SDE BOKER, Israel – To many Palestinians, the timing of the summit in Israel is driving home the feeling that they have been abandoned by parts of the Arab world.
Sunday, the first of two days of meetings, was the 20th anniversary of the Arab Peace Initiative, a pact endorsed in 2002 by all members of the Arab League, which promised normalization with Israel in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state.
Two decades later, the presence of several Arab League members at the summit in Israel shows just how far that solidarity has ebbed. Of the five countries invited to the ceremony, only Jordan declined. The Jordanian king, Abdullah II, had a prior commitment on Monday in the West Bank town of Ramallah with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority.
Support for Palestinians remains high in the Arab public. But some Arab leaders now seem to prioritize what they see as their countries’ economic and security interests above the issue of the Palestinians, whose leaders – divided between the West Bank and Gaza – have been at loggerheads for years and are in no position to mount a united push for sovereignty.
“Israel has long tried to get the world to ignore its occupation and its apartheid regime, and now it seems these other states are going along with it,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian analyst and former lawyer for the Palestine Liberation Organization. “This just shows that we were right all along – they work with Israel for their own limited security benefits and not for Palestinians. These regimes aren’t friends to Palestinians and shouldn’t be viewed as such. ”
As the summit got underway, the Israeli Defense Ministry announced that it would allow 8,000 more Palestinians in Gaza to work in Israel, almost doubling the current number. But there was no talk of new peace negotiations.
The meeting in Israel also highlights the limits of a continuing campaign by Palestinians and rights organizations to cast Israel as an apartheid state in the global consciousness. Israel strongly rejects the accusations of apartheid.
If the claim has helped delegitimize Israel in the global rights community, the summit shows how Israel’s legitimacy is simultaneously growing in the Arab world.
The summit was harshly condemned by Palestinian Islamist groups, including Hamas, the militant group that has de facto authority in the Gaza Strip. Another militant group, Islamic Jihad, said that a terror attack in northern Israel on Sunday night was a response to the summit itself, a Palestinian television channel reported.
The Palestinian Authority issued an oblique statement that did not reference the summit directly but implicitly criticized its participants for creating “a new security alliance that circumvents the Palestinian cause” even as Israel expands Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
For all the fanfare surrounding the summit, Israel would ultimately still need to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a Gaza-based professor of political science.
“At the end of the day, they need to realize that it’s the Palestinians that they have to make peace with, not the other countries,” he said.
But the only Palestinians close to the talks were the handful of Palestinian workers at the hotel where the summit was held.
“You probably know how I feel as Palestinian about this summit,” said Fares Argan, a 42-year-old cleaner who commutes to the hotel every day from the occupied West Bank.
“We’re used to this kind of treatment from others,” he added.
Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting from Haifa, Israel; and Lara Jakes from Sde Boker.