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December 22, 2020 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1544

Shift In Palestinian Authority's Policy Towards Israel Following Biden Electoral Win, Arab Peace Agreements With Israel

December 22, 2020 | By S. Schneidmann*
Palestine | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1544

Introduction

The policy of the Palestinian Authority (PA) towards Israel and negotiations with it has recently taken a sharp turn, as Palestinian officials called to restart the negotiations with Israel, renewed the security and civilian coordination with it, and also ceased their attacks on the Arab countries that have normalized their relations with Israel. This shift is apparently motivated by several main factors: the election of Joe Biden as the next U.S. president; the fact that Deal of the Century, promoted by the Trump administration, is now off the table; the decision of Sudan and Morocco to join the UAE and Sudan in normalizing their relations with Israel, and the harsh criticism of the PA's policy and conduct voiced by several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, which has not joined the group of countries that have normalized relations with Israel.

The PA's oppositionist stance towards the renewal of negotiations with Israel and towards the Deal of the Century led to a deep political and economic crisis. A number of factors - namely the suspension of the American aid to the PA; the PA's termination in May 2020 of the Oslo Accords and therefore of all ties with Israel, in response to Israeli declarations of plans to annex areas in the West Bank in the framework of the Deal of the Century, and, as part of this, the PA's refusal to receive the tax revenues collected on its behalf by Israel - created a deep deficit in the PA's budget and rendered it unable to pay full wages to the public sector. The crisis was further exacerbated by the spread of the coronavirus in the PA territories.

In light of this crisis, the Arab media, and especially the Palestinian media, directed harsh criticism at the PA, accusing it of lacking political vision and of taking a hardline stance that is ineffective and undermines the wellbeing of its citizens. It appears that the election of Biden provided the PA with a way out of the crisis and an opportunity to renew the contacts with Israel.

The renewal of the civilian coordination with Israel enabled the PA to receive the tax revenues collected by Israel on its behalf, and for the time being Israel has apparently stopped deducting from these revenues the cost of the stipends paid by the PA to terrorists and their families. At the same time, the PA is seeking a way to continue paying these stipends while avoiding Israeli and American sanctions. So far, it seems to be eying administrative measures aimed at disguising the payments and deceiving Israel and the West, who oppose them.

The PA's change of policy put an end to the intensive reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas that had been underway, and sparked furious reactions from Hamas. PA officials responded with apologetic statements, stressing that the PA policy is guided by national interests.       


Cartoon in Arab daily: PA stops reconciliation talks with Hamas and renews the security coordination with Israel (Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, London, December 3, 2020)

This report reviews the shift in the PA policy, as reflected in the Palestinian and Arab media.

PA Declares Willingness To Renew Political Process With Israel

Immediately following the U.S. presidential election, the PA leadership began signaling to the incoming Biden administration that it was willing to restart the peace negotiations with Israel. In statements on November 4, 2020, one day after the election, PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas and Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh stressed the Palestinian leadership's willingness to renew negotiations based on international law and under the auspices of the UN.[1] Palestinian Presidential Spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeina repeated this message, adding that, alternatively, the negotiations can continue "from where they left off, or through the implementation of the agreements signed by Israel."[2] 'Abbas also spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about advancing the peace process as part of joint efforts by Germany, France, Jordan and Egypt.[3] In a speech on the occasion of the "international day of solidarity with the Palestinian people," which was read out at the UN by the Palestinian representative there, Riyad Mansour, 'Abbas underscored his proposal to convene an international conference for Palestinian-Israeli peace.[4] In the context of a vote in the Israeli Knesset to dissolve the parliament and hold elections, the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily quoted a "knowledgeable Palestinian source" as saying that 'Abbas will be willing to meet "with any Israeli prime minister, including Binyamin Natanyahu," who will agree to launch negotiations based on the international law and to establish a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.[5] PA diplomats launched rigorous efforts to promote the international conference initiative. PLO Executive Committee member 'Azzam Al-Ahmad said that intensive contacts were underway in this context with all members of the international quartet, except the U.S.[6]

'Abbas is also trying to enlist Jordan's and Egypt's support for the new PA policy and for presenting a joint position to the Biden administration. After several months in which he stayed in the West Bank due to the coronavirus pandemic, 'Abbas recently visited Egypt, Jordan and Qatar, and a Palestinian-Jordanian-Egyptian committee was established to promote the conference initiative.[7]

The foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and the PA, who met in Cairo on December 19, announced their intention to actively promote the renewal of negotiations towards establishing a just peace. PA Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki said on this occasion that "the state of Palestine is willing to renew its contacts with the new U.S. administration, based on the initial contacts that have been recently made with it, and based on the stated position of the president- and vice president-elect."[8]

PA officials expressed optimism regarding the prospect of renewing the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations under the new U.S. administration. Fatah deputy chairman Mahmoud Al-'Aloul said that contacts between the Palestinians and Biden's transition team were already underway.[9]

PLO Executive Committee member Ahmad Majdalani said: "The [initial] signs are encouraging… Ahead of the election we opened up a communication channel with Joe Biden's transition team, and it is clearly possible to build on the new American vision."[10] 

At the same time, other officials were more reserved in their statements. Fatah Central Committee member Sabri Saidam said that the Palestinian attitude to the new U.S. administration will depend on the extent of its efforts to promote the Palestinian cause and on the degree to which its policy will differ from that of the Trump administration.[11] Mahmoud Al-Habbash, the PA's Supreme Shari'a Judge and 'Abbas's advisor for religious affairs, clarified that the Palestinians are not counting on the Biden administration but only on themselves, and that the relations with Israel and the U.S., as well as the negotiations themselves, are not a matter of principle for the Palestinians but rather a means for realizing their national principles and aims, to be used as circumstances require.[12]

PA Ceases Its Criticism Of The Recent Arab Peace Agreements With Israel

The shift in the PA policy is also reflected in the cessation of the harsh criticism previously directed by its officials at the Arab countries that recently signed peace agreements with Israel, and especially at the UAE - criticism that not only failed to stop the normalization process but caused the PA to become isolated in the Arab arena.[13] Apparently heeding the criticism by Palestinian elements against its blustering and aggressive reaction to the peace agreements, the PA has decided to soften its tone towards the countries that signed them in a bid to improve its relations with these countries and also signal to the Biden administration that it is a pragmatic and relevant element that must not be excluded from political processes in the region.

The shift in the policy towards the normalizing countries is expressed in 'Abbas's recent instruction to his officials, following the announcement of the normalization between Israel and Morocco, to stop attacking Arab countries in this context.[14] 

This is not to say that the PA leadership has stopped expressing opposition to the agreements with Israel, but it is doing so through quiet diplomatic channels. According to a report on the Elaph website, the PA is seeking to prevent further countries from signing such agreements, and this was the aim of 'Abbas's recent visits to Qatar and Fatah Central Committee secretary Jibril Rajoub's visit to Oman.[15]

In addition to changing the tone of its official statements on the normalization, the PA is making other efforts to heal the rift with the normalizing countries. The Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily reports that, as a gesture to the Biden administration, the PA intends to return its ambassadors to the UAE and Bahrain, albeit without announcing this publicly. The ambassadors were recalled to Ramallah for consultations in response to the normalization agreements.[16] 

PA Renews Military, Civilian Coordination With Israel

As part of its bid to return to the track of negotiations with Israel under the new U.S. administration, the PA announced the renewal of the military and civilian coordination with Israel, which was stopped in May 2020 as part of the Palestinian leadership's decision to suspend the Oslo Agreements in response to Israeli announcements of plans to annex parts of the West Bank. While the decision to stop the coordination was meant to improve the PA leadership's standing with its citizens, it also undermined the PA's ability to govern by limiting its security apparatuses' freedom of movement, harmed services to the Palestinian public that require coordination with Israel, and exacerbated the economic crisis precipitated by the Covid pandemic.  The suspension of the coordination therefore sparked intense criticism against the PA leadership by Palestinians who accused it of acting imprudently and without first considering all the alternatives. The criticism intensified further following the PA's refusal to accept the tax revenues collected by Israel on its behalf as part of its decision to halt contacts with Israel, which prevented it from paying full salaries to its employees and deepened the economic crisis.[17]

Biden's election provided the Palestinian leadership an opportunity to reconsider this decision and reverse it. Already on November 7, Palestinian sources told the Elaph website that, once the results of the U.S. election were officially announced, 'Abbas would congratulate Biden on his win and declare his willingness to renew the coordination with the U.S. and with Israel. The sources described Biden's win as "the best possible gift" the Palestinians could receive.[18]  An official announcement regarding the renewal of the coordination was issued on November 17 by Fatah Central Committee member and PA Civilian Affairs Minister Hussein Al-Sheikh, who is in charge of the coordination with Israel.

The decision to renew the relations with Israel was perceived by some in the Palestinian public as further proof of the PA's weakness, and of its inability to realize its aggressive declarations vis-a-vis Israel or even to function without coordinating with it. Required as part of his position to defend the  decision to renew the coordination, Al-Sheikh  presented it as "a great victory" achieved thanks to the firm stance of the Palestinian people and leadership, which had caused the Deal of the Century to be abandoned and had forced Israel to officially commit to realizing its agreements with the Palestinians. The renewal of the conatcs with Israel, he added, is also an opportunity to renew the relations with the incoming U.S. administration, which will rest on "new foundations" and pave the way to restarting the political process with international mediation.[19] Al-Sheikh also tried to market the move in messages on social media. In a post on Facebook, he wrote that the only thing guiding the Palestinian leadership is the Palestinians' national interest, and that certain Palestinian elements who are now publicly condemning the renewal of the coordination spoke differently in closed conversations, in which they actually urged the PA leadership to renew it.[20] In a Twitter post, he wrote that the critics of the decision never presented any alternatives  that could meet the needs of the Palestinian people and advance the national enterprise. He also hinted that Hamas, the main source of the criticism, itself coordinates with Israel in receiving funds from Qatar.[21]

PA Suspends Reconciliation Talks With Hamas

Hussein Al-Sheikh's November 17 announcement about the renewal of the relations with Israel came at a surprising time, since on that day talks between the PA and Hamas, led by Fatah Central Committee secretary Jibril Al-Rajoub, were still taking place in Cairo. The announcement put an end to the talks and to the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process in general. The online daily Rai Al-Yawm assessed that Al-Sheikh's sudden issuance of the announcement was meant to embarrass his fellow Fatah member Al-Rajoub, who is leading the movement's efforts of reconciliation with Hamas, and that it was in fact part of a covert struggle between two factions and approaches within Fatah.[22] Al-Sheikh explained the decision to renew the coordination by saying that Israel had confirmed its commitment to realizing the bilateral agreements with the PLO.[23]


Hussein Al-Sheikh's tweet on the renewal of the relations with Israel

The intensive reconciliation efforts between the Palestinian factions began after the PA suspended its relations with Israel in the summer of 2020, and continued for several months. Both sides regularly issued optimistic announcements about the imminent reconciliation, and the matter was extensively covered in the Palestinian media. The announcements of the two sides created the impression that they had reached an understanding about holding elections to the Palestinian institutions, which would lead to political unity between all the factions based on a joint plan for "resistance" and struggle vis-à-vis Israel, and to a reunification of the West Bank and Gaza under the PA's rule. However, discrepancies soon appeared between the two sides' announcements, and the declarations of unity were not translated into measures on the ground, just as in the case of the 2017 reconciliation agreement. The Palestinian media began to speculate that the talk about reconciliation was only for show, and that neither side had any intention of implementing it in practice.

These assessments proved to be correct, because the minute the Palestinian leadership judged that Trump would not be reelected, it abruptly halted the reconciliation measures vis-à-vis Hamas. Several days after the U.S. election, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported, citing "knowledgeable" Palestinian sources, that despite the optimism, talks between Fatah and Hamas had stopped and that the PA leadership preferred establishing good relations with the Biden administration over reconciliation with Hamas.[24] In the first days after the renewal of the PA-Israel relations, Fatah and PA officials tried to continue the talks with Hamas as though nothing had happened.[25] But soon the two sides began to blame one another for the failure of the talks, each claiming that it was committed to the reconciliation but the other side was not.[26] 

The suspension of the reconciliation with Hamas can serve the PA's current efforts to enlist the support of Egypt and other Arab countries, most of whom regard the Muslim Brotherhood movements, including Hamas, as terror organizations and would not like to see them gain power now that the Democrats have regained the White House. 

Hamas, for its part, harshly condemned the PA's decision to renew the relations with Israel, claiming that this decision "disregards all the [Palestinian] national values" and is "a stab in the back of all the efforts to build national partnership." Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said that the PA was trying to deceive public opinion by presenting the renewal of the agreements with Israel as an achievement.[27] He added that Hamas and other factions were making efforts to bring Fatah back to the reconciliation table, and that the PA must not count on Biden and on agreements with Israel but rather join Hamas and the other factions in the struggle to restore the rights of the Palestinian people.[28]   


Cartoon in Hamas mouthpiece: Arab regimes befriend U.S., Israel, abandon Palestinian cause (Felesteen.ps, December 20, 2020)

The Transfer Of The Tax Revenues: The Issue Of Israel's Deductions Remains Unresolved

The renewal of the civilian coordination enabled the transfer of the tax revenues collected by Israel to the PA. As stated, the suspension of the relations in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, and the PA's refusal to receive the tax revenues, created a severe deficit in its budget. The PA was forced to take extensive bank loans, and to beg the Arab states for funds and loans that had been pledged to it but never granted, just in order to pay half wages to the public sector, including the members of the security apparatuses, the healthcare workers and the teachers, who bear most of the burden of dealing with the pandemic.

The economic crisis, and the popular protests against the PA's handling of the pandemic, led to concern that the PA could utterly collapse. Accordingly, on the day following the announcement regarding the renewal of relations with Israel, Hussein Al-Sheikh already reported that he had met with the Israeli representatives about transferring the tax revenues to the PA.[29]  On the same day, PA government spokesman Ibrahim Milhim announced that members of the public sector would be paid full wages for the upcoming month, and that the PA Finance Ministry was setting up a mechanism to repay what was owed them for the previous months.[30] Several days later, Al-Sheikh stated that Israel had transferred all the funds, amounting to over 3.7 billion shekels.[31] The same day it was reported that the PA employees had already received full pay for November and half of the pay owed them for May-October. Palestinian Finance Minister Shukri Bishara said that the final negotiation with the Israelis over the transfer of the funds would be completed by the end of the year, and that the PA employees would eventually receive their salaries in full.[32]

It should be noted that the tax revenue crisis between Israel and the PA dates back to late 2018, when the Israeli government decided to deduct from the monthly tax revenues the estimated cost of the stipends paid by the PA to Palestinian prisoners and to the families of "martyrs." After Israel began implementing the decision, in February 2019, the PA announced that it would not receive the revenues as long as the deduction continued, and reiterated its commitment to keep paying the stipends. This caused a deficit in its budget already in 2019. Israel's decision to withhold part of the tax revenues, and the Trump administration's suspension of the economic aid to the PA following Congress's passing of the Taylor Force Act, were described by the PA as a "declaration of economic war" against the Palestinian people by Israel and the U.S. In October 2019 the PA agreed to receive the tax revenues from Israel despite the deduction, but emphasized that the crisis over this deduction had not been resolved.[33] 

Changes To The Prisoner Payment System: Conflicting Messages To Palestinians And West

It appears that the tax revenues transferred to the PA in December 2020 following the renewal of the ties with Israel were handed over in full, and Israel did not deduct the prisoners' stipends from them, whether for administrative reasons or in order to avoid the collapse of the PA during the coronavirus crisis and prepare the ground for renewed negotiations under the Biden administration. The PA, for its part, has reportedly decided to make to some changes to the system of prisoner stipends, in order to prevent further deductions from its tax revenues and also in order to burnish its image in the eyes of the incoming U.S. administration. However, it appears that these changes are meant to be largely cosmetic. The Palestinian leadership, headed by Mahmoud 'Abbas, has declared time and time again that it does not intend to stop paying the stipends, for national and social reasons.[34] Hence, it is trying to come up with ways to continue paying them while appearing to have made significant reforms to the system of payments. This is mostly done through administrative manipulations and media chicanery involving conflicting messages to American and Palestinian audiences.

One move, which went through several stages of planning, involves paying the stipends through a PA-controlled  "governmental banking institution," rather than the regular Palestinian banks, which have frozen prisoner accounts to avoid Israeli and international sanctions.[35]  This new institution is meant to be independent of the Palestinian and international banking systems, making it difficult to subject it to sanctions.[36] However, this idea has already been criticized, since it is unclear to what extent the new institution will really be immune to sanctions. Another option eyed by the PA is designating some portion of the stipends as "social benefits," "salaries" or "pensions" to make them appear more legitimate.     

It appears that the PA has not yet fully formulated its policy in this regard, and, as stated, it is conveying conflicting messages in Arabic and in English. For example, Qadri Abu Bakr, head of the Commission for Prisoner Affairs, recently told the New York Times that the PA means to revise the current system of stipends whereby the size of the stipend depends on the length of the prisoner's sentence. Under the new system, which is still awaiting 'Abbas's approval, the families of Palestinian prisoners will instead be paid based on their financial need, he said. Furthermore, released prisoners will be required to take public sector jobs, since the PA "shouldn’t be delivering salaries to people for doing nothing."[37] However, in an interview given the same day to the daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, Abu Bakr denied that there are plans to pay the prisoners and their families based on economic need, since this does not befit their national status as fighters, but confirmed that there are plans for granting public sector jobs to released prisoners.[38] In an interview with Al-Quds, he welcomed the decision of President 'Abbas and Prime Minister Shtayyeh to grant public sector jobs to some 7,000 released prisoners, while underscoring that the national commitment of the Palestinian leadership to the prisoners and their families is "stable and will not change, regardless of pressures and circumstances."[39]

Hassan 'Abd Rabbo, spokesman of the Commission for Prisoner Affairs, clarified that his commission has already distributed questionnaires to former prisoners about their job preferences, and that giving them jobs in the PA is meant to "guarantee their rights." He stated that the idea of basing the stipends on economic need is still "under review."[40] In an interview to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat some two weeks later 'Abd Rabbo denied that there was an intention to transfer the issue of the prisoner payments to the PA Ministry of Social Development, stressing that the prisoners are warriors who fought for their country's freedom, not social or humanitarian cases. He reiterated that giving them jobs with the PA is meant to acknowledge their status as fighters and legitimize the stipends paid to them.[41] Qadura Fares, head of the Prisoners Club, made similar statements. In an interview to Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, he stressed that the new policy does not involve any concessions and is not meant to harm the prisoners' rights in any way. In another interview two weeks later he condemned the intention to transfer the issue of the prisoner stipends to the Ministry of Social Development.[42]  

 

*S. Schneidmann is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] The statements were made during a meeting with former Romanian prime minister Ludovic Orban (Wafa.ps, November 4, 2020).

[2] This was said in response to a statement by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Wafa.ps, November 11, 2020) and in response to an announcement by representatives of the international quartet welcoming the renewal of relations between the PA and Israel (Wafa.ps, November 22, 2020).

[3] Wafa.ps, November 23, 2020.

[4] Wafa.ps, December 1, 2020.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 4, 2020.

[6] Al-Quds (East Jerusalem), November 21, 2020.

[7]  Alwatanvoice.com, December 1, 2020; news.qna.org.qa, December 12, 2020. 

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), December 20, 2020.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 29, 2020.

[10] Aa.com.tr, December 7, 2020.

[11] Al-Quds (East Jerusalem), November 30, 2020.

[12] Maannews.net, November 21, 2020.

[14] In compliance with this instruction, Presidential Spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeina refrained from issuing any message to the Moroccan leadership regarding the normalization agreement with Israel, unlike in the case of the previous countries that signed such agreements (Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, London, December 14, 2020).

[15] Elaph.com, December 14, 2020.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 20, 2020.

[18] Elaph.com, November 7, 2020.

[19] Wafa.ps, November 17, 2020.

[20] Facebook.com/HusseinSheikhPL, November 19, 2020.

[21] Twitter.com/HusseinSheikhpl, November 26, 2020.

[22] Raialyoum.com, November 20, 2020. It appears that Jibril Rajoub was indeed embarrassed by Fatah's turnaround. In the days after the renewal of the coordination with Israel, he stressed that the contacts with Hamas would not cease until intra-Palestinian unity was achieved, and that the PA would not be willing to discuss this issue even with the Biden administration. At the same time, he was forced to admit that the talks in Cairo had failed because Hamas's demand to hold elections for all the Palestinian institutions simultaneously was "illogical" and "impractical." Almayadeen.net, November 20, 2020; Al-Ayyam (PA). November 27, 2020.

[23] Twitter.com/HusseinSheikhpl, November 17, 2020.

[24] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 12, 2020.

[25] This was evident, for example, in the November 19 briefing between 'Abbas and the heads of the Fatah delegation to the Cairo talks, Jibril Al-Rajoub and Rouhi Fatouh (Wafa.ps, November 19, 2020).

[26] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 25, 2020. Paradoxically, alongside the mutual recriminations, officials in both movements continue to stress that, even though the talks have failed, the understandings between the sides still hold and the reconciliation process "has not gone back to square one." See for example statements by Hamas political bureau deputy head Salah Al-'Arouri and Fatah deputy chairman Mahmoud Al-'Aloul (Alresalah.ws, November 25, 2020; alwatanvoice.com, November 28, 2020).

[27] Alresalah.ws, November 17, 2020.

[28] Alresalah.ws, November 26, 2020, December 6, 2020.

[29] Twitter.com/HusseinSheikhpl, November 19, 2020.

[30] Al-Quds (East Jerusalem), November 18, 2020.

[31] Twitter.com/HusseinSheikhpl, December 2, 2020.

[32] Wafa.ps, Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 3, 2020. The PA Finance Ministry announced that the wages owed for May-October would be paid on December 21. Wafa.ps, December 21, 2020.

[33] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), October 5, 2019. 

[35] Palestinian government spokesman Ibrahim Milhim said that this new bank is meant to start operating soon (Alwatanvoice.com, November 30, 2020).

[36] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 31, 2020.

[37] New York Times (U.S.), November 19, 2020.

[38] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), November 19, 2020.

[39] Al-Quds (East Jerusalem), November 19, 2020.

[40] Ultrapal.ultrasawt.com, November 19, 2020.

[41] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 7, 2020.

[42] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), November 25, 2020; paltoday.ps, December 8, 2020.

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