The Palestinians have good reason to believe that influential Arab countries have given up on both them and the Palestinian cause. They fear that several Arab countries might be headed toward normalizing their relations with Israel. Pictured: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said, during Netanyahu's official visit to Oman, October 26, 2018. (Image source: Israel PM's Office)
The Palestinians have good reason to believe that some influential Arab countries have given up on both them and the Palestinian cause. They fear that several Arab countries might even be headed toward normalizing their relations with Israel.
For several weeks now, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been waging a campaign against a US-Polish conference that is scheduled to take place in Warsaw later this month. US and Polish officials said that the conference will include sessions on the situation in Syria, Yemen, missile development, terrorism and illicit finance and cybersecurity. A US official said that the conference will also discuss "Iran's destructive policies in the region."
Why are the Palestinians so worried about the upcoming conference? Because they care about Iran or Yemen or Syria or missile development? No, the Palestinians are concerned because they have somehow convinced themselves that the main purpose of the conference is to bring the Arab countries closer to Israel. It is not clear on what the Palestinian claim is based, especially as neither the US nor Poland has mentioned the issue of normalization between Israel and the Arab countries as being on the agenda of the conference.
"The PLO considers the conference a form of direct and public normalization [between the Arabs and Israel]," said PLO Executive Committee member Ahmed Majdalani. "This is an attempt to change the priorities in the Middle East so that confronting Iran would become the main issue instead of ending the [Israeli] occupation." The PLO official called on the Arab countries to boycott the conference.
PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat also expressed concern over the planned conference in Warsaw; he said it was a "serious attempt to overturn the Arab Peace Initiative" that was endorsed by the Arab League in 2002. This 10-sentence initiative calls for normalizing relations between the Arab countries and Israel in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines (including east Jerusalem) and a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee issue based on UN resolution 194. The resolution states that refugees "wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practical date."
Although Israel has expressed tentative support for the initiative, it also made clear that it cannot accept the relocation of millions of Palestinians into Israel. Such a move would mean the creation of two Palestinians states: one in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, and another in Israel, where Jews would become a minority in their country.
Erekat and other Palestinian officials seem worried that the Arabs planning to participate in the conference will abandon the Arab Peace Initiative, including the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel. They are also apparently concerned that their Arab brothers will abandon the Palestinian issue in favor of an anti-Iran coalition. Several Arab countries now consider the Iranian "threat" their main priority and believe that it should take precedence over the Palestinian dispute.
"The Palestinian cause is an Arab and Islamic issue par excellence," Erekat said, echoing Palestinian fears of Arab indifference toward the Palestinians. "We have not authorized anyone to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians. The US is planning, through the Warsaw conference, to first achieve normalization between the Arabs and Israel before peace [between Israel and the Palestinians]."
Even if the planned conference is aimed at creating a coalition against Iran, one would expect the Palestinian Authority to be the first to join it. In the past few years, the Palestinian leadership has repeatedly charged Iran with meddling in the internal affairs of the Palestinians, especially by supporting Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. It seems the Palestinian leadership would rather see Iran continue to pose a threat to Arab countries than see peace between those countries and Israel.
Recently, a senior Palestinian official accused Iran of being behind the weekly demonstrations that began in March 2018. "Iran is financing these marches," the official said, referring to the demonstrations being held in the context of the Hamas-sponsored March of Return.
The "March of Return" is the name chosen by Hamas and other Palestinian groups to describe the weekly protests along the Gaza-Israel border. The groups say that their main goal is to force Israel to lift the Gaza Strip blockade, but by calling the demonstrations a "March of Return," Hamas and its supporters are also saying that they want Palestinian refugees and their descendants to move into Israel as part of what they consider a "right of return."
Osama Qawassmeh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's ruling Fatah faction, also lashed out at Iran:
"Iran has not provided anything for the Palestinian people. It is shameful that some think that the economic crisis in Iran is because of its support for the Palestinians. We never heard that Iran helped build a school or hospital or university or any other developmental project."
Iran's support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he explained, does not mean that it supports the Palestinian people. "This is a huge misconception and mistake," he said.
In addition, Abbas loyalists have accused Iran of supporting Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. One official claimed that the Hamas terrorists who staged a coup against the Palestinian Authority back then had received military training in Iran and "some Arab countries."
Another sign that the Arab countries have turned their backs on the Palestinians was provided by the recent convening of Arab foreign ministers in Jordan to build a consensus among Arab states on regional security issues. The Palestinians were not invited.
The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank city of Ramallah should ask itself why is everyone disparaging the Palestinian cause," said Palestinian political analyst Fayez Abu Shamaleh. "Why is the Palestinian cause no longer at the center of the attention of Arabs and Jews? Even the candidates running in the Israeli election have ignored the Palestinian issue."
The Palestinian fears do not seem unjustified. Several Arab countries appear completely fed up with the Palestinians, particularly the continued bickering between Fatah and Hamas. Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries have tried in the past decade to help the two rival parties resolve their differences, to no avail. Egyptian intelligence officials have devoted years trying to convince Hamas and Fatah to work together for the benefit of the Palestinians.
Instead of doing so, however, Palestinian leaders are preoccupied with blocking Arab participation in a conference that could see the creation of a coalition against Iran -- the same country that Abbas and his loyalists hold responsible for the ongoing divisions among the Palestinians. Might it be possible that the Arab countries are finally rousing themselves from their long slumber and beginning to seek better lives for themselves and their neighbors?
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.