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Palestinians divided over PA's attendance at Israeli conference

The Palestinian Authority sent an official representative to participate at Israel's Herzliya Conference on June 14-16, which raised the ire of various Palestinian factions.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Bilateral relations between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel seem to be currently at their best, as coordination and cooperation on official levels are ongoing between the two sides. However, the Palestinians disagree as they want the nature of the relationship with Israel to be defined.

In this context, Ahmed Majdalani, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Executive Committee, participated in the 16th Herzliya Conference on Israeli security that was held on June 14-16. Majdalani’s participation raised the ire of the Palestinians, as Palestinian factions and boycott committees demanded to hold him accountable for participating.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine noted in a June 16 statement that Majdalani’s participation is “a stab in our people’s back. We need to take a serious stance and hold him accountable.” The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine issued a statement on the same day noting that Majdalani’s participation was “offensive to the struggles of our people and the sacrifices they have made. It challenges the boycott of the Israeli occupation — economically, militarily and culturally — which requires taking the necessary measures to prevent the recurrence of such practices.”

A Hamas statement issued June 18 described Majdalani’s participation as “a national failure that legalizes the occupation’s crimes and disregards the Palestinian people’s struggle.”

Palestinians criticize the Herzliya Conference for the importance the Israelis attach to it; they consider it one of the most important strategic think tanks on the future of Israel. The conference has been devoted to discussing the most crucial issues facing Israel, identifying emerging issues and trends, and assessing the threats posed on Israel in the Middle East.

The Herzliya Conference, in reference to the city of Herzliya where the conference is held, was launched in 2000 on the initiative of Uzi Arad, a former officer in the Israeli Mossad and former political adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The conference holds importance because the participants include military figures, politicians, academics, diplomats and strategic experts from Israel and abroad. Its importance also lies in the regional and international issues that are discussed and that are highly influential for Israel, as well as the security risks and challenges facing it.

Majdalani believes the criticism against him to be exaggerated. He told Al-Monitor, “This was an official participation that was required of me. This is neither the first time, nor will it be the last as it reflects the PLO’s approach, stance and vision by representing the Palestinian position in all forums.”

The PA, which receives an invitation as a signatory of the 1993 Oslo Accord, has participated in the Herzliya Conference on several occasions since 2004. At the recent conference, the participants — which included the ambassadors of Jordan and Egypt, as both countries also signed peace agreements with Israel — discussed the PA’s political stance and its vision for the future as well as the developments in the region.

The PA first participated in the 5th Herzliya Conference in 2004, where it was represented by former secretary-general of the PLO’s Executive Committee Yasser Abed Rabbo. Former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad participated in the conference in 2007 and 2010, and former Minister of Prisoners Affairs Ashraf Ajrami and member of Fatah’s Central Committee Nabil Shaath both participated in the 2014 conference.

Majdalani said, “We want to confront Israeli society and its political and security elite with our political vision to prove that we support peace based on a two-state solution, in accordance with international legitimacy resolutions.” He added, “The Herzliya Conference is an arena of political engagement [that allows us] to represent the Palestinian position. This is why the [current] Palestinian debate should be about the content of my speech in the conference, instead of where I delivered it.”

Majdalani’s speech at the conference did not add anything new as it was aligned with the Palestinian political rhetoric that reiterated the importance of peace accords and the two-state solution. He called on the conference to adopt the peace strategy, starting from the Arab Peace Initiative and based on the two-state solution, and to establish equitable relations among the countries in the region, including Israel.

For his part, PLO Executive Committee member Wasel Abu Yousef told Al-Monitor, “The Palestinian participation in the Herzliya Conference is wrong and unacceptable, because this conference is held to ensure the occupation’s political, military and economic future. How can we be part of that?”

He added, “This participation — in light of Netanyahu's right-wing government, the blocked political horizon and the expanded boycott campaigns against Israel — constitutes a lifeline for the Netanyahu government to ease the isolation it is facing and give justifications for Arab and regional countries to normalize relations with Israel.”

Abu Yousef added, “The Executive Committee did not ask anyone to participate — President [Mahmoud] Abbas did. But the principle of an Executive Committee member participating in this conference is completely unacceptable and it is condemned by the Palestinian people and factions, as was every previous participation.”

The Palestinian participation in the conference disregarded the international boycott of Israel, which has been expanding lately, and the progress it has achieved. In a statement June 16, the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) National Committee demanded holding Majdalani accountable, dissolving the Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society that was formed by the Palestinian leadership in 2012 to communicate with different components of Israeli society, and putting an end to security coordination and normalization with Israel in all its forms.

BDS general coordinator Mahmoud Nawajaa told Al-Monitor, “The Palestinian and Arab participation is a form of normalization that Israel takes advantage of to escape the isolation imposed on it. Israel uses this [Palestinian participation] to fight the BDS movement as well as to cover up its crimes before the world and claim that bridges for peace with Palestinians still withstand.”

He said, “The PA wants normalization with Israel and it has formed a communication committee [Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society] to lead the normalization,” noting that “within one or two weeks the Palestinian factions and the PLO’s Executive Committee will organize a popular mobilization in Ramallah to pressure the political leadership to revoke all forms of normalization with the occupation.”

However, Majdalani responded to accusations claiming that his participation was a blow to the BDS movement, saying, “[These are] delusions and lies. My participation was political and was only limited to delivering a speech at the conference. We do not engage in negotiations or discuss business deals.”

He added, “We support the BDS movement, but it should not promote false claims against us. The BDS movement against Israel should not turn into a political party in opposition of the Palestinian leadership and the PLO.”

For his part, author and political analyst Khalil Shaheen told Al-Monitor, “The PA did not support the BDS movement, and its position is to maintain a relationship with Israel, on all levels, and to promote normalization with it.”

He said, “The relationship between the PA and Israel built under the [1993] Oslo Accord reinforces normalization and economic and security dependency in a way that makes the PA seem more of a security, economic and administrative agent for Israel. While the BDS movement against Israel expands, the PA participates in the Herzliya Conference, which aims at strengthening Israel’s political, security and economic immunity. This is why the PLO’s Executive Committee should implement the resolutions the PLO Central Council took in March 2015 on defining the relationship with Israel.”

Majdalani’s participation is a blow to the credibility of the PLO Executive Committee’s decision issued on May 4 in regard to “the immediate launching of the implementation of the [PLO] Central Council’s resolution issued in March 2015 on defining the political, economic and security relations with Israel.”

The PA’s failure to define the relationship with Israel according to PLO resolutions, as well as its failure to keep this relationship limited to political, economic and security coordination, will lead to more bilateral meetings and Palestinian participation in conferences such as the Herzliya Conference in the future. All the while, Palestinian factions, organizations and popular movements are unable to pressure the PA to change its policies that orbit around the signed agreements between it and Israel.

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