Will Iran step in to influence the Palestinian Authority? Will Iran manage to convince the Palestinian Authority to become part of an axis that includes Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and all the Iranian‑backed militias in Iraq? Where is Mahmoud Abbas taking the Palestinian Authority? Pictured: Abbas on September 3, 2020, in Ramallah. (Photo by Alaa Badarneh/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
There is now an agreement, the Abraham Accords, between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, but how do the Palestinians see it? Where do they think it could lead?
The Palestinians were caught by surprise. I remember when it was announced, I was calling Palestinian officials in Ramallah trying to get their reaction to this agreement. They were in disbelief. They were in shock. Many of these officials even asked me if I was sure it was true.
Shortly afterwards, they issued a strongly‑worded statement lashing out at the United Arab Emirates: ”Oh, the Gulf States have betrayed us. This is a stab in the back. This is a violation of all agreements.”
Now, of course, as time passed, many Palestinian officials made serious allegations against the United Arab Emirates. They even warned other Arab countries not to follow suit or normalize relations with Israel. The Palestinian leaders feel that their Arab brothers have turned their back on the Palestinians, that the Arab world has decided to move forward without them.
There is a very strong belief in Ramallah that many other countries are going to follow the example of the United Arab Emirates and normalize relations with Israel. This sense of isolation, this sense of betrayal by their own Arab brothers has resulted in protests in the West Bank and in Gaza.
Recently, I went to the Old City of Jerusalem where we saw Palestinians burning flags of the United Arab Emirates and pictures of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. These protests, which have been spreading throughout the West Bank and Gaza, are the direct result of the incitement by the Palestinian Authority, by Hamas, and by other factions, not only against the United Arab Emirates, but also against Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Sudan, and other countries whose names have been mentioned in connection with the possibility of establishing relations with Israel.
Last night, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went even further. He stepped up the protests by holding a meeting in Ramallah ‑‑ it was called an emergency meeting ‑‑ where he invited representatives of Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, and even one of the worst terrorist groups the Palestinians have, the radical Syrian‑based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command.
It is led by Ahmed Jibril, responsible for the death of many Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon. He has been accused by Palestinians of participating in massacres carried out by the Syrian army against Palestinians in Syria.
For Abbas to invite representatives of a group like that to a meeting in Ramallah is, for many Arab countries, an alarm bell. First of all, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states have outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is a branch. Saudi Arabia has been waging war on Hamas for the past three or four years.
What Abbas did is spit in the face of these Arab countries by telling them, ”Look, I am now going to join the Muslim Brotherhood. I am going to join Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and even the PFLP‑General Command group led by Ahmed Jibril.” Abbas is sending a message to the Arab world that he has decided to align himself with the Iran‑led anti‑peace camp.
The Arab world is watching this. They do not like the condemnations coming from the Palestinians. They do not like all these accusations of treason. They do not like to see pictures of their leaders being burned at Islam’s third holiest site, Al‑Aqsa Mosque.
They also do not like to hear the Palestinian Authority Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, issuing a fatwa [religious opinion] banning citizens of the United Arab Emirates or any Arab country that normalizes relations with Israel, from coming to pray at Al‑Aqsa Mosque.
He is telling Palestinians and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world that the United Arab Emirates, the Saudis and all Muslims from there who normalize relations with Israel are infidels, enemies of Islam, traitors to the Prophet Muhammad and that they should not be allowed into one of the holiest sites of the Muslim world.
This is a serious allegation. In light of the response of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Islamic Jihad to this step by the United Arab Emirates, relations between the Arab world and the Palestinians are likely to deteriorate even further.
Of course, there are a few Palestinians who do not share the views of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. I have met some Palestinians who are extremely worried right now at the message the Palestinian Authority is giving to the other Palestinian leaders.
These few Palestinians are saying, ”Hey, who are we to challenge these oil‑rich, wealthy countries in the Gulf? We need them. We’ve already made mistakes in the past. We made a big mistake when we supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. We made similar mistakes afterwards by coming out in public against some of the Arab leaders, accusing them of treason because of the relations with the Americans or because of their readiness to normalize relations with Israel.”
These few Palestinians are extremely worried right now about the fate of Palestinians living in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries. They are afraid these Arab countries will once again expel the Palestinians or take punitive measures against them.
I follow what is being said in the Arab world. It is unimaginable what Arabs in the Gulf are saying about the Palestinians: ”You ungrateful people. We’ve given you billions of dollars in all these years. In the end, you spit in our face and you burn our flag.”
There was one prominent Emirati academic who put on Twitter pictures of United Arab Emirates flags in the Israeli city of Netanya. Next to them, pictures of the UAE flag being burned by Palestinians in Ramallah and in Gaza.
The comment there of this Emirati man was, ”My flag is being honored in Israel while these Palestinians are burning my flag. I am done with these Palestinians.”
That is the message that you hear from not only from people in the United Arab Emirates but also from people in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
For the first time ever, the Palestinian leadership are now feeling that they have been left out; that the Arab world is really fed up with them and does not want to wait for them anymore.
Of course, this is good news for Israel and good news for all peace‑loving people in the region. The question is, will Iran step in to influence the Palestinian Authority? Will Iran manage to convince the Palestinian Authority to become part of an axis that includes Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and all the Iranian‑backed militias in Iraq? Where is Mahmoud Abbas taking the Palestinian Authority? Most people I speak to they say he does not really have a strategy to deal with the Middle East conflict.
His only strategy, they say, is just to remain in power forever. He will do anything. He will reach out to Hamas. He will reach out to the Islamic Jihad. To survive, he will reach out to the Iranians or anyone. It does not bode well for the future of the peace talks or any kind of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Palestinians have not only been left out by their Arab brothers, they are further isolating themselves by alienating the entire Arab world by going against countries like Egypt, Jordan and all these Gulf states that once used to give them a lot of money.
In the past few months, Mahmoud Abbas was saying, ”Oh, Israel has to stop its plan to apply sovereignty to parts of the West Bank.” He launched a massive diplomatic campaign. He was successful at rallying the world — especially the Europeans and other countries — against the Israeli plan. Now, here comes an Arab country and tells Mahmoud Abbas, ”Look, we managed to get the Israelis to suspend their plan. The plan is now off the table.”
Instead of saying, ”Thank you, United Arab Emirates. You did a good job,” Abbas is sending Palestinians to burn the flag of the United Arab Emirates and to burn pictures of their leader.
”What do you want, Mahmoud Abbas?” the other Arabs are saying. ”Are you trying to punish an Arab country simply because they want normal relations with Israel? What about you, Abbas? In 1993, didn’t you and Yasser Arafat allegedly recognize Israel’s right to exist? Haven’t you been negotiating with Israel all these years? Haven’t you been conducting security coordination with Israel, Mahmoud Abbas?
”Excuse me, Mahmoud Abbas, how many times in the past 13, 14 years, have you said that you support peace, and you are willing to negotiate with Israel, and you support compromise, and you are opposed to violence? Where is the problem, if an Arab country such as the United Arab Emirates wants to make peace with Israel? Why are you standing in the face of the Arab world?
”Why can’t you go to the United Arab Emirates and say, ’Listen, thank you very much. You have done a great job, now that you are going to make peace with Israel, I, Mahmoud Abbas, would like to use your good connections with Israel to help me get what I want from Israel.’ That would be the right approach but there is no one doing it.”
What I am saying is that Abbas is now being criticized because he is not being creative. He is not coming up with any plans or any alternative options. All you hear is condemnation, condemnation, condemnation.
Those who were inciting against Israel all those years are now inciting against the Arab world. Those who were demonizing Israel are now trying to demonize their own Arab and Muslim brothers; this is serious. The gap between the Palestinians and the Arab world is growing.
This change may, by the way, bring something good in the end, because what the Palestinians need is new leadership. They need new thinking. We are talking about the same people, the same leaders who have been around for 40 and 50 years. We are talking about leaders who still think like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Muammar al‑Gaddafi, and all these Arab presidents we had in the past.
Palestinian leaders have failed to bring anything new to the Palestinians. Of course, the biggest losers are always the Palestinian people, whether they are in the West Bank, living under Palestinian Authority, or in Gaza, living under Hamas.
Look at their conditions. It is very bad under the Palestinian Authority because of corruption, and it is very bad under Hamas in Gaza because of repression.
It is even worse than corruption. Palestinians are being held hostage by their own leaders, and they do not see any hope. My concern is that these Palestinian leaders, in order to divert the anger, in order to distract from their own problems, might turn all this anger on the Palestinian street towards Israel.
We have seen in the past where, whenever a Palestinian leader sees that his people are unhappy with his performance, or are unhappy with corruption, or are complaining about the repression, about the absence of freedom of the media, then they tell the people, ”Oh, it is all Israel’s fault. It is the occupation. Go and revolt against Israel. Go and launch an intifada against Israel,” and the Palestinians, possibly also because they are afraid of the Palestinian leader, of their leaders, they direct this heat against Israel.
Also, we have a lot of mainstream journalists in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and even in Gaza, who are deliberately turning a blind eye to many of the important stories over here, especially about Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
We are actually among the few media outlets that dare to touch on very sensitive topics that the mainstream media would not like to report or that the mainstream media is ignoring. One of the reasons why mainstream media does not want to report about many stories over here, is that these stories do not have an anti‑Israel angle.
Many of the journalists here, they wake up in the morning, and they search for any story that reflects badly on Israel. We have managed, though, to force some of these journalists to cover stories that we publish. They can no longer ignore them.
We have been reporting, for example, about Palestinians protesting in Ramallah about corruption in the past few weeks. We had a number of articles that talked about how the Palestinian Authority is cracking down on its critics and things like that.
The New York Times, recently, after one of our articles, had to report on how the Palestinian Authority is cracking down on its own people because they are demanding reform and democracy. Now, these are the kinds of stories that you read only in Gatestone, and you do not see in many of the mainstream media.
As I said, I’m happy to tell you that we are forcing many of the journalists no longer to ignore these stories over here.
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Question: This whole momentum of the signing of the agreement of relations with the UAE is entirely to the credit of the Trump administration. Please, can you comment on Vice President Biden’s claim that the credit goes to the Obama years?
Abu Toameh: As you know, I’m not really an expert on American politics. I can tell you that what worries me is when I hear people in Ramallah and people in Gaza saying, ”Oh, we are waiting for Biden. We are waiting for this administration to go away. This administration is very bad for us because this administration supports Israel.
”This administration has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This administration has closed down the PLO office in Washington. This administration has recognized the legality of Israeli settlements. This administration has cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA,” and so on.
When I see that there are people in Ramallah who are waiting and saying, ”Oh, in a few months everything is going to be okay. We might have a new president, less supportive of Israel,” that really worries me. These people are waiting. They see this administration, because of its support for Israel, as being one of the most hostile administrations to the Palestinians. They would like to see it replaced with another administration. They are saying that ”Everything’s going to change after November and things will be all right.” At the end of the day, they would very much like to see this administration gone.
Question: We have heard speculation about various other Arab countries that might follow in UAE’s footsteps, such as Bahrain. Could you please speculate on how far this peace movement might go? Which other Arab states might make peace?
Abu Toameh: I think we shall see some Arab countries follow suit. Everyone here is now talking about Oman being on its way. There is a lot of speculation about Saudi Arabia also joining.
I think what these Arab countries are waiting for is to see the result of the US election, and the reaction on the Arab Street, how it is responding. So far, they have only seen condemnations from a few Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. I think this is encouraging for the Arab countries.
We did not see revolutions on the street. We did not see thousands of Arabs take to the streets of Cairo, Beirut, or Khartoum, or any Arab capital to denounce the United Arab Emirates.
If you ask many Palestinians, they are also very worried about the failure of the Arab Street to strongly condemn or to come out against the United Arab Emirates. This subdued reaction in the Arab world will encourage other Arab countries to continue to do the same thing. This is, of course, very good for the Palestinian people in the long term. Not to mention the economic benefits that we stand to gain from this.
The rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world, it will bring only good for the Palestinians because those Arab countries will normalize relations with Israel. We see that coming from Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab countries that have peace with Israel.
Egypt is now playing a big role in trying to arrange another ceasefire between Israel and Gaza. Hamas and the Jordanians are also in involved in one way or another with Israel, especially when it comes to the religious sites in Jerusalem, the Al Aqsa Mosque. Jordan is always there. The Palestinians are the ones who go to these two states.
Unfortunately and sadly, the Palestinian leadership is very bad. It is very corrupt. It is acting against the interests of its own people.
At the same time, there is a lot of hope here in Israel about all these Arab countries opening their doors, and this opens a lot of opportunity. If the Palestinians support the United Arab Emirates initiative, it is possible that the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf countries will open their doors and allow hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to come and work and help build the economy. It is a win‑win.
I meet many people here in Israel who are so excited about this agreement, about going to visit the Burj al-Khalifa, about going to Dubai, about doing their shopping in the Gulf states, that they even forget to wear their face masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus. There is a lot of excitement. It comes at a very good time when it is badly needed.
Question: Please describe the political implications of this possible peace scenario, and could you speculate on how far the peace movement might go?
Abu Toameh: I think the political implications will be that it is going to be very good for the moderate Arabs and moderate Muslims. It is very bad for Iran and company, its proxies and allies in the region. This is an Arab/Muslim/Sunni alliance with Israel that will, first of all, embolden the peace camp in the Arab world — those who want normalization, those who want to some kind of a peace with Israel; and it is a severe blow for all the rejectionists — for Hamas, for Islamic Jihad. It will weaken them in the long term because the people there are also looking at this agreement.
If something good comes out of it, then you will see more people in the Arab world joining the so‑called Peace Camp. We expect a lot of the good to come out of it. Everyone here is extremely hopeful.
It sends the right message to many Arabs and Muslims that Israel is there to stay. We need to forget about the dream of destroying Israel. Note that the Palestinians are not saying they are opposed to a peace agreement with the Arab countries. They are opposed to normalization with Israel.
Why is that? It is because they are afraid that if you normalize relations with Israel, you are actually recognizing Israel’s right to exist as the homeland of the Jewish people in this part of the world. That is what really worries them. It is accepting Israel’s existence.
This whole conflict, whether we like it or not, is not about a settlement, a checkpoint, a wall, and a fence or a settlement. This conflict is really about Israel’s very existence in the Middle East, in this part of the world.
I am sorry to tell you, but there are still a large number of people in the Arab and Muslim world who continue to see Israel, even though Jews have been here for more than 3,000 years, as a foreign body that was imposed on this region by Western powers. They continue to see Israel as one big settlement that needs to be uprooted.
When you come and say normalization with Israel, you are recognizing Israeli culture, Israeli music, the Israeli political system. You are saying, ”I want interaction with these Israeli Jews living there because I respect their culture. I want to be part of it. I want to enjoy it. I want to invite them over. I want to go and visit Tel Aviv and see how these Jews live. I want to go and see how successful this country is.” That is what is actually worrying not only the Palestinian leaders, but Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
They do not want Arabs and Muslims to be exposed to the wonderful things that are happening in Israel. They do not want them to see that Israel has been a story of success.
They do not want these wonderful things to be seen in the Arab and Muslim world because then the Arabs and Muslims might go to their leaders and say, ”Excuse me. We want something like what these Jews have. Why can’t we have democracy? Why can’t we have a functioning parliament?”
Question: Who do you see as following on as the head of the PA after Abbas? Do you see Palestinians being sidelined by these various agreements with Israel and other Arab nations?
Abu Toameh: As mentioned, the Palestinians already feel sidelined. They feel that they have been left out of the room, but then, they are the ones who brought it on themselves. The Palestinian strategy in the last three or four years is, ”We are boycotting America. We are boycotting Israel. We are boycotting the peace process. We are boycotting anyone who wants to talk to Israel. We are boycotting Arabs who visit Israel. We are boycotting Muslims.”
We have even reached a point that they are even boycotting the money that Israel is trying to give them. Israel collects taxes on behalf of the Palestinians every month, and Israel is trying to transfer that money to them.
They are saying ”No, we are even boycotting the money that you owe us.” If they really want to change, all they have to do is, first stop the incitement against the Arab world. Stop the incitement against your Arab and Muslim brothers.
If you want to criticize them, that is fine. There are diplomatic ways of doing it. Do not insult them. Do not offend them. Do not humiliate them. Do not burn the pictures of their leaders in public squares. The United Arab Emirates has told them, ”Look, we want to help you. We’re not against you. Making peace with Israel does not mean that you are a traitor.”
This is what the Palestinian leadership needs to understand. Now, regarding the issue of succession, look, everyone here is talking about it. The truth is, no one really knows. Why? Because the Palestinian Authority is actually a one‑man show run by Mahmoud Abbas and company in Ramallah. There are a number of scenarios that people are talking about.
Let us say President Abbas steps down tomorrow morning. Scenario number one will be that the Fatah and the PLO leaders will meet in Ramallah and they will elect one of them. They will choose one of these — an Abu Muhammad or an Abu Allah — one of those Abu’s who is a veteran leader of the PLO there — and the show will continue. That is scenario number one.
Another possibility is that we will hold a free and democratic election and elect a new president, however that is highly unlikely because of the divisions among the Palestinians. As you know, the West Bank is separated from Gaza because of the power struggle between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
The question we need to ask ourselves is not who is going to succeed Mahmoud Abbas. The question is will anyone who succeeds Mahmoud Abbas, will he be different? Will he be able to bring about any changes? I’m sorry to tell you that the answer is no.
I remember when Mahmoud Abbas took over from Yasser Arafat, when he was elected in 2005 to succeed Yasser Arafat, the first thing he said, ”I promise to continue in the footsteps of the martyr Yasser Arafat. I promise to abide by all that President Arafat committed himself to.”
We see the same thing. President Abbas has been loyal to President Arafat’s legacy. He has refused to make any concessions in the last 14 or 15 years while he has been in power: he is keeping his word.
Whoever succeeds Mahmoud Abbas ‑‑ remember my words very well ‑‑ the first thing he will say in his first speech is, ”I promised to follow in the footsteps of brother Mahmoud Abbas and to remain loyal to his legacy. I promise you I will not make any concession to Israel.”
Do not expect any changes. You look at all these leaders in Ramallah. They are not different. Marwan Barghouti is not better than Mahmoud Abbas, and Mahmoud Abbas is not better than Jibril Rajoub or Mahmoud al‑Aloul. We are talking about the same ideology, the same mentality, and the same people running the show.
Do not really expect anything from the new successor. Will any Palestinian president come to Israel and say, ”OK, Israel, I recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people”? If you find me one Palestinian leader who will agree to say that, please let me know. I need to write an article for Gatestone about it.
Do you know of any Palestinian leader who will dare come out in public and say, ”Oh, it’s time for us to give up the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their former homes in Israel”? If you find me one leader, again, please let me know. That will be a good story, too.
Do not expect many changes in the post‑Abbas era. What needs to change is the mindset. What needs to stop is the incitement, the daily delegitimization of Israel. It is very bad, and it is very widespread. If you do not change that, then you will not see any changes. In addition, the Palestinians need to change their education system. They need to start preparing their people for peace with Israel.
Question: What do you think of the role of Turkey in supporting the Palestinians against this agreement between Israel and the Emirates?
Abu Toameh: Again, the funny part is that President Erdogan has come out against the agreement. He is accusing the United Arab Emirates of making peace with Israel. But it’s like, ”Excuse me, don’t you have a Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv? Isn’t there an Israeli embassy in Turkey? Don’t you have relations with Israel?
”Why are you attacking the United Arab Emirates? What message are you trying to send? What is Turkey’s interest in preventing peace between an Arab country and Israel? How does that benefit the Palestinians? Does that really help?” The answer, of course, is no.
Turkey, or President Erdogan, has decided to put himself in the same camp with Hamas, with Islamic Jihad, with Iran, and the axis of evil in the Arab and Muslim world. That is bad. He has a very strong anti‑Israel agenda, which he is trying to spread to the rest of the Arab world. This should be a concern to many people.
Over here, he has been involved with Hamas against the Palestinian Authority. He sees the Palestinian Authority as too moderate. Erdogan’s rhetoric against Israel is also bad. We have seen some bad statements come out of him in recent years, even in recent months.
By supporting the despots in the Arab and Muslim world, he is not helping the cause of peace. He is actually trying to sabotage any attempt to legitimize Israel and to establish normal relations between Israel and the Arab world.
Erdogan is playing a dangerous role. I do not know if you saw a report just a few weeks ago that, in addition to hosting several Hamas leaders in Turkey, he has also decided to give them citizenship.
What does that mean? What is he trying to achieve? He is trying to embolden the autocrats in the Arab and Muslim world, the people who are fighting against peace. The Palestinian Authority is extremely worried, even though they use the same rhetoric against Israel as Erdogan does. They are worried that Erdogan is going too far. His incitement and his embrace of Hamas and the autocrats is emboldening the rejectionists in the Arab world and in the Palestinian arena.
I hope that one day we will see pragmatic, good Arab leaders, not only among the Palestinians but also inside Israel. The Arab citizens of Israel are loyal citizens of Israel, but they have leaders who do not have their people’s interests at heart. Not all of them are bad, but instead of building bridges between Jews and Arabs inside Israel, they are damaging these bridges. They are inciting Israel’s Arab citizens against Israel, sometimes just to get headlines. No one will write, ”He installed a new sewer system.” That really worries me. We need new leaders for the Arabs inside Israel. I am much more worried about the future relations between Jews and Arabs inside Israel than I am about the future relations between Jews and Palestinians living in the West Bank in Gaza. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza do not want to be part of Israel. The Arabs inside Israel, they are fighting for integration.
Their leadership is pulling them in the wrong direction. That is why it is in Israel’s interest to embrace its Arab citizens, to treat them better so that these radical extremist Arab members of Knesset who are trying to incite the Arab community inside Israel will be undermined. We do see a lot of hopeful signs coming out of the Israeli government in this regard. I am actually optimistic.
The above are from a briefing to Gatestone Institute on August 19, 2020.