Israel-Saudi normalization stuck as Netanyahu struggles to boost Palestinian Authority

T. Belman. As I have said before, there will be no normalization before Jordan will be declared the Palestinian state. This will happen as soon as King Abdullah II abdicates and Mudar becomes the President of Jordan. This is expected to happen this fall. When this happens Mudar will be the recognized leader of the Palestinians rather than the PA.

This will satisfy MBS because he has asked for the creation of a Palestinian state. He didn’t say where. He will accept Jordan as the Palestinian state because he wants the King gone.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that to obtain normalization with Saudi Arabia, he must bypass his hard-line coalition partners and offer the Palestinians significant benefits.

By Ben Caspit, AL MONITOR

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a press conference in Nicosia on September 3, 2023. (Photo by Iakovos Hatzistavrou / POOL / AFP) (Photo by IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)[/caption]

TEL AVIV – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have reversed his policy toward the Palestinian Authority (PA), but can he take it far enough to generate the changes the Biden administration and the Saudis are demanding? Two days before his departure for the United States, chances of that happening look bleak.

Truth to be told, having previously helped bring the PA to the brink of collapse, Netanyahu is now not only supporting it, but is providing it with weaponry as well.

Until Netanyahu formed his current government in late December 2022, he had sought to undermine the PA in the West Bank while strengthening its rival, Hamas, in the Gaza Strip. It was a strategy to perpetuate the split between Gaza and the West Bank and rule out any suggestion of a newly strengthened Palestinian leadership in Ramallah as potential peace partner for Israel.

Netanyahu tied his own hands 

These days, however, Netanyahu needs the PA to advance prospects of normalization with Saudi Arabia, which has made clear that an empowered PA is a precondition for any photo-op with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, not to mention for the Israeli leader’s prospects of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Unfortunately for Netanyahu, the partners on whom he depends for his political survival are determined to derail the burgeoning Israeli-Palestinian relationship. In fact, the Religious Zionism and Jewish Power parties aspire to topple the PA and exploit the ensuing chaos and power vacuum to continued Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank and quash Palestinian dreams of independence.

These opposing goals clashed this week when reports emerged that Israel had approved the supply of 10 armored vehicles to help PA security forces restore governance in Jenin and Nablus, in the northern West Bank, which have been largely overtaken by Hamas-affiliated groups.

The reports, some of which also included Israel’s alleged approval of the supply of 1,500 Kalashnikov submachine guns to the PA, set off a political uproar. Itamar Ben-Gvir, national security minister and Jewish Power leader, and Bezalel Smotrich, finance minister and Religious Zionism leader, went as far as to threaten an immediate walkout, dismantling Netanyahu’s coalition.

Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, rushed to vehemently deny the Kalashnikov report. As for the armored vehicles, those were said to have been approved by the previous government of Prime Ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid at the request of the Joe Biden administration. Although calm was thus restored, grumbling persists on the far right regarding Israel’s perceived weak and unnecessary capitulation to US pressure.

Netanyahu is in a bind. At a meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last June, he caused a stir by saying, “We need the Palestinian Authority. We must not allow its collapse”. A month later, he convened a special cabinet meeting, which was followed by a statement announcing, “In the absence of a change in the national assessment, Israel will act to prevent the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.” In the cabinet vote on the matter, Ben-Gvir had opposed the statement, and Smotrich had abstained.

Civilian helicopter for Abbas?

Statements are not enough, however, to ensure the PA’s chances of survival. The Saudis and Americans are pressuring Netanyahu to demonstrate his goodwill in the form of generous measures vis-a-vis the PA to advance Israeli-Saudi normalization. Defense officials are also strongly recommending essential moves to improve the PA’s resilience and its ability to deal with the waves of terrorism emanating from Jenin and Nablus. Netanyahu listens, and he understands, but he also finds it difficult to implement such measures.

Al-Monitor has learned that Netanyahu recently considered approving the supply of a civilian helicopter for PA President Mahmoud Abbas to facilitate his movement, especially travel abroad, which he does via Jordan. The recent news reports and threats from his coalition partners scuttled the initiative. The aging Palestinian leader will have to continue to travel by land, from Ramallah to Amman and back, whenever he flies abroad.

Netanyahu’s only remaining recourse is to promote economic measures to ease the PA’s credit and cash flow crunch. For now, his government allows some 18,000 Palestinian workers to leave Gaza every day to work in Israel, and with Israel’s consent, a Qatari envoy has just paid a visit to Gaza carrying a suitcase full of cash.

Israel has also approved the development of the Gaza Marine natural gas field, off the Gaza coast in the Mediterranean Sea, and is promoting development of a Palestinian industrial zone in Tarqumiya, in the southern West Bank. Also under consideration is the return of the so-called VIP certificates, which allowed senior PA officials to move freely around the West Bank and in Israel, as well as other concessions, mainly regarding taxes that Israel collects for the PA. Netanyahu’s partners are trying to block these measures, too.

Netanyahu entrusted his two hard-line partners with key positions: Smotrich oversees the state treasury and West Bank settlement advancement, and Ben-Gvir holds sway over the police and other agencies. Absent their support, significant initiatives to improve the PA’s standing are not feasible. During much of Netanyahu’s time in power, he has not wanted to help the PA. Now that he needs to, he is finding that he cannot.

These constraints have dashed Netanyahu’s hopes of a long-awaited Oval Office sit-down with Joe Biden. He will have to settle for a rushed meeting with the US president this week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. The Palestinians will have to make do with whatever crumbs Netanyahu can throw their way without endangering his government. Biden had hoped to have some tangible progress to show for his administration’s intense efforts to engineer a historic peace deal between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world’s leading power, but has so far been disappointed.

It remains unclear whether Biden, Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman can nonetheless conjure up a breakthrough to realize the long-awaited normalization of relations between Riyadh and Jerusalem.

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, who in his recent meetings in Washington was asked about the extent to which he would back Netanyahu’s efforts to meet the Saudis’ expectations, outright rejected the idea of joining the Netanyahu government to provide it with the necessary support if the hard-liners walked out over concessions to the Palestinians. Lapid also opposes another part of the proposed package deal with the Saudis — Israeli approval of Saudi uranium enrichment for a power reactor.

With every day that passes, it is becoming increasingly clear that to reach a breakthrough with Riyadh, Netanyahu will have to make some weighty leadership decisions, some of them dangerous, some painful. Given his current political and legal woes, whether he is capable of doing so is anybody’s guess.

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September 16, 2023 | 2 Comments »

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