The Abraham Accords have generated clearly visible changes in Israel, demonstrated on what seems a near-daily basis with Israeli and Emirati ministers visiting each other’s respective countries, signing economic and tourism deals, and proclaiming a new era in the Middle East. The accords have also wrought changes on the Palestinian side, though they are not as immediately evident. And unlike on the Israeli side, where the benefits of these changes are apparent, the changes on the Palestinian side risk creating an even deeper morass for Palestinian interests going forward.
One of the abiding narratives of the past few weeks is that the Abraham Accords have led the Palestinians to only dig their heels in further and refuse to acknowledge that the region has changed and will continue to evolve. President Abbas and the Palestinian leadership rejected any normalization efforts with Israel before a deal is signed with the Palestinians, slammed the UAE and Bahrain for abandoning them, resigned in protest from the rotating Arab League presidency – which the Palestinians happened to hold at the time, and reiterated that they have not abandoned any of their core positions. The characterization of the Palestinian leadership sticking to its metaphorical guns is correct, yet there are some critical changes happening as a result of the Palestinians feeling as if they are backed into an even tighter corner than usual.
The first is that the evergreen quest for Palestinian unity is actually progressing at a more serious clip, and while I remain skeptical that it will be achieved, for the first time in awhile it does not seem beyond the realm of genuine possibility. Abbas’s initial reaction to the normalization agreements was to convene all of the Palestinian factions, including Hamas, for a series of meetings, and reports are that there was agreement for a conceptual plan to hold Palestinian Legislative Council elections and presidential elections. It is notable that this was not a one-off meeting, but the result of three meetings in less than a month, and that the Fatah Central Committee – which has not historically been high on reconciliation with Hamas, to put it mildly – approved the plan unanimously before Hamas made any moves to do the same. It is not surprising that the reaction to a feeling of abandonment by traditional Arab allies would lead Fatah to make a real effort at intra-Palestinian reconciliation, but the changed environment and the added pressure on Abbas means that a unity agreement becomes more likely in the event that the other possible diplomatic response to the Abraham Accords – a reconsideration of traditional PLO positions – has been categorically rejected. While nobody should expect any movement in the next two weeks, a victory for President Trump on November 3 may render a Fatah-Hamas unity agreement the immediate Palestinian reaction.
The second change is the Fatah embrace of Turkey, which has spent years backing Hamas against Fatah. Turkey was one of the only countries to publicly denigrate the Abraham Accords and criticize the UAE for selling out the Palestinian cause by normalizing with Israel – the height of chutzpah-driven irony given Turkey’s own normalized ties with Israel and the fact that it was the first Muslim-majority country to establish relations with Israel way back in 1949. In response, aside from thanking Turkey for its backing, Abbas convened the decisive meetings of Palestinian factions in Istanbul under Turkish auspices and requested that Turkey monitor Palestinian elections when they are held. All of this is meant to signal displeasure and a Fatah shift away from the pragmatic Sunni states that have had the largest outside role in Palestinian issues – the so-called Arab Quartet of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – in order to elevate Turkey and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has long sought greater influence in Palestine and among Palestinians, and the opening that Abbas has provided him is one that he is poised to jump through.
While this may feel to Abbas and the Fatah leadership like a necessary move, it is in fact a grave mistake. First, while Palestinian unity is necessary for a host of reasons, from presenting a unified stance in order to negotiate with Israel to paving the way for critical Palestinian governance reforms, any unity agreement that is effectively sponsored by Turkey is necessarily going to shift power away from Fatah and toward Hamas. Turkey has worked assiduously for years not only to boost Hamas in Gaza, but to boost it in Abbas’s own West Bank backyard. Turkey sponsored and hosted Hamas West Bank chief Salah al-Arouri, enabling him to plan and execute attacks in the West Bank not only against Israelis but against the Palestinian Authority that were designed to destabilize PA rule. Turkey has been putting its thumb on the scale in Hamas’s favor for over a decade, and for purely tactical reasons, Abbas should be wary of elevating Turkey’s role and influence.
In addition, a unity agreement now risks destroying a potential reset in U.S.-Palestinian relations. Should Joe Biden be elected, all signals are pointing to an effort to resume humanitarian aid to the West Bank and Gaza and to restart funding of Palestinian NGOs, along with moves such as reopening the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem as an independent entity for engaging with the Palestinians and potentially reopening the shuttered PLO mission in Washington as well. Every one of these efforts will be politically tricky as is, but in an environment in which Fatah announces that it has joined hands with Hamas, it will make support for such moves in Congress and potentially within a Biden administration itself stillborn from the outset, irrespective of what role Hamas is actually given. Unity should happen, but Abbas is better off waiting to see how things unfold in the U.S.
But beyond the question of Turkey’s role in bringing the two sides of the Palestinian infighting together or the specific timing, giving Ankara a leading role in Palestinian issues is a mistake on its own. Turkey has consciously aligned itself against the other Sunni states in the region, and is seen as a hostile actor by Egypt in particular. A turn toward Ankara is not an expansion of relationships, but a decided shift in course. Embracing Turkey will only serve to isolate the Palestinians further within the region and put out of reach reconciliation efforts that should now be taking place behind closed doors between Abbas and the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and others.
Turkey is not only on the outs with traditional Arab state supporters of the Palestinians, but with other important international actors as well. Erdogan has ratcheted up tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean in an effort to lay claim to offshore oil and gas deposits, resulting in Turkey coming perilously close to open conflict with the Greek and Cypriot navies. This has not won him any friends in the European Union, and to the extent that the Palestinians will be looking to European countries for support, aligning with Ankara is not going to help.
In addition, the amount of bipartisan anger toward Turkey in the U.S. may be at its highest point since the Turkish refusal to allow the U.S. to use Incirlik airbase as a launching point for operations during the Iraq War. Aside from years of rhetoric from Erdogan accusing the U.S. of meddling in internal Turkish affairs and being behind the failed July 2016 coup, the U.S. and Turkey are currently in a standoff over Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 anti-aircraft defense system, which violates NATO protocols and risks Turkey’s operational membership in the alliance. The U.S. has already suspended Turkey’s membership in the F-35 program as a result and Congress has enacted sanctions on Turkey that Trump has refused to impose, but Turkey tested the S-400 system for the first time earlier this month, making the imposition of sanctions nearly inevitable irrespective of who wins the U.S. presidential election. If the Palestinians want to make amends with the U.S., drawing close to Turkey is one of the most obvious ways of complicating that process.
Finally, Turkey’s reasons for wanting to become a player in Palestinian politics have little to do with the Palestinians themselves. Erdogan has always seen his road to becoming a more prominent global Muslim leader as running through Jerusalem, and he has for years positioned himself as the true defender of Jerusalem and al-Aqsa against alleged Israeli aggression. He uses the Palestinian issue to bolster himself domestically and to project international prestige, and Abbas is effectively giving him greater license to do so despite a history of support for Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups that are at odds with Fatah, the PLO, and any notion of two states. The Turkish economy is in shambles, which also makes Ankara an unlikely candidate to bolster Palestinian finances or make up for the severe shortfalls that have resulted from less aid from Arab states and Abbas’s decision to continue rejecting tax revenues that Israel collects on the PA’s behalf. Aside from rhetorical support, it is hard to see any benefit that Abbas gets from adopting Erdogan as his new international patron.
The Palestinians are undoubtedly in a tough spot, but that does not mean that they cannot still dig themselves even deeper into their current hole. While shifting course on the Abraham Accords is a bitter pill and one that Abbas may not be able to swallow right now, effectively declaring diplomatic war on the most important players that are in a position to actually help the Palestinians is not a smart long-term play.