Against All Odds, the Persistence of Palestine

Although Palestine seems to have disappeared from the Western and Arab diplomatic agenda, it remains rooted in the regional reality and in the memory of the peoples. One cannot so easily eradicate the aspiration to emancipation.

Demonstration against the establishment of new settlements in Beit Dajan, east of Nablus, 5 August 2022
Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP

President Biden’s recent visit to the Middle East did not reset American grand strategy. It essentially sought to reduce energy prices in the wake of the Ukraine War. Yet it ignored the issue of Palestine, leaving the Palestinian people as marginalized as ever.

Biden did not reverse Trump’s major concessions given to Israel. Official criticism of Israeli settlements is muted. The US Consulate in Jerusalem remains closed, in recognition of Israeli claims over the disputed city. The Palestine Liberation Organization is still listed as a terrorist organization, and its office in Washington, DC remains shut. Despite pledging support for a two-state solution, the US has not provided a framework for renewed negotiations. Biden has restored foreign aid to the Palestinians, but this only allows a corrupt and ineffectual Palestinian Authority to subsist.

While such neglect has always been part of US foreign policy in the region, it presently reflects the fading salience of Palestine in the Arab world. The past decade has produced marked change in how the regional order of Arab states perceives the Palestinian cause. On the one hand, public opinion across the region remains strongly pro-Palestinian, and support for the Abraham Accords and normalization with Israel is lukewarm at best. On the other hand, Palestine no longer has resounding impact within the national politics of many countries. Ideologically, the Palestinians have paid the price for the decline of pan-Arab ideologies, including Arab nationalism and Islamism, because those platforms conveyed strong advocacy for Palestinian self-determination. Economically and politically, many Arab countries have experienced tumultuous conflicts or transitions since the Arab Spring. Many Arabs now focus on local struggles for dignity and justice, rather than regional issues like Palestine.

Socially, the repression and fragmentation of many civil societies have also foreclosed mass mobilization against Israeli aggression. Pro-Palestinian protests have thus waned in number and size, excepting perhaps Jordan given its proximity. Events that would have once elicited sharp popular responses, such as Hizbullah’s recent drone flights over Israel, barely register in these public spheres now.

Finally, in geopolitical terms, Palestine no longer structures the regional agenda because there is no more regional agenda. The conventional Arab state system, one built upon enduring consensus and enshrined through the Arab League, has all but collapsed.

Incentives for standardisation

Yet the new era of normalization, embodied by the Abraham Accords, represents not an accidental convergence of interests so much as a steady unfolding of regional dynamics. In this periodization, each successive stage has introduced new incentives.

The initial impetus for normalization came from the counterrevolutionary axis. Driven by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates amidst the Arab Spring, the counterrevolution sought to emasculate all ideologies, from Arab nationalism and Islamism to liberalism and democratic activism. Its goal was to shore up authoritarian regimes by eradicating all sources of popular mobilization.

The second impetus, which closely followed the first, was pleasing American foreign policy under the Trump administration. The “deal of the century” provided an opportunity for old American allies to boost their geopolitical status, and for new ones to gain traction inside Washington by establishing pro-Israeli credentials. Since the departure of Trump, we have now entered a third stage. Arab states have become untethered from previous alliances and commitments, and in the twilight of American hegemony now pursue their own divergent interests. Crafting a separate peace with Israel benefits each normalizer in a unique way. Notably, none of those benefits stem from the lofty promise of the Abraham Accords, which according to its architects was to unleash an unprecedented wave of economic integration and prosperity that would touch all corners of the region. In the Gulf, for example, the Emirates and Bahrain see in Israel a convenient ally in crafting mutual security arrangements to counter Iran, which they see as an existential threat. The UAE has also found Israeli technological and financial connections vital in its economic expansion into Africa. Morocco, for its part, perceives Israel as a useful partner to address Algeria’s relative advances in certain military aspects, which are now being matched. The Sudanese leadership jumped on the normalization bandwagon because it enabled the country’s removal from the US terrorism sponsorship list, and opened the door to close economic and military ties with the West.

End of permanent alliances

The Palestinian issue, thus, lays neglected not because of a concerted regional order, but because there is no order left. Traditional alliances have been replaced by an ever-shifting landscape of conflicts and groupings, with each state seeing the regional system as an abundant buffet from which it can pick and choose seemingly contradictory positions. There are no permanent axes, only ad hoc assemblages. These patterns of cooperation are utilitarian, predicated not on ideological accord but rather temporary alignments of overlapping interests. For example, Turkey cooperates with Russia to facilitate grain passages through the Black Sea, but it has also accepted American entreaties to allow Finland and Sweden to join NATO. Likewise, it has engaged in trilateral summitry with Iran and Russia, while selling military drones to Ukraine. Morocco remains pro-Western in its economic and political orientation but chose not to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The new “great game” for the Eastern Mediterranean natural gas fields has likewise triggered new partnerships and antagonisms among Libya, Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, and Greece, which they negotiate independently of broader regional pressures.

This milieu also explains why four Arab states have not yet entered into normalization with Israel: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. Saudi Arabia is constrained given its custodianship over the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Condoning Israel’s colonial onslaught against Palestine would also mean symbolically abandoning Jerusalem, which holds the third Islamic holy site of Al-Aqsa. Qatar intends to maintain its neutral position as a broker, projecting its influence through soft power. Normalization would deprive Doha of its position of staying above the fray of regional conflicts.

While these geopolitical configurations across the region have multiplied in complexity and number, within Israel an austere division of labor has emerged between the state and settlers. The Israeli political establishment seeks to normalize with as many Arab states as possible, and hence make a single “Jewish” state a fait accompli. Meanwhile it allows the settlers to undertake ethnic cleansing and colonize Palestinian lands. Because these settlers do not act through official state directives, the Israeli government can claim plausible deniability regarding their behavior. The international community subsidizes this arrangement. The result is an apartheid-like system, one where Israeli state and society work to classify, segregate, and regulate the Palestinian people as subjects.

Arab regimes dutifully denounce the occupation and colonization of Palestine, but only through minimal lip service. They, too, play a two-level game, one where rulers seek the material payoffs of making peace with Israel while further containing the pro-Palestinian elements of their civil societies. However, this strategy is now threatened by two new developments.

The question of sacredness

First, the Palestinian crisis has evolved to become a global human rights issue, one that invokes universal concerns regarding civil rights and basic dignity. Because Israel has methodically destroyed the two-state solution, now the predominant framing of the Palestinians is one that questions whether they have their rights under Israeli rule. The worldwide outcry over the murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh testifies to this development. So has the groundswell of grassroots support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, which situates the struggle for Palestine as comparable to the anti-apartheid campaign against South Africa.

Second, since the Sheikh Jarrah conflict last year, the Palestinian issue has attained a sacred dimension. The problem of Jerusalem is no longer solely about its status as the eternal capital of Israel or aspirational capital of Palestine. Now, the issue revolves around the sacrality of its Muslim heritage and the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa compound, including the Dome of the Rock and tomb of the Prophets. The conflict over Jerusalem always linked territoriality with spirituality, but now the latter has become more prominent. This sacrality implicates deep themes of Islamic identity and religious belonging, raising spiritual and theological questions relevant to all Muslims worldwide.

While some Israeli politicians wish to secure Jerusalem as quickly as possible, others understand this sacred dimension and so wish to absorb the city only in gradual steps so as to dilute the possibility of a religious eruption. However, they are placated by their very partners – the colonizing settlers, who operate not with a political rationale but a messianic one, which pursues the dream of a Greater Judea with religious zeal. This bifurcation of politics and religiosity baffles Arab regimes. They understand the strategic logic of ceding Palestinian lands to Israel, but cannot handle either the spiritual recoil of Jerusalem’s occupation nor the global transformation of the Palestinian cause into a civil rights campaign. Indeed, the former explains Saudi Arabia’s reticence to normalization, given that it cannot sacrifice one Islamic holy site in Jerusalem while claiming to defend Mecca and Medina on behalf of the global ummah.

Palestine has undoubtedly suffered a setback in this new era. Yet, the crisis will not dissipate. Palestinians are not going anywhere. Demands for self-determination persist even in the face of unrelenting imperialism. Northern Ireland resulted from the English conquest and colonization of Ireland 500 years ago. Yet not even the Good Friday Agreement has fully resolved its religious and ethnonationalist tensions.

In the same way, the Palestinian cause will endure. Emancipation is a fundamental human yearning, resisting all the geopolitical bedlam and religious pressures that currently encage it.