

Palestinians have demonstrated their ability to thwart efforts at their marginalisation before, whether on a large scale – such as in the first and second Intifadas – or in the kind of localised struggles that unfolded over the summer at Al-Aqsa and in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Through no choice of their own, Palestinians from Hebron and Silwan to Nablus and Gaza City are in the position of being able to simultaneously undermine US-Saudi designs and rescue their own national struggle from a concerted attempt to consign the question of Palestine once and for all to an economic peace of Bantustans and joint industrial zones.

Thus, to refashion an old slogan, if the road to Saudi-Israeli normalisation goes through Jerusalem (or Abu Dis), it is also there where it may reach a decisive dead end.

Published first by Middle East Eye.

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