Palestinian leaders are ready for talks. Their voters aren’t so sure.

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Palestinian brothers Ali and Ahmed Zamareh use their mobile phones to blog about ancient sites in the Palestinian territories on social media accounts to promote local tourism, near Ramallah on Aug. 11, 2021. Israel has agreed to allow 4G cellular service in the West Bank.

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The departures this year of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump have created an opening for Palestinians trying to break their international isolation and improve conditions in the West Bank. So far, there have been modest steps, including an easing of immigration rules for undocumented spouses of Palestinians. 

But the resumption of contacts among Palestinian, American, and Israeli officials this summer raises the question of whether the Palestinian Authority has the legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of Palestinians who are increasingly disgruntled with their leaders. 

Why We Wrote This

Palestinian leaders want to reset relations with the U.S. and press Israel for concessions. But this presupposes a popular mandate that many Palestinians say their leadership lacks.

Their underlying fear is that President Mahmoud Abbas will negotiate away more of their rights in return for meager promises that fall far short of self-determination. That fear is tempering optimism about the possibility of future peace talks in the region. 

“I believe we are all looking for a better, more comfortable life. But we don’t have a leadership that looks beyond to the day after the occupation ends,” says Hiba Burqan, an architect in Ramallah. “I question the whole point of returning to the same peace process.”

A sense of relief and wariness is setting in across the West Bank as relations between the Palestinian leadership and the U.S. and Israel emerge from a deep freeze.  

Recent direct talks between Israel and Palestinian officials, in parallel with U.S. diplomatic outreach to both sides, have yielded modest gains for Palestinians in the West Bank. These include residency permits for undocumented foreign spouses and an upgrade of their Israeli-regulated cellphone service.

Yet Palestinians remain skeptical and mistrustful over the legitimacy of the increasingly autocratic Palestinian Authority (PA) under octogenarian President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate with Israel on their behalf. Mr. Abbas’ electoral term ended in 2009, and he canceled elections planned in May, blaming Israeli restrictions.

Why We Wrote This

Palestinian leaders want to reset relations with the U.S. and press Israel for concessions. But this presupposes a popular mandate that many Palestinians say their leadership lacks.

Palestinians decry years of economic malaise and a lack of progress toward an independent state under Mr. Abbas’ rule, along with international isolation and what they describe as Palestinian acquiescence to Israel.

Their underlying fear is that the PA will negotiate away more of their rights in return for meager promises that fall far short of self-determination and for benefits that may never materialize.

“I believe we are all looking for a better, more comfortable life. But we don’t have a leadership that looks beyond to the day after the occupation ends,” says Hiba Burqan, an architect in Ramallah who is in her early 30s. “I question the whole point of returning to the same peace process.”

For its part, the PA sees the prospect of talks with Israel and improved U.S. relations as a chance to rebuild its legitimacy, in part by improving economic conditions for disgruntled Palestinians.   

The departures of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump have created a political opening, allowing for a resumption of contacts among Palestinian, American, and Israeli officials this summer.

Mr. Trump took an antagonistic approach to the Palestinian leadership when it refused to acquiesce to a proposed peace deal that didn’t include either a Palestinian state or permanent rights for Palestinians living under Israeli rule.

Under the two leaders’ successors, President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally who formed a diverse coalition government in June, Palestinians have seen a series of positive baby steps on the ground.

In late August, President Abbas held a rare meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz that led to an agreement to issue 5,000 residency permits and IDs to the foreign spouses of undocumented Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel also agreed to allow 4G cellular service in the West Bank; Israel’s Defense Ministry had previously blocked 4G service for security reasons.

Political stalemate

But with Washington prodding Palestinian leadership to return to talks and cooperation with Israel, Palestinians are left wondering: Will there be any political breakthroughs and, if so, can their leadership be trusted to get a good deal and make it stick?  

Abu Murad, a building caretaker in his mid-50s, is one of many who recognize that the current Palestinian leadership “needs to deal with Israel and relies on the U.S. to do so.”

Yet without public support, he and many others argue that the PA should focus on economic relief and leave major decisions to future leaders who have a democratic mandate.

“This is a leadership that is still committed to agreements that Israel bailed out on,” he says, accusing the PA, created in the 1993 Oslo Accord between the Palestinians and Israel, of “facilitating the Israeli occupation.”

Rena is one of thousands of Palestinians set to benefit from the thaw in ties between Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

A Jordanian of Palestinian origin, she moved to the West Bank 14 years ago after marrying her husband, a Ramallah native. For more than a decade, she has been an undocumented resident, living in fear of deportation.  

Due to Israeli border restrictions, deportation could mean years of separation from her husband and children, if they were unable to leave.

“To get an ID card has been my life goal. It cannot be stressed enough that 5,000 people like me could see their lives changed by the decision,” says Rena. “But I understand that people are not satisfied. After all, we are all prisoners here.”

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Israeli soldiers check documents of Palestinians as they cross back to the West Bank, as Israeli security forces run searches after six Palestinian militants broke out of Gilboa prison on Sept. 6, 2021. All six were later recaptured.

Biden’s diplomatic overtures

On the heels of these modest goodwill gestures, the Palestinian leadership says it is trying to widen the scope of talks with the Israeli government and lobbying the Biden administration to pressure Israel to restart political negotiations.

“As of now, there have been no serious political overtures from Israel, but we agreed to these recent measures to alleviate some pressures on the people,” says Ahmad Majdalani, a minister in the PA government and confidant to Mr. Abbas.

According to Mr. Majdalani, the PA has presented multiple demands to Secretary of State Antony Blinken related to previous agreements reached with Israel. But these demands haven’t had much effect.  

Mr. Bennett has publicly ruled out meeting with Mr. Abbas to resume the peace process. He opposes an independent Palestinian state and recently called the PA a “failed entity.”

Mr. Majdalani says the fragility of Mr. Bennett’s governing coalition may be a factor. “The U.S. might not be interested in pressuring the new Israeli coalition government yet, as it is already very weak,” Mr. Majdalani says, downplaying the potential restart of negotiations.

One hopeful sign is that joint U.S.-Palestinian committees are currently reviewing legal measures to undo some of Mr. Trump’s more extreme steps to pressure Palestinians, such as the closure of the PLO office in Washington.

Palestinians also want to see a reopening of the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem that was controversially converted to the U.S. Embassy to Israel in 2017.

Confidence steps but no mandate

While such confidence-building measures would be welcome, Palestinians insist that the PA should first hold democratic elections if it is to negotiate on their behalf.  

“With the Palestinian Authority at odds with its own people, the Authority needs to expedite elections to have a stronger, democratically supported position before it enters any talks,” says Raja Habash, an electrical engineer from Ramallah who is in his mid-40s.

Earlier this year, thousands of Palestinians in the occupied territories, Israel, and Gaza hit the streets to demand greater rights and to protest Israeli court-ordered displacement of East Jerusalem residents. Mr. Abbas and his allies were conspicuously absent from this uprising.

A 10-day war in Gaza in May further roiled Palestinian opinion and left Mr. Abbas looking out of touch, reinforcing popular frustration over his leadership. In recent months, the PA has responded to protests against its rule by violently breaking up demonstrations, harassing journalists, and detaining activists.  

“The frustration among Palestinians is increasing as their ability to protest and express opposition is shrinking,” says Issam Aruri, commissioner of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights.

“People see what is wrong, and know the change they want to see. But we lack the democratic tools to achieve it.”

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