Last week, an Israeli airliner made its way from Israel to the United Arab Emirates in what was regarded a historical journey. The first ever such flight, the direct flight was the outcome of a deal made last month between the two countries.
While Israel and the Trump administration celebrated the moment, Palestinians sounded an opposite note. The Palestinian prime minister, Muhammad Shtayyeh, declared the flight “a clear and a blatant violation of the Arab position toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
“We had hoped to see an Emirati plane landing in a liberated Jerusalem, but we live in a difficult Arab era,” he said.
In signing on to the deal, the United Arab Emirates shattered a decades-long Arab League policy by normalizing relations with Israel, without Israel ending its military rule over Palestinians and without a permanent regional peace treaty. Unlike the agreements Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan — to return land to those countries — the U.A.E. deal comes at no cost to Israel, which left many baffled as to why the U.A.E. would make such a move.
As part of its efforts to spin the agreement, the Trump administration claimed that it will halt annexation plans that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had announced for parts of the West Bank. But shortly after the U.A.E. statement, Mr. Netanyahu declared that annexation is not, in fact, off the table; it’s on a temporary hold. As for the possibility of a two-state solution, for Palestinians, this deal is not, as some have suggested, a reassuring step forward. Rather, it’s an indication of how the major parties in earlier peace attempts — the U.S., Israel and Arab countries — are willing to move ahead with plans that disregard Palestinian rights.
The U.A.E. agreement now should serve as a point of reflection for the Palestine Liberation Organization — the body that represents Palestinians worldwide — and its decades-long approach with Israel.
Beginning in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo Accords, the P.L.O. embarked on a process of negotiation with Israel that was supposed to lead — at least as the Palestinians viewed it — to an independent state, kicked off by recognition of Israel. As part of this negotiation process, dozens of countries around the world established economic ties or trade offices with Israel — including Oman and Qatar — in the belief that the era of Israel’s expansionist plans were over. Yet over time, it became clear those plans had only just begun. Today there are more than triple the number of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank than there were in 1993.
For its part, however, the P.L.O. doubled down: pressing for negotiations despite their futility, pressing for increased international recognition as a state despite the lack of any actual sovereignty or independence, serving as a subcontractor for Israel’s occupying army, even as Israel continued to destroy Palestinian homes and expropriate territory and resources.
With Palestinians sidelined, the U.A.E. deal makes it very clear that Palestinians can no longer count on Arab states for political support. While King Salman of Saudi Arabia told President Trump in a recent phone call that he is prioritizing a fair and permanent solution to the Palestinian issue, his country had allowed the Israel-U.A.E. flight to travel through its airspace. In any case, a once united diplomatic front of the Arab states supporting the Palestinian cause is clearly crumbling. And if President Trump and Mr. Netanyahu are to have their way, other Arab countries may soon follow the U.A.E.
Given this shift in regional and international attitudes, Palestinians need to ask themselves: Today, can it really be said that the P.L.O.’s strategic direction — that of two states achieved through negotiations — is working?
It is past time to initiate meaningful reform to the P.L.O. Our movement today continues to be led by individuals whose democratic legitimacy expired long ago. The last elections to the P.L.O.’s Palestinian National Council, the legislative authority that represents the organization’s policies, took place more than two decades ago, and young Palestinians have yet to have a say in what the future will look like. Rather than continuing to press for a two-state solution, the P.L.O. should instead press for equal rights. While there isn’t a single Israeli or Palestinian political party advocating a one-state solution, polls show that support for the two-state solution among Palestinians is waning.
The Palestinian Authority, the governing body that was set up by the Oslo Accords, and which has been headed by Mahmoud Abbas since 2005, currently presides over a withered and hapless economy and most Palestinians fare far worse than when negotiations began in the early 1990s. Mr. Abbas and other Palestinian leaders should aim to provide a workable strategy for achieving our rights rather than working to appease Israel, and the international donor community, by adopting an anti-apartheid strategy.
I am under no illusion as to how difficult this transformation will be. Yet if the aim is to secure Palestinian freedom, continuing on the path delineated by the Oslo Accords will only prolong Palestinian suffering. The Palestinian leadership and the international community must together acknowledge this reality and chart a genuine new course that prioritizes the realization of Palestinian freedom, rather than normalizing the denial of freedom.
Diana Buttu is a lawyer and a former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization.