Opinion

Palestinians deserve better leaders — and a brighter future for themselves

Last Thursday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced he was again postponing legislative elections. He claimed the Israelis aren’t allowing voting in East Jerusalem and Hamas might repeat its victory of 17 years ago — i.e., he gave excuses to stay in power despite his unpopularity.

Abbas has long held himself out as the only thing standing in the way of a terror group like Hamas dominating the Palestinian political process. But that process has collapsed, exposing the failure of institutions from the PA itself to the Oslo Accords to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

With recent geopolitical tectonic shifts in the Middle East, these institutions no longer represent an inevitable status quo. There’s an opening for fresh thinking — and a new start for Palestinians who want to participate in burgeoning regional peace and prosperity.

For generations, the standard understanding of the Middle East peace process was that a durable solution to the Palestinian issue was a prerequisite to broader peace deals between Israel and its neighbors.

Meanwhile, the PA never truly engaged in good-faith peace negotiations with Israel, consigning the Palestinian people instead to perpetual victimhood based on the lie that if they just resisted long enough, Arab nations would eventually attack Israel again and establish a Palestinian state “between the river and the sea.”

That conventional wisdom was turned on its head last year when the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, frustrated by the PA’s endless obstructionism, entered into peace deals with Israel known as the Abraham Accords.

Palestinian leadership reverted to its standard inflamed rhetoric and insisted the Arab League condemn the accords. Yet the league refused. Rather, its members are aggressively pursuing economic and security cooperation with Israel. More deals are on the horizon, and one of them should include the Palestinians.

Ironically, Team Biden seems determined to stuff the genie back into the bottle and regress to dysfunctional policies such as unconditional support for UNRWA. Instead, the United States could take advantage of the new regional reality and encourage Palestinians to develop a radically new political roadmap.

In supporting the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections that saw the triumph of Hamas, the George W. Bush administration labored under the misconception that democracy is a panacea for all political ills, that elections are a good in and of themselves. Of course they are no such thing absent liberal, democratic alternatives to the PA and Hamas, which is what all parties should be seeking to develop. Palestinians deserve better than a binary choice between PA corruption and obstructionism and Hamas-style terror. 

This new roadmap should establish modern, transparent and durable civic institutions that will provide good governance in cooperation with Israel. Candidates willing to be honest with the Palestinians about what is practical and who are focused on economic and quality-of-life issues should be identified and supported.

Once these elements are in place, orderly elections can be scheduled and executed, and a legitimate Palestinian leadership can engage with Israel in pursuit of a sustainable deal. No doubt Hamas would try to exploit the elections, and there’s no way to guarantee it won’t succeed, but it will have a much harder case now the Palestinians know Israel is here to stay — especially if they see tangible improvement in their quality of life and opportunities.

For their part, Israelis can begin work immediately with the United States and their new Arab partners to offer the Palestinians significant basic upgrades, from a 5G broadband network to energy and water initiatives, which could be quickly produced. “Economic normalization” has been demonized by Palestinian leadership for generations as a betrayal of The Cause (i.e., the destruction of Israel). But now the cause has been exposed as a lie.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Biden folks like to refer to the Abraham Accords as “normalization deals,” but the accords are much more. They’ve shown that the Arab Street sees that Israel is not the root of the region’s problems — but perhaps the key to its success.

Many Palestinians understand this shifting dynamic and want to work within it to chart a new future for themselves. Rather than trying to force them back into the failures of the past, the United States should take the lead in helping them realize a brighter, dynamic future closely tied to that of the new Middle East.

Victoria Coates is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy.

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