According to Friedman, the Palestinians “have been indulged by the Arab world, by the European Union. People have made excuses for their malign activity for generations.”
By Israel Kasnett, JNS
An astonishing level of criticism from Arab commentators, intellectuals and journalists has been leveled at the Palestinian leadership in recent weeks in response to its condemnations against countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, which have just signed normalization agreements with Israel.
Five years ago, it seemed that the Palestinians could never fall out of grace with Americans, the Arab world or even the Europeans. These days, all this seems to have changed.
Uzi Rabi, head of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, sat down for a discussion with U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman to discuss the peace agreements and the future of the Middle East.
Referring to the recently signed agreements, said Rabi, “this is definitely a breakthrough and has the potential of a game-changer. What should we expect on top of it? What is your prospect with regard to the geopolitical architecture in this region after or post the agreements with the UAE and Bahrain?”
Friedman said he believes the normalization agreements have proven that “the sky’s the limit.”
He expressed hope that “in our lifetimes, God willing, we will see an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict as we’ve traditionally thought of it—the notion of a 22-member Arab League that is united in their opposition to Israel. I think it will come to an end.”
“It doesn’t mean all 22 Arab League nations will come on board,” he added. “It will be incremental. But I have no doubt it will grow five, 10, maybe more countries over time. And we are having discussions with many of them now. Each one has their own issues, their own population dynamics. It’s not a one-size-fits-all type of arrangement. I’m enormously optimistic.”
Rabi noted that while the United States left the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—and placed enormous financial pressure on Iran, the question remains “whether this is enough to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. What more can be done to that effect?” he asked.
Iran ‘is One of the Reasons’
Friedman pointed out that while Iran is not the only reason for Israel to develop stronger relations with the Gulf states, “it’s one of the reasons.”
He said that the Trump administration’s Iran strategy is two-fold: It pressures Iran by placing sanctions on the regime, and it supports American allies at the same time.
He also noted that the sanctions are “having an effect.”
“The Iranians don’t have the resources they once did to engage in malign activity in Syria,” he observed. “Hezbollah is clearly weaker than it was a couple of years ago. We still have work to do in Iraq, and obviously, Yemen is a challenge. [We are working with] with our partners, including, of course, with the government of Israel to maximize the pressure.”
Compared to just a few months ago, Israel now has the UAE and Bahrain as allies right on the Straits of Hormuz, and “in that region, there will be more,” said Friedman. “What the Iranians are seeing are two things. They see their situation is deteriorating. Internally, they have enormous challenges. But they also see those opting for a path towards peace with Israel and strengthening their relationship with America.”
“Some of us in Washington have looked at it simply as: The Iranians hate the agreements with the Emirates, Bahrain and others, and if they hate it so much, it must be good for the world and the region, and I think it is,” he said.
As for the Palestinians, Rabi pointed out that they “feel as if they were neglected and left behind.”
“Some say this Palestinian leadership is unable to move forward,” he said and questioned whether there are alternative or younger Palestinian leaders who can take the lead and move towards normalization with Israel.
Friedman disagreed with the notion that the Palestinians have been neglected by the Arab world, saying he “would say just the opposite.”
According to Friedman, the Palestinians “have been indulged by the Arab world, by the European Union, by others. People have made excuses for their malign activity for generations.”
He said the Palestinians have received “enormous amounts of money,” although he acknowledged the United States was a major contributor.
“We spent an enormous amount of money trying to build up Palestinian society,” he said, but “no one has anything to show for it. The leadership has put a lot of money in their pocket. [Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas] is wealthy. His friends are wealthy. The prime minister of Israel travels on a chartered El Al flight. [He] flies on a $75 million Boeing business jet wherever he wants all around the world when he has a GDP per capita 1/20th the size of Israel.”
Friedman blamed the Palestinian leadership for being concerned only for “their own personal interests against the will of the Palestinian people.”
“They failed. And to a certain extent the world has enabled that failure,” he said.
He also noted that when he first began serving as ambassador, he noticed that the Palestinian leadership “repeatedly rejected economic opportunity in the West Bank because they felt it would hurt their narrative of victimization.”
“So they would prefer their people suffer and remain angry than get the benefits of economic aid—real economic aid,” he said. “I don’t mean handouts. I mean real investments in the West Bank. It’s been on the table for three years. They don’t want it. They don’t want to normalize until they get everything they want.”
‘Who is the Leadership?’
Friedman said the Palestinian leadership’s policy of holding its population hostage “is terrific if you are the leader, and you’re wealthy and you live in a palace and you have everything you want. It’s a terrible policy for the 2.5 million people living in Judea and Samaria who can live better.”
“Who is the leadership?” Friedman asked regarding the Palestinians. “The reality is there is no leadership. You couldn’t shake hands with anybody today with any sense of assurance that tomorrow we’d move forward on an agreement because no one can deliver the Palestinian people because they have thrived on conflict.”
So where will this lead?
“We put a plan on the table, and it may not be everything they like,” said Friedman, “but it presented a realistic solution that would have also resulted in a highly favorable economic boom to the region. Again, investment and infrastructure—not charity. The leadership ran to the U.N. General Assembly and ripped it all up publicly.”
Friedman said that countries in the region “are starting to realize that if they hold their own progress back in order to facilitate the Palestinians, they could be waiting forever.”
“If the Palestinians are reading the tea leaves correctly, they need to engage,” he advised. “They need to stop relying upon the narrative of victimization. It served them well for a couple of generations, but I think that time is coming to an end.”