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Palestinians caught between Russian friendship and American funding

PA President Mahmoud Abbas displays a map of historic Palestine and Palestinian land loss since 1937 in Ramallah, West Bank, Sept. 3, 2020. (AFP)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas displays a map of historic Palestine and Palestinian land loss since 1937 in Ramallah, West Bank, Sept. 3, 2020. (AFP)
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15 Mar 2022 03:03:44 GMT9
15 Mar 2022 03:03:44 GMT9

A new global geopolitical game is being formed and the Middle East, as is often the case, will be directly impacted in terms of possible new alliances and the resulting power paradigms. While it is too early to fully appreciate the impact of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war on the region, it is obvious that some countries are in a relatively comfortable position in terms of leveraging their strong economies, strategic location and political influence. Others, especially nonstate actors like the Palestinians, are in an unenviable position.

Despite repeated calls by the US Biden administration and some EU countries for the Palestinian Authority to condemn Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, it has so far refrained from doing so. Analyst Hani Al-Masri was reported in Axios as saying that the Palestinian leadership understands that condemning Russia “means the Palestinians would lose a major ally and supporter of their political positions.” Indeed, joining the anti-Russia Western chorus would further isolate Palestine, which is desperate for allies that are capable of balancing out the pro-Israel agenda at US-controlled international institutions like the UN Security Council.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of its Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Russia was allowed to play a role, however minor, in the US political agenda in Palestine and Israel. It participated, as a co-sponsor, in the Madrid peace talks in 1991, as well as in the Oslo Accords. Since then, a Russian representative has taken part in every major agreement related to the “peace process,” to the extent that Moscow was one of the main parties in the so-called Middle East Quartet, which in 2016 purportedly attempted to negotiate a political breakthrough between the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership.

Despite the permanent presence of Russia at the Palestine-Israel political table, Moscow has played a subordinate role. It was Washington that largely determined the momentum, time, place and even the outcomes of the talks. Considering America’s strong support for Tel Aviv, Palestinians remained occupied and oppressed, while Israel’s colonial settlement enterprises grew exponentially in terms of size, population and economic power.

Palestinians, however, continued to see Moscow as an ally. Within the largely defunct Middle East Quartet, which also includes the US, the EU and the UN, Russia is the only party that, from a Palestinian viewpoint, was trustworthy. However, considering America’s near-complete hegemony on international decision-making — through its UN vetoes, massive funding of the Israeli military and relentless pressure on the Palestinians — Russia’s role ultimately proved immaterial, if not symbolic.

There were exceptions to this rule. In recent years, Russia has attempted to challenge its traditional role in the peace process as a supporting political actor by offering to mediate, not just between Israel and the PA, but also between Palestinian political groups Hamas and Fatah. Using the political space that presented itself following the Trump administration’s cutting of funds to the PA in February 2019, Moscow drew even closer to the Palestinian leadership.

A more independent Russian position in Palestine and Israel has been taking shape for years. In 2017, for example, Russia hosted a national dialogue conference between Palestinian rivals. Though the Moscow conference did not lead to anything substantive, it allowed Russia to challenge its old position in Palestine — and America’s proclaimed role as an “honest peace broker.”

Wary of Russia’s infringement on its political territory in the Middle East, new US President Joe Biden was quick to restore his government’s funding of the PA last year. He did not, however,  reverse some of the major concessions made to Israel by the Trump administration, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, contrary to international law. Moreover, under Israeli pressure, the US is yet to restore its consulate in East Jerusalem, which was shut down by Trump in 2019. The consulate served as Washington’s diplomatic mission in Palestine.

America’s significance to Palestinians is, at present, confined to financial support. Concurrently, it continues to serve as Israel’s main benefactor financially, militarily, politically and diplomatically.
Even though Palestinian groups, whether Islamist or socialist, have repeatedly called on the PA to liberate itself from its near-total dependency on Washington, the Palestinian leadership has refused. For the PA, defying the US in the current geopolitical order would be a form of political suicide.

Common sense dictates that Palestinians must develop a unified front to cope with the massive changes underway in the world.

Ramzy Baroud

But the Middle East is rapidly changing. America’s political divestment from the region in recent years has allowed other actors, like China and Russia, to slowly prove themselves as political, military and economic alternatives and partners.

The Russian and Chinese influence can now be felt across the region. However, their impact on the balance of power in the Palestine-Israel issue, in particular, remains largely minimal. Despite the start of its strategic “pivot to Asia” in 2012, Washington has remained firmly behind Israel, because American support for Israel is no longer a matter of foreign policy priorities but is an internal US issue involving both political parties, powerful pro-Israel lobby and pressure groups, and a massive right-wing, Christian constituency across the US.

Palestinians — people, leadership and political parties alike — have little trust or faith in Washington. In fact, much of the political discord among Palestinians is directly linked to this very issue. Alas, walking away from the US camp requires a strong political will, which the PA does not possess.
Since the rise of the US as the world’s only superpower more than three decades ago, the Palestinian leadership has reoriented itself entirely to be part of the “new world order.” The Palestinian people, however, have gained little from their leadership’s strategic choice. On the contrary, the Palestinian cause has suffered numerous losses since then — factionalism and disunity at home and a confused regional and international political outlook, thus the hemorrhaging of Palestine’s historic allies, including many African, Asian and South American countries.

The Russia-Ukraine war, however, is ensuring the Palestinians now face one of their greatest foreign policy challenges since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Common sense dictates that Palestinians must develop a unified front to cope with the massive changes underway in the world; changes that will eventually yield a whole new geopolitical reality.

  • Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of Twitter: @RamzyBaroud
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