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Saturday, April 13, 2024

What is Next for Palestinians?

GVS Editor Ms. Najma Minhas sits down for a discussion with Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

As Israel contemplates a potential ground invasion of Rafah—a city inhabited by over 1.4 million Palestinians—the credibility of the United States to mediate in this crisis is under scrutiny. Additionally, questions arise about the roles of other stakeholders and the treatment of Palestinians as marginalized entities. Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and director of MEI’s Program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian Affairs, offers insights into these pressing issues.

GVS: Starting with recent findings from the Arab Center in Washington, DC, which conducted a survey across 16 Arab countries revealing a prevailing negative view of the United States due to its handling of the Israel-Hamas crisis. What implications should the United States draw from this?

Elgindy: The survey results are unsurprising, given the long-standing support for Palestinian rights among Arab populations worldwide. Notably, despite potential differences between Arab governments and public sentiment, the majority of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the United States. What’s striking is that over 50% identified the U.S. as the primary destabilizing force in the region. This underscores a significant disparity between America’s self-perception as a force for peace and stability and how it is perceived by those directly impacted by its policies. It is a reality check for American leadership rhetoric, revealing a stark contrast between perception and reality.

GVS: Regarding this notion of American leadership, do you believe it is primarily championed within Washington’s military, industrial, or think tank circles rather than being embraced universally across the nation?

Elgindy: While foreign policy might not be at the forefront of most Americans’ minds, there is a general belief in the U.S. as a global leader and influencer. However, there is a glaring gap between this perception and the harsh reality of how the U.S., particularly the Biden administration, is viewed globally. Many Americans may not grasp the extent of this negative sentiment, not only within the Arab world but also across the global South, including Africa, Asia, Latin America, and parts of Europe. Even among Western European nations, consensus regarding the U.S. role isn’t solidified.

GVS: Given the evident disparity between how the United States perceives itself and how it is perceived globally, especially in the Arab world, how do you see this influencing its policies, particularly concerning the Middle East, including countries like Iran, Iraq, and Syria?

Elgindy: The discrepancy between American self-perception and global opinion, particularly in the Arab world, has historically had minimal impact on U.S. decision-making. The U.S. tends to prioritize relations with authoritarian regimes over public sentiment. While there have been instances, like the Arab Spring, where values clashed with perceived national interests, the U.S. now appears comfortable engaging with authoritarian regimes, prioritizing support from key regional players like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. This approach sidelines the concerns of the Arab public in favor of achieving strategic goals.

GVS: Does this approach signify a “my way or the highway” stance, disregarding the Arab Street in pursuit of specific policies? And how does this affect U.S. credibility as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Elgindy: American credibility as a mediator has significantly waned, if not entirely dissipated. Even before the Biden administration, few in the Arab world, particularly among Palestinians, trusted U.S. mediation efforts. Over the past three decades, the U.S. has failed to advance the peace process, contributing to the ongoing conflict’s stagnation. Objectively, the U.S. has not proven itself effective in diplomacy or conflict resolution, evident in the sustained instability and violence in the region. The recent destruction in Gaza, resulting in significant loss of life, underscores the detrimental impact of U.S. policies. It is challenging to envision the same administration facilitating peace negotiations after perpetuating such destruction and instability.

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GVS: Are there other potential actors capable of playing a constructive role in diplomatic efforts? For instance, last year saw China facilitating dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Do you see room for involvement from China or other actors?

Elgindy: Certainly, there is ample space for various actors to contribute. No single entity can entirely replace the United States, which still holds significant influence over the parties involved. However, there is a growing recognition that the American monopoly on the Israeli-Palestinian issue has proven ineffective. Previously, there was international support for U.S.-led peace processes, particularly from Europe and the Arab world. However, given the failures of American leadership, there is now a shift towards embracing a multipolar approach, allowing for the involvement of diverse actors in conflict resolution and mitigation efforts.

GVS: When you mention a multiplicity of forces, which actors specifically do you see playing a role?

Elgindy: Various entities can contribute meaningfully. China and Russia, for example, possess diplomatic leverage. Arab states, too, hold importance in regional dynamics. Moreover, countries from the Global South, such as South Africa and Nicaragua, are increasingly asserting themselves in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. South Africa’s initiative to bring a case against Israel for genocide at the International Court of Justice illustrates this shift. These developments reflect efforts to address the profound power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly in light of Western support for Israeli actions. While success is not guaranteed, it highlights the inadequacy of traditional approaches and the need for diverse international engagement.

GVS: Regarding Palestinian mediation efforts, who are viable negotiation partners considering the perceived weaknesses within the Palestinian Authority and the unlikelihood of engaging with Hamas?

Elgindy: This is a critical question that Palestinians are currently grappling with. Over the years, Palestinian agency has been marginalized, and the leadership weakened, partly due to Israeli policies supported by the United States. The Palestinian Authority’s role, particularly in security cooperation with Israel, has undermined its legitimacy among Palestinians. Addressing this requires revitalizing Palestinian political institutions, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, to regain legitimacy and representational capacity. However, a stronger Palestinian leadership could complicate future negotiations by advocating more effectively for Palestinian interests.

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GVS: What role do you envision for Saudi Arabia in this context, especially considering their recent statement reaffirming their stance on relations with Israel?

Elgindy: Recent statements from the White House and the administration suggested a resumption of the normalization track between Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, the Saudi clarification contradicted this narrative, indicating that normalization remains contingent on Palestinian statehood based on the 1967 borders. The discrepancy highlights the administration’s wishful thinking versus the current reality.

The ongoing Gaza crisis and Israel’s stance against Palestinian statehood further complicate normalization prospects. The notion that Hamas initiated actions on October 7 due to concerns over potential Israeli-Saudi normalization aligns with Hamas’s broader objective of disrupting the status quo. This status quo, characterized by complacency towards Palestinian grievances, was underscored by the perceived normalization efforts.

GVS: So, would you agree that Hamas’s actions on October 7 aimed to disrupt the prevailing status quo, challenging the complacency towards Palestinian issues perpetuated by potential normalization efforts between Israel and Saudi Arabia?

Elgindy: Indeed, Hamas’s primary objective was to shatter the prevailing status quo and demonstrate the costs borne by Palestinians under its continuation. The normalization efforts between Israel and Saudi Arabia were seen as emblematic of this complacency. Hamas sought to disrupt this narrative, asserting that the status quo was unsustainable not only for Palestinians but also for regional dynamics. By highlighting the potential risks associated with continued neglect of Palestinian grievances, Hamas aimed to compel a reconsideration of the prevailing complacency.

GVS: What were Hamas’s expectations after October 7, and how do Palestinians perceive their actions amidst the significant casualties and destruction in Gaza?

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Elgindy: The aftermath of Hamas’s actions on October 7 is complex, and Palestinian sentiment varies. While Hamas succeeded in elevating the Palestinian issue, particularly in the West Bank, determining public opinion in Gaza, amidst ongoing survival concerns, is challenging. While some may appreciate Hamas’s efforts to disrupt the status quo, anger towards both Hamas and Israel’s actions likely exists. A thorough evaluation of the repercussions will require time and calm to assess the political fallout accurately.

GVS: British Foreign Minister Liz Truss recently hinted at the possibility of recognizing Palestine as an independent state. How significant do you find this development?

Elgindy: Recognition of Palestine as an independent state has long been a Palestinian demand. The potential for such recognition, particularly by Western powers, signals a shift in diplomatic dynamics. However, the context and conditions surrounding recognition are crucial. The Palestinian Authority’s reluctance to return to Gaza under Israeli oversight complicates matters. Any recognition would likely be contingent on broader political developments and could serve as a bargaining tool in future negotiations.

GVS: Considering the implications of recognizing Palestine, particularly in terms of borders and governance, who would serve as the legitimate governing authority, given the division between Gaza and the West Bank?

Elgindy: Determining the legitimate governing authority in a recognized Palestine is a complex issue. The division between Gaza and the West Bank complicates governance and representation. Any recognition would likely require reconciliation efforts between Palestinian factions to establish unified governance. Without such unity, questions regarding the effectiveness and sovereignty of a recognized state remain unresolved.

GVS: Turning to recent actions by the United States and other Western countries to withhold humanitarian funding from UNRWA, despite scant evidence supporting allegations, how do you view this decision in light of the ongoing crisis in Gaza?

Elgindy: The decision to withhold humanitarian funding from UNRWA amid the Gaza crisis is deeply troubling on multiple levels. UNRWA plays a crucial role in providing life-saving assistance to Palestinians, particularly in times of crisis. The decision, coinciding with the International Court of Justice’s ruling on potential Israeli genocide in Gaza, raises serious ethical concerns. Despite allegations lacking substantial evidence, the reflexive response from Western countries underscores a significant asymmetry in credibility and accountability between Israelis and Palestinians. Such actions perpetuate systemic injustices and prioritize political motives over humanitarian imperatives.

GVS: Indeed, the concept of a rules-based order appears to align more with American interests rather than the norms of international law. Given recent events and the dismissive stance towards allegations of genocide, where does this leave the United States in terms of its adherence to international law, especially in front of institutions like the ICJ?

Elgindy: The timing of the allegations against UNRWA on the day of the ICJ ruling is significant. Despite the court’s call for provisional measures, including ceasing hostilities and allowing humanitarian aid, the United States and other donors continue to fund Israel’s actions while withholding humanitarian assistance. This could be perceived as violating the Genocide Convention and the court’s directives. Regarding the broader notion of a rules-based order, it seems to reflect American dominance rather than adherence to international norms. The recent violations of international humanitarian law during the Gaza conflict underscore this hypocrisy.

GVS: Indeed, as the global south gains prominence, promoting a Pax Americana seems outdated, especially with rising economic powers like India and China. How do you view this shift in global dynamics?

Elgindy: The loss of American dominance in the global order is evident and drives the current administration’s responses, including the push for Saudi-Israel normalization. This normalization, viewed as a defense pact against China’s influence, reflects America’s struggle to maintain its regional foothold amidst increasing multipolarity. The diffusion of power away from the United States poses challenges that it may not be fully prepared to address.

Watch the full interview on GVS Dialogue: