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US & Israel see in Al-Sheikh someone they can work with, expert says

American and Israeli priorities – like security coordination with Israel, improving the economic situation of the Palestinians – are things that Mr. Al-Sheikh values.

Jerusalem24 – Palestinian, Israeli, and US affairs expert and author Khaled Elgindy joined us in the studio on Wake Up Palestine for a breakdown of current affairs – both Palestinian and American, domestic and international.

Elgindy gave his views on Biden’s policies – or lack thereof – on Palestine as well as the wider Middle-East; expected successor to the Palestinian presidency Hussein Al-Sheikh, and the possibility of elections; and the long-stalled negotiations for the peace process.

Below is a partial transcript of the interview.

On US-Palestinian Affairs and US Middle-East strategy

  • Prior to US President Biden’s visit earlier this month, you suggested a series of six measures that you said “represent the bare essentials of a minimally credible approach to Israel-Palestine.” As it turns out, Biden only implemented one of those measures during his visit. Do you think this is more reflective of Biden’s strategy in the region, or does it reflect changing US strategy more generally?

I do think it reflects where president Biden is on the issue. This is not a top-priority issue for this administration, it’s very low down on the list of priorities even among foreign issues. Foreign policy in general is taking a backseat to domestic policy, economy, the fallout of the pandemic issues, and attacks on US institutions.

The six points that I laid out were designed to demonstrate how far away this administration is from where it said it wanted to be before president Biden came to office. The expectation was that Biden would restore the policy where things were before Donald Trump came and made all of these very damaging policies. The only real exception that we all understood was that the US embassy would not be moved back to Tel Aviv, this was very clear.

We’ve almost seen nothing. The six issues I laid out are the things that need to happen – not to restart a peace process, not to save Mahmoud Abbas and his leadership, but just to be taken seriously at a minimal level. But what we’ve seen is that this administration is not willing to take these very basic steps. And I think that’s where we are: Biden is not willing to expand any political capital on the Palestinian issue.

  • Was Biden’s visit to the region more about Iran?

I think there are multiple reasons for the visit. Iran was a big issue, an issue both Saudi Arabia and Israel care a lot about. They have different approaches to the Iran issue, and the American issue, and even the Americans have different approaches to either the Saudis or the Israelis.

I think the war in Ukraine is another issue. There is a sense in Washington that America’s friends and allies in the Middle East are not lining up against Putin with the same clarity and force that Washington would like. Most regimes in the region have strong ties with the Russians – even the Israeli response to Ukraine was kind of mixed. So that was a part of the agenda also, was to bring America’s friends on board.

Oil prices were an issue, and trying to convince the Saudis to increase production and bring down oil prices, that was on the agenda.

There was a broader message the Biden administration was trying to demonstrate, and that’s America is back in the Middle East – because the last two administrations were withdrawn from the region, the region has responded, and there is a lot of anxiety on the part of the Arab states and Israelis with Americans’ apparent departure from the region.

The Biden administration came to say that, “We’re staying in the region, we’re staying engaged, we want to see more security cooperation between all of our partners, especially the Arab Gulf states and Israel.” I’m not sure he succeeded on that front.

  • Can we regard the reason for Biden’s suffering Middle East strategy, is his administration’s preoccupation with the Russians?

Partly. The last two administrations kind of divested from the region, starting with Obama and continued by Donald Trump. So, it is a continuation of the same trend – although the administration is trying to send the opposite signal, that we are trying to engage in the region. I’m not sure how convincing that is. There is no question that the Ukraine crisis is absorbing a lot of the attention, time, and resources of this administration, which has an effect not only on this region but on other regions.

 

Internal Palestinians Affairs:

  • Current polls suggest that the current secretary general for the PLO Hussein Al-Sheikh would “struggle mightily to win an election, just 3% of Palestinians want him to be as their next leader”

And in a statement, you made to France 24, you said and I quote, “Sheikh is a person that Israelis seem to hold in high regard. Certainly, the Americans do.”

Could you clarify that statement for us?

I think in terms of American and Israeli priorities – which are things like security coordination with Israel, and focusing on improving the economic situation of the Palestinians – these are things that Mr. Hussein Al-Sheikh also values, they see in him someone they can work with, very much a continuation of Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership style and priorities. Unlike other leaders who are in the political landscape and talk more about Jerusalem, settler violence, Sheikh Jarrah, Gaza, and human rights violations… These are things that make Americans uncomfortable and are difficult for them to deal with in large part because they don’t like to put pressure on Israel, they don’t like an issue that complicates the relationship with Israel.

  • You also said, talking about Mahmoud Abbas seemingly preparing for Al-Sheikh to be his successor, that you weren’t sure “that the actual succession process is going to unfold according to his wishes.”

What do you mean by this?

It’s no secret that Abbas’s popularity is low, polls over the last six, seven years have shown this trend. I think everything supports this conclusion.

Just because the current leadership has decided what the future should look like, doesn’t mean that’s this is what’s going to happen. There are many leaders who see themselves as future successors. There will be a struggle for power within Fatah, and between Fatah and other groups, such as Hamas.

Once this leadership departs from the scene, we’re going to see a power struggle on different levels, and no one really knows what the outcome will be. Will we see violence? Will we see warlords taking over different parts of the West Bank? Will we see cooperation among the various factions – even within Fatah that are now divided? Will they come together to agree on a future leader? Will they continue to fragment?

All of these things are unknown, and I think the mere designation of one unpopular leader toward another unpopular leader, I think is a lot of wishful thinking.

It seems like the Palestinian people and Palestinian factions will have to have their say in how any succession unfolds, with or without elections.

  • Do you think general elections will finally have to be called in this scenario?

It is possible. The current designation of Mr. Al-Sheikh is designed to avoid that, designed to avoid elections, because, in a genuine election, it’s unclear if the current Fatah leadership would come up on top. Because of divisions within Fatah, also because of Hamas’s rising popularity. As we know many people are competing even within Fatah for that position.

As we saw last year when there were dozens of new lists being formed, people were organizing, and there was quite a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for elections.

It’s difficult to imagine in a future leadership succession process that there wouldn’t be more calls for elections. We hear calls every day from civil society and from the general public, they want to see elections. The question is how will these elections unfold? Will they be democratic? Will they be inclusive? And very importantly will the results be respected by Israel, the US, and the international community?

 

Negotiations:

  • You’ve said that successful negotiations “depend as much on the dynamics outside the negotiation room as those inside.” A poll from June shows that a full 70% of Palestinians believe that a two-state solution is no longer feasible or practical due to settlement expansion, and the same number don’t even support it as a solution. Without taking into consideration all of the other dynamics at play, isn’t this a non-starter for a new round of negotiations? And how can the PA (and other actors) better take into consideration the will of the Palestinian people?

The chances of two-solution are very, very low. The fact that it’s not a priority of the US, it’s clearly not a goal for Israel.

What I meant by conditions outside of negotiations being just as important as conditions inside are things like settlement construction, settler violence, home demolitions and explosions. If you have a peace process focusing exclusively on putting people in a room and talking in negotiations but ignoring those realities on the ground, the daily human rights violations against Palestinians, or the confiscation of land and settler violence, then that process can’t succeed. So, to have a meaningful process whether it’s about two states or one state or some other outcome, you have to address issues that are driving the conflict, driving instability and violence.

 

Listen to the full interview below.

Nadeen Alshaer

Alshaer is a Palestinian journalist, a Birzeit University graduate with a B.A. in TV and Radio Broadcasting Journalism. Alshaer has 5+ years of experience in journalism. She currently works as a reporter, editor and presenter/producer for PBC-Palestine TV and Jerusalem24 radio. She’s a UN and Kelley School of Business alumna.

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