This embarrassing Palestinian question

The tensions of recent days in East Jerusalem are forcing regional actors to take a stand. The clashes that erupted on the Esplanade des Mosques on Friday May 7 are the most violent since 2017.

Unsurprisingly, Jordan, populated by some 70% of Palestinians and although a signatory to a peace agreement with Israel (October 26, 1994), had strong words. King Abdullah II, guardian of the holy places of Jerusalem, rejected “The attempts of the Israeli authorities to change the demographic situation in East Jerusalem, and all measures aimed at changing the existing historical and legal status”. Saudi Arabia rejected “Israel’s strategy to evict dozens of Palestinians from their homes”. Morocco expressed its “Deep concern”. For their part, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) condemned police interventions in the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

If they emanate from historical allies of the Palestinians, these latest condemnations remain timid. “These states stick to rhetorical diplomacy”, analysis Bertrand Badie, professor emeritus of international relations at Sciences Po Paris. In question, the recent normalization of relations with the Hebrew state and the Gulf monarchies, Morocco and Sudan, or more or less formal with Saudi Arabia. The latter abandoned the Palestinian issue in favor of an alliance with the sworn enemy. “The Arab countries have, by constraint or by interest, marginalized this question which has long been the main axis of their diplomacy”, adds the specialist.

The resurgence of violence, however, forces them to position themselves. “The meeting of the Palestinian nationalist parameter and the religious parameter makes these events unavoidable”, explains Bertrand Badie. The Esplanade des Mosques, Islam’s third holiest site, confers a symbolic significance that the Arab and Muslim powers cannot ignore. “Indifference represents the least bad card to play for these States but that is not possible in this case”, develops the teacher.

The situation is therefore embarrassing the Arab powers. They are forced to play the balancing act to show their support for the Palestinian people without taking the risk of offending their new Israeli partner too much. Hence these countries’ unanimous call for de-escalation: if the situation worsened, they would probably be forced to take a stronger stance vis-à-vis the Hebrew state. However, a hostile attitude towards Israel would constitute a terrible admission of failure. “This would reduce to nothing all the efforts of reconciliation undertaken in recent years”, comments Bertrand Badie.

Overly timid support also has its drawbacks. The religious dimension being at the heart of the Palestinian question and the ongoing violence in Jerusalem, the entire Muslim sphere is interested in it, and not only the Arab world. “Two countries have every interest in reacting: Turkey and Iran”, explains the teacher-researcher. The passivity of the Arab countries leaves a vacuum and the two regional powers are tempted to occupy this space to increase their regional leadership.

From there to speak of a return to the foreground of the Palestinian question? “It depends if the situation gets worse or not”, answers Bertrand Badie. If the pressure eases, the cumbersome Palestinian file should quickly be forgotten. The current disturbances at least demonstrate that the Palestinian question remains a structuring element of regional geopolitics. “It is imposed above all on those States which willingly look away”, concludes the researcher.


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