As 2021 ends, two almost simultaneous statements are reminders that the Palestinian issue is not dead but has receded greatly in salience over time.
Gulf Cooperation Council leaders met in Riyadh on December 14 and issued a comprehensive—if very vague—“Riyadh Declaration” that mentioned their economic, security, and defense cooperation, climate change, and COVID-- and said not one word about the Palestinian Authority (PA) or the Palestinian cause. This is not a great surprise, because the GCC countries have recently given diminished lip service to the Palestinian cause while, in several cases, developing warmer relations with Israel. The GCC countries are primarily interested in security and economic growth, and the PA contributes to neither goal.
For the United States, December 14 brought a “Joint Statement on United States and Palestinian Authority Renewal of the U.S.-Palestinian Economic Dialogue.” This “Dialogue” had been suspended for five years because PA officials refused to meet after President Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, closing the U.S. Consulate General there and subsuming relations with the PA into a “Palestinian Affairs Unit” in the U.S. Embassy. This virtual “Economic Dialogue,” the Joint Statement said, “discussed key topics” and agreed “to work on several crucial issues.” If you find this underwhelming, you’re right; it was symbolism. No dollar signs were attached to any topic discussed. The meeting, at which PA officials finally agreed to talk to U.S. officials, was symbolic of the fact that…well, that PA officials finally agreed to talk to U.S. officials. The change in the PA’s position came after the Biden administration announced that it would reopen the Consulate General.
But will it? Seven months ago Secretary of State Blinken told the PA that the Consulate General would be reopened, something he could have done with the stroke of a pen. He has not moved, and there is little likelihood that he will do so soon. The one reversion to the previous system is that the Palestinian Affairs Unit in the U.S. Embassy now reports directly to Washington, as the Consulate General did.
Why has the Biden administration not moved? There has been “strong pushback” from Israel, and not just from the political Right. Cooler heads in the administration have wondered whether this is the issue—rather than, for example, Iran’s nuclear program, or even settlement expansion—on which to fight Israel’s coalition government.
Reopening the Consulate General now would be a foolish and damaging move. It would bring little or no concrete benefit to Palestinians, and could create a firestorm in Israeli politics. The United States would need Israeli permission for the move, and insisting on getting it would put the coalition government in the position of flatly saying no to Biden and the United States, or saying yes and opening itself to murderous criticism from Likud and former prime minister Netanyahu. The arguments are obvious: allowing the establishment of a separate diplomatic mission to the PA would suggest that the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the acknowledgment of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the indivisibility of Jerusalem are once again open issues. No Israeli government can agree to all that and survive.
The Palestinian issue has not at all disappeared (and incantations of dedication to the “two-state solution” continue), but as 2021 ends it lacks the power and salience it has held for decades. A GCC summit fails to mention the subject. A U.S. administration pledges to reopen its diplomatic mission to the PA but simply fails to do so. No one is forgetting the subject, but it is perhaps being reduced to its proper size on the global diplomatic agenda. If Arab states, and the United States, avoid symbolic politics and rewards for PA officials who represent mostly their own personal and party interests, and concentrate instead on actions that might actually benefit the Palestinian people, the latter will in the end be the beneficiaries.