Noah Ente: The Palestinian's missed opportunity

Sunday, February 9, 2020 - 3:16pm

Last week, President Donald Trump released his much-anticipated and self-titled “Deal of the Century,” the administration’s framework to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. With the deal finally published in detail, a wide spectrum of responses arose into the discourse. Overall, there appeared to be approval from Israel’s government, led (for now) by Trump confidant and veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with mixed reviews from the American public and the American Jewish community. There were also expected responses of disapproval and rejection by Palestinians, among whom Mahmoud Abbas — president of the Palestinian National Authority — stood out with his declaration of “a thousand no’s.” 

The use of the term “Arab-Israeli conflict” to refer to the tension that has lasted — in one way or another — for over a century, is purposeful. Arab states and their leaders have always played a significant role in shaping the course of the conflict throughout the decades. Such examples include former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s casus belli that set both the consequential 1967 Six-Day War into motion and the 2002 Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative that conditioned the establishment of formal ties between Israel and Arab states on the premise that Israel withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines, or as they have often been called, the “1967 Lines.” It is clear that the position taken by Arab leaders has proved influential in determining much of the discourse surrounding the conflict, if not the facts on the ground themselves.

With such context in mind, the response of many important Arab figures to the release of the Trump plan is quite notable. On Jan. 28, when the details of the plan were put out in full, dignitaries from many Arab countries either came to Washington to show support for the deal or released statements encouraging the diplomatic efforts and urging acceptance of the plan as a basis for ongoing talks. Such countries include Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Their support for the plan as a start to future negotiations, and even support for the plan itself, is telling because it reveals the beginnings of a shift in the attitude of the Arab world towards the plight of Palestinian nationalism.

With each solution that has been proposed for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, those who now identify themselves as Palestinians have received a less generous offer. Indeed, even plans for peace during the British Mandate period were almost completely sympathetic to Arab desires. The 1947 United Nations partition plan, the design of which gave Arabs much of the agriculturally viable and historically meaningful land and gave Jews the desert for most of their territory, was quickly accepted by then-Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (whose partner, would-be Israeli President Chaim Weizmann, would have accepted much less) and the Jewish Yishuv, and so the formal framework for Israel’s establishment was advanced. 

Even after the existence of Israel was solidified through law and survival from multiple wars of attempted annihilation, rejections continued, leaving Palestinians without a state as a result of their inflexible demands. Negotiations from the 1990s until 2000 led by former President Bill Clinton were known to have stalled due to Yasser Arafat’s unwillingness to budge, and Clinton himself has blamed the Palestinian leader for dooming peace prospects at the Camp David summit. Even with all parties under new leadership in 2008, with a surprisingly generous proposal that included Israel ceding its claim to a united capital in Jerusalem in favor of establishing it as international territory, met Palestinian rejection. The pattern can be seen here, clear as day. To paraphrase Israeli diplomat and U.N. Ambassador Abba Eban, the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” 

It is important to know and recognize this history when evaluating the offer the Palestinians currently find in front of them. Yes, it is significantly less sympathetic to their demands and desires compared to previous proposals, and addresses Israeli concerns prominently. However, if Abbas and the rest of the Palestinian leadership find the “Deal of the Century” to be unacceptable, they have only their predecessors and themselves to blame. They repeatedly refused compromise and even a small waiting period to receive everything they desired, and now question how they find themselves in such a predicament. 

The reactions by many Arab states to the release of a peace plan generally understood to be favorable to Israel reveal that their leaders, to some degree, also acknowledge the true history of Arab-Israeli negotiations. They are at least subtly calling on the Palestinians to finally accept something after over a century of dispute that they have perpetuated through stubbornness, delusion and often ill will.

Many Israelis, Palestinians and their supporters all have varying gripes with the terms of the Trump plan or the future it may lay out. Yet if the Palestinian leadership has learned anything from past or current patterns of the conflict, and truly wants to accomplish something rather than simply seeking victimhood, representatives should at least come to the negotiating table and civilly voice their concerns. 

After Abbas’s boycott of the Trump administration following its recognition of the basic fact that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and the subsequent relocation of the U.S. Embassy, they have no right to complain about not influencing the original formation of the plan. If they seek to have any control over their future, Abbas must swallow his pride and come prepared to talk. If not, Palestinians will continue to have only their own leaders to blame for their current plight. 

Noah Ente can be reached at noahente@umich.edu.