Arab normalization and Palestinian radicalization: The tug of war over the Middle East peace process
By Dan Diker and Khaled Abu Toameh
The September 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords between the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel, followed by Sudan’s declaration of normalization, reflects tectonic shifts in Middle East geopolitics. These unprecedented developments have collapsed the long-held orthodoxy in Western diplomatic circles that Middle East peace first requires a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
For much of the past two decades, no Arab country or leader wanted to be associated with the tainted term tatbi’a (normalization) with Israel due to its negative, even treasonous connotation. However, Arab leaders had quietly indicated readiness for change. In August 2020, the watershed occurred. Arabs are no longer publicly reticent to endorse relations with Israel, and they even boast of it.
Three Arab peace and normalization deals with Israel announced in a period of eight weeks and a projected five to ten more near-term agreements with other Arab states suggest that Western powers overlooked or underappreciated the rapidity of changes in Arab state priorities, especially regarding Iranian and Turkish Islamist regimes extremism and hegemonic intentions. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s unequivocal warning in 2016 that, “There will be no separate peace with Arab countries” is a good illustration of this misreading of the Middle East political map.
Perhaps equally unexpected has been the Palestinian leadership’s wholesale denunciation of the Abraham Accords, its unprecedented delegitimization of its longtime Arab allies and financial donors, and its pivot toward the radical, terror-sponsoring Iranian and Turkish regimes. The current crisis in Palestinian-Arab relations points to regional dangers for Middle East security, stability, and peace. Iranian and Turkish regimes’ incitement and threats against Arab, Israel and Western leaders, including their attacks on French President Emmanuel Macron, and their nominal justification of recent Islamist terror attacks in Nice and Vienna, punctuate the problem.
This brief assesses how Palestinian radicalization undercuts Arab normalization and undermines Middle East stability. It analyzes what steps the Palestinian leadership needs to take to reconsider its radical alliances and, instead, realign its interests with Arab states and Israel to reach a compromise agreement and help secure the Middle East threatened by Iranian and Turkish extremism and terror subversion.
Arab Normalization Undercuts PLO Ideology, Strategy, and Tactics
The U.S. announcement on October 22, 2020, of a peace and normalization agreement between Sudan and Israel sent a third shockwave in eight weeks through the decades-long relationship between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and its political underwriter, the Arab League. Sudan’s public renouncement of its 70-year sponsorship of international terrorism that had included hosting Al Qaeda’s founder Osama Bin Laden, serving as a base for PLO terror operations, and providing Port Sudan as a transit hub for Iranian weapons headed for Hamas in Gaza, did not come as a surprise to the Palestinian leadership. PLO and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas had already absorbed the “shock” of the UAE and Bahrain’s agreement to normalize relations with Israel in August 2020. Nonetheless, The PLO described losing Sudan as a “disaster.”
The Palestinian leadership’s use of the term “karetha” (disaster) to characterize Sudan’s changing sides reflects the earthquake in Arab-PLO relations. It had been 53 years ago, in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, in the aftermath of ‘Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, that the Arab League issued its resounding “Three Nos” to Israel – “no peace, no recognition, no negotiations.” The infamous Three Nos in August 1967 have transformed into Sudan, Bahrain, and UAE’s “four yeses” in 2020; yes to peace, yes to recognition, yes to negotiations, and yes to normalization.
The White House, September 15, 2020. Prime Minister Netanyahu with U.S. President Trump, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed (far right) and Bahrain Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullatif Al Zayani (far left). (Israeli Government Press Office – Avi Ohayon)
It is the unprecedented Arab readiness to normalize relations with Israel that has undermined the Palestinian leadership’s ideology, undercut its strategy, and short-circuited its negotiating tactics.
The PLO and its political and diplomatic handmaiden, the Palestinian Authority, had nominally recognized and negotiated with Israel when PLO founder and Chairman Yasser Arafat signed the U.S.-led and internationally guaranteed Oslo I and II agreements in 1993 and 1995, respectively. However, Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, had successfully executed a strategy of “selective compliance” to Oslo. Arafat financed terror attacks, while he and Abbas both employed political warfare, incited to “jihad,” issued payments to “martyrs,” took unilateral statehood moves at the UN, repeatedly petitioned the International Criminal Court, sanctioned an international Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign to delegitimize and isolate Israel internationally, while leveraging up the PLO’s negotiating position with the international community.
This international PLO strategy had now been undermined and dismantled by some of its former leading Arab sponsors. Moreover, the PLO’s ideological anchor had been uprooted. The Abraham agreement’s normalization of relations with Israel effectively canceled the formal Arab League boycott and its half-century-old sanction of the PLO’s 1968 Charter that called for the “Liberation of Palestine” from the river to the sea, referring to Israel as a “racist,” “colonialist,” and “illegitimate” implant in the Middle East. The PLO charter has quietly remained in place in its entirety post-Oslo. However, now the PLO Charter that had anchored its political warfare campaigns domestically against the “Zionist enemy,” dawlat al-ihtilal – literally, “the state of occupation” – has lost Arab regional legitimacy. For the first time, Arab countries recognized Israel unconditionally. Their exchanges now include culture, diplomats, politics, arts, music, high tech, civil society, tourism, and sports.
The Abraham normalization accords have refuted the Palestinian leadership’s anti-normalization discourse that it has advanced in Arabic since May 1994 (eight months after the Oslo I Accord at the White House) when Arafat called for “jihad” from a Johannesburg mosque, and in English since the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, that launched the global BDS campaign against Israel. The PA al-tatbi – (anti-normalization) crusade hit a “high note” in 2014 when Jibril Rajoub, PA Minister of Sport and head of its Olympic Committee, launched an international campaign to expel Israel from the International Football Federation. At that time, he famously posted on his Facebook page, “Any activity of normalization in sports with the Zionist enemy is a crime against humanity.”
Aside from undermining the PLO’s ideological and strategic platforms, Arab normalization agreements have further undercut Abbas’ Oslo negotiating tactics from 2000 to 2016 and the collapse of the Kerry peace plan. Abbas, using the Saudi 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as a pretext that demanded a priori an Israeli retreat to the pre-1967 lines in the West Bank, return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, the division of Jerusalem, and control over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, had rejected six consecutive Israeli land-for-peace offers since 2000. However, the Arab normalization accords have undercut Abbas’ international leverage and neutralized his traditionally Arab-backed veto power.
The PLO Condemnation of Arab States and Pivot to Turkey and Iran
The Arab about-face on its decades-long “Palestine First” land for peace requirement has triggered an unprecedented Palestinian rhetorical assault on Arab allies. Abbas labeled the UAE, Bahrain, and even Saudi Arabia as infidels and branded their moves as a “stab in the back” and a “betrayal of al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem, and the Palestinian issue.”13 Abbas’ fury also triggered him to call an emergency meeting of rival terror group leaders from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and local representatives of the Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command on October 26, 2020, in Ramallah. His invitation to the PFLP-GC illustrates Abbas’ outreach to even his most extreme PLO rivals. As Khaled Abu Toameh has pointed out, this radical PLO terror group headed by Ahmed Jibril, was responsible for killing Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon, including massacres of Palestinians by the Syrian Army.
PLO and Hamas anti-Arab incitement sparked protests in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians in east Jerusalem burned UAE flags and pictures of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed. Palestinian Authority mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, even issued a fatwa, an Islamic religious ruling, banning citizens of Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, or any Arab country that may in the future normalize relations with Israel, from praying at the Al‑Aqsa Mosque. Hussein’s message to the Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslim world left little room for doubt: he declared, “Arab states that normalize relations with Israel are enemies of Islam and traitors to the Prophet Muhammad.”
Fatah Central Committee Secretary and Sports Minister Jibril Rajoub went further, demonizing Arab and Israeli leaders. He compared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the World War II-era fascist Italian leader Benito Mussolini and the Bahraini and Emirati foreign ministers to “worms drying out in the sun.”
The Palestinian leadership’s condemnation of the Abraham Accords was not necessarily self-evident. Abbas could just as easily have leveraged the UAE’s success in forcing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to postpone his plan to apply Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. Abbas could have used the Israeli concession and announced a return to negotiations with iron-clad Arab support under the American administration’s peace proposal for a Palestinian state on some 70 percent of the territory, including proposed land swaps in the Negev and Galilee, and a $50 billion state development budget.
Abbas rejected this approach. Instead, he continued to boycott all cooperation with Israel, the United States, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and other Arab states that committed to or were considering regional peace and security efforts. In contrast, Abbas and his ruling Fatah faction’s arch-rival Hamas and other PLO groups held reconciliation talks in Istanbul, Turkey, under the sanction of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Abbas’ move was a rhetorical and ideological declaration of war against Arab states. Erdoğan, the leader of Turkey, the primary state power behind the global Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, has been persona non grata among most Middle Eastern states for his role as leader of the regional Sunni Islamist bloc, including Qatar’s Muslim Brotherhood government and the Hamas terror organization ruling the Gaza Strip. The UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain have outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood. Jordan joined this group recently in a far-reaching move. In July 2020, the Jordanian high court ruled to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been a tolerated political opposition group for decades.
Erdoğan’s hosting of the Palestinian factions has ratcheted up longtime tensions with Egypt, Jordan, and the Saudi-led Gulf states. Erdoğan provided Abbas a regional platform. As a NATO member, the Turkish leader also set up a global stage for Abbas to snub Arab leaders, Israel, and the United States. Erdoğan issued similar condemnations of Arab Israeli normalization despite Turkey’s own relations with Israel. He condemned his Arab “brothers” via closely-controlled media, including Yeni Akit, a staunchly pro-Erdoğan and Islamist militant newspaper, which stated, “The Saudis were competing with the UAE in treason (against the ‘Palestinian cause’).”
Abbas’ outreach to Erdoğan legitimizes the Turkish Leader’s support for Hamas, Abbas’ main rival. Hamas’ former president and current Politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh is a frequent VIP guest. Istanbul has also served as a Palestinian headquarters from where Hamas leaders have mobilized West Bank terror cells. As recently as October 22, 2020, the British Times revealed that “Hamas has set up a secret headquarters there for carrying out cyberwarfare and counter-intelligence operations.”
The Hamas terror group’s ties with Turkey through the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Erdoğan were known. However, Abbas and the outreach of the internationally accepted PA to Erdoğan should raise a red flag for Western leaders interested in Middle East peace and security. It is no secret that Abbas’ pivot to Erdoğan threatens Jerusalem’s security and stability. Since 2018, Turkey under Erdoğan has targeted Jerusalem’s Muslim holy shrines as flashpoints for Islamist provocation and a target of ultimate neo-Ottoman revival and control. Turkish flags have been seen there since 2018. Turkish agitation in the Temple Mount Plaza poses a direct threat to Jordanian custodianship of the Aqsa Mosque compound.
Erdoğan has also dispatched Muslim Brotherhood activists to Jerusalem. On October 1, 2020, he declared to Turkish lawmakers, “Jerusalem is our city,” as part of his overall Islamist vision for reinstating the Ottoman Empire’s sovereignty over the entire Middle East. Hamas and Abbas’ ties to Erdoğan’s Islamist agenda undermine Jerusalem’s delicate status quo, which, if threatened by extremism, can ignite Muslim violence across the Middle East. Arafat and the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel triggered the deadly Al-Aqsa terror war against Israeli civilians in 2000.
Iran’s Opposition to the Abraham Accords
The Iranian regime has also leveraged off Palestinian anger over the Abraham Accords. It joined Ramallah’s chorus of condemnation of the UAE deal, calling it a “dagger in the back of all Muslims.” This is a clear expression of the Iranian regime alarm over threats to its hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. Iran has sought to exploit nominal reengagement of the PLO and Hamas over the recent normalization deals and offered to host Palestinian factions in Tehran. The Iranian regime has long supported Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and supported the PLO-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in the West Bank.
Iranian financial and operational backing and ideological penetration in Gaza increased since Hamas’ violent takeover in 2007. Iran and the Palestinian leadership had also coordinated Iranian ships’ transfer of weapons, which were intercepted by Israel between 2001 and 2014. Iran’s condemnation of the Arab-Israeli normalization agreements, which it called “phony” and “shameful,” its nominal support of Abbas, and continued active support of Hamas in Gaza, recasts Abbas and the PA in the image of the pre-Oslo terror-supporting Palestinian Liberation Organization under Arafat when he was recognized in the West as the international community’s most notorious terrorist.
Implications for the Middle East Peace Process
Mahmoud Abbas’ delegitimization and denunciation of the Abraham Peace Accords, the collapse of his relations with Saudi-led Gulf states, and his outreach to the Iranian and Turkish regime portend trouble for a prospective reactivation of the Middle East peace process. Some of the leading states among the Saudi-led Arab powers have broken the seven-decade taboo and publicly reached out to Israel as a partner in preventing Iranian nuclear ascension and in countering Iran’s subversion of states across the Middle East. Arab amenability and cooperation with Israel to counter Iran should not come as a surprise. As this brief has noted, quiet cooperation began well over a decade ago. Jordan’s King Abdullah had warned of Iran’s “radical Shiite Crescent” in 2004.
Arab-Israeli security cooperation and coordination have grown more public since 2010. Commercial and energy cooperation and business ties had begun to flourish. It was only a question of time before Arab states would publicly recognize that Israel was not the region’s problem, but rather a crucial part of its solution.
However, the Palestinians continued to place themselves at the center of Middle East affairs, virtually ignoring the larger threat to the Arab state system by radical Sunni and Shiite actors led by Iran and, more recently, Turkey. The Arab powers have grown tired of Palestinian intransigence, corruption, and rejectionism. Saudi Arabia has criticized the Palestinian rejection of Israeli peace offers, the Palestinian boycott of cooperation with Israel, and its corresponding policy against the Trump administration.
If the Palestinian Authority seeks to achieve sovereign independence for the Palestinian people, it would be advised to follow the lead of the Saudi-backed United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan. The Palestinian leadership should similarly honor the Abraham Accords’ call for unconditional mutual recognition and normalization of relations with Israel as the keys to opening a viable political and diplomatic agreement that can provide enormous benefits to the Palestinian people. Normalization first, or tatbiya in Arabic, is the principle behind the “bottom-up” peacemaking that Israeli leaders across the political spectrum have been advocating as a corrective to the failed consecutive “top-down” peace negotiations since 2000.
Today, the Palestinian leadership faces a critical test. A durable peace with Israel with broad Arab backing is possible. But, it is only feasible if the Palestinian Authority and its parent, the Palestine Liberation Organization, cut their links with the Iranian regime, Islamist Turkey, and their radical terror proxies and allied groups. Hasan Al-Mujaini, an Emirati senior oil executive, wrote on August 24, 2020, “Although we also have empathy for the Palestinian people, it is regrettable that instead of grasping this opportunity to advance their own situation, their leadership has yet again dismissed an outstretched hand for real and meaningful change.”
This is a diplomatic imperative for the incoming U.S. administration and the European powers that have invested heavily in Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts. Today, the Palestinian leadership must be held to the same standard required of emerging democracies seeking independence and economic prosperity. They must be pressured to jettison ties to the radical Islamist camp and rejoin the moderate camp. This realignment with peaceful Arab states will enable the PA to sit at the negotiating table with its Israeli neighbor without pre-conditions, having accepted the Abraham Accords principle of normalization, mutual acceptance, and goodwill. This will maximize the prospects for a successfully negotiated compromise.
Dan Diker is a Senior Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is Director of the Project to Counter BDS and Political Warfare. His recent book Israelophobia and the West can be downloaded from JCPA.org or ordered from Amazon. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Khaled Abu Toameh is a veteran award-winning journalist who has been covering Palestinian affairs for nearly three decades. He studied at Hebrew University and began his career as a reporter by working for a PLO-affiliated newspaper in Jerusalem. Abu Toameh currently works for the international media, serving as the 'eyes and ears' of foreign journalists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.