Palestinian Statehood after October 7: Any Odds of Success?

The terrorist action undertaken by Hamas, unprecedented in its scale and brutality, and the equally unprecedented Israeli retaliation, which claimed lives of many thousands of Palestinians to result in a major humanitarian catastrophe, shocked the world community.

The terrorist action undertaken by Hamas on October 7, 2023, unprecedented in its scale and brutality, and the equally unprecedented Israeli retaliation, which claimed lives of many thousands of Palestinians to result in a major humanitarian catastrophe, shocked the world community. However, interpretations of this new explosion of violence in the Middle East, as well as of other conflicts in a divided world, differ significantly. Israel and the West emphasize actions of the Palestinian side, which caused a response that far surpassed the Israeli reprisals in previous years, but in their view, they are generally understandable. Now, the goal is to eradicate Hamas’ military and political presence in the Gaza Strip as a direct threat to Israel’s security and existence. Palestinians, Arab states and the majority in the Global South, for all nuances in their approaches, see the root cause in the waning international attention to the Palestinian problem, in the failing policies pursued by the United States in its role of an “honest broker”, in the Israeli occupation and ‘apartheid’ against the Palestinian population. The gap in narratives remains extremely wide, which complicates the search for a solution, including from psychological and humanitarian perspectives.

The war in Gaza is far from over, but whatever the ceasefire or truce agreements, the question remains: what next? Is it ever realistic to implement a final two-state solution in the best interests of both Israelis and Palestinians as a new world order is born in the throes of an acute military-strategic confrontation? Does the situation in the region, which has undergone dramatic changes, contribute to this solution? What impact will all this have on the Palestinian movement, divided by internal rivalries, especially between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Fatah in the West Bank? Questions abound, and these were just a few. Anyway, it’s clear that the Palestinian problem, which was initially at the heart of the entire Arab-Israeli conflict, has returned to the centerstage of international attention, whereas further normalization of Saudi Arabia’s relations with Israel has been indefinitely postponed.

From the Arab-Israeli wars to the Palestinian-Israeli settlement

If we review the dynamics of the conflict in the Middle East, the longest of our time, we can notice that it gradually but consistently transformed, upon the adoption of the UN resolution on the partition of Palestine in 1947, from an interstate stand-off that went through three wars (1947, 1967 and 1973) into the problem of Israeli-Palestinian relations. That relationship until the 1970s and 1980s had been marked by Palestinian attempts, supported by part of the Arab world, to resolve the problem of Israeli occupation in a heavy-handed way, often involving terrorist attacks. The two civil wars in Lebanon were also consequence of the unresolved Palestinian question. Then, with great difficulty and by virtue of Yasser Arafat’s political clout, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) recognized Israel’s right to existence, and multi-year internationally mediated negotiations began in the early 1990s, which, with interruptions and armed escalations, had lasted for quite some time.

Meanwhile, the regional situation has changed over the past five decades. Several key stages in the transition of the Arab-Israeli conflict into a new quality phase—the Palestinian-Israeli phase—can be distinguished. Bursts of hope alternated with streaks of despair and disbelief in success, and these layers increasingly often had a frustrating effect not only in the Arab world, but also across the entire Muslim world. There was an underlying accumulation of fatigue from the chronically unresolved Palestinian problem.

The starting point was the October 1973 war. This was the first breakthrough of the “Arab Front of Resilience.” The second breakthrough was Jordan. Then, almost a quarter-century later, came the Abraham Accords with the Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

While the Arab states took a consolidated position on the side of Egypt and Syria up to the oil embargo in 1973, the degree of this consolidation abated, albeit not very noticeably, thereafter. The signing of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979 was initially met with restraint by the Gulf monarchies and only under pressure from the “resilience front” (Syria, Algeria, Libya, Iraq and the PLO) and the “Arab street”, they were forced to agree to freeze Egypt’s membership in the Arab League and to sever diplomatic relations with this nation. The bitter fallout from Lebanon’s years-long civil war also worked in the Palestinians’ favor. Strife and numerous armed clashes within the Palestinian movement, where the Islamist movement Hamas was gaining ground, were perceived somewhat differently in the Arab world. Acts of terrorism practiced by Palestinian radicals were not universally understood. The focus began to shift from unequivocal condemnation of the “Zionist enemy” to questions such as “what goes wrong with the Palestinians themselves.”

The 1991 Madrid Conference, the subsequent Israeli-Palestinian peace process (Oslo 1 and Oslo 2) and the formation of the Palestinian Authority came to be a glimmer of hope in the endless acts of violence on both sides. The Palestinian Authority acquired the contours of statehood and was recognized by Israel as a partner in the “final status” negotiations. Hopes for a “historic compromise” had been dashed by 2000, though, when the U.S.-mediated talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat at Camp David failed. The reaction followed in the form of the “Second Palestinian Intifada” (2000-2005), which no longer evoked the solidarity among the Arab states that it had in the romantic era of Arab nationalism. Many among the Arab public have cautiously wondered whether Arafat could have shown more flexibility at a time when Ehud Barak was making concessions. Those who have worked in the Middle East well remember the widespread joke, where there is some grim humor: “Palestinians never miss the opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Tellingly, it was at the height of the Second Intifada that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia put forward the “territories for peace” formula, endorsed at the Arab summit in Beirut. This was a signal of Arab willingness to seek middle-ground solutions to the Palestinian problem.

It should be noted that the results of the 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council, which PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas agreed to, in the hope of giving the Palestinian Authority a democratic halo, had a negative impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and its perception in the Arab world. But Hamas, which won the elections, seized power in the Gaza Strip by force to form a unilateral government. Gaza, on the one hand, and the West Bank that remained under the control of the Fatah, on the other hand, became separated not only geographically but also politically, which played into the hands of the radical right wing of Israeli politics. Thereafter, negotiations on the Road Map for a settlement resumed time after a while, but barely had any significant progress.

The systemic upheavals in the region after 2011 were also the soil that nurtured the third breaking of the “Arab front” in boycotting Israel. Iran’s strengthening positions along the line of the “Shiite Crescent” (Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut), the Nuclear Deal of 2015, and the wars in Syria and Yemen have all motivated the search for alternative solutions, such as the difficult choice in favor of normalization with Israel. “Abraham’s Accords” with the four Arab states in 2020 were not only the result of powerful American pressure. Factors such as their integration into the global economy and financial system, persistent propensity towards conflict in the region after 2011, and hopes for the opportunity to influence Israel through conciliatory policies also played their role. During the prolonged pandemic and rising tensions in the world, the Palestinian issue faded into the shadows, which also served as a moral justification for this difficult decision. That was especially true for the Arab states of the Gulf, some of which enjoyed informal relations with Israel, including in the economy, long before diplomatic relations were established.

Negotiations on normalizing Saudi-Israeli relations, before being suspended after October 7, moved far ahead and proceeded as it were on three tracks: between the U.S. and Israel, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. A package framework was negotiated, containing important political and economic conditions for the Saudis such as security guarantees and strategic cooperation, including the supply of modern weapons, the construction of a nuclear reactor, assistance with modern technology, and a commitment from Israel to respect the rights of the Palestinian people. Certainly, the fundamental decision to make such a turnaround in Saudi policy was not taken overnight. It had been preceded by the accumulation of fatigue from the Yemen conflict, ongoing reforms aimed at diversifying the economy, ambitious modernization plans and, last but not least, continued distrust of Iran, despite the warming of bilateral relations

Tougher stance in Israel

By the time the “peace process” had failed and Palestinian-Israeli contacts, even between security services, had essentially been cut off, a stalemate ensued. The negotiating positions of each side—Israel and the Palestinian Authority—have evolved in opposite directions. The Palestinians have reached the limit of their concessions, no longer counting on the success of international pressure, while the Israeli political spectrum has—for the past two decades—been increasingly tilted toward a creeping annexation of the West Bank and rejection of the Palestinian problem per se. Mahmoud Abbas once compared himself, in a fit of despair, to a man who climbed a tree and suddenly discovered that his ladder had been removed.

On this wave of Jewish fanaticism, Netanyahu managed to hold the office of prime minister longer than any other Israeli politician (15 years with a short break), positioning himself as the only leader capable of resisting U.S. “pressure”. For this, he received the nickname Mr. Security, although there was no serious pressure on Israel over the Palestinian issue, and, as former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer recollects, Netanyahu acquired notoriety as an Israeli leader, “lecturing” American presidents. It was under Netanyahu that the number of settlements in the West Bank, which use financing by public funds, as well as paramilitary guards, increased dramatically. Although he himself had publicly supported the fig leaf of Palestinian statehood until October 7, the settling activity essentially cut that territorial space into pieces, undermining the very basis of the peace process. By entering into a coalition with orthodox ultra-nationalists in order to stay in power amid allegations of corruption that have divided the Israeli society, Netanyahu, as most politicians, including in the West, believe, put his personal political survival above the state’s interests and lost his freedom of maneuver.

One evidence of this dynamic is the “silent war” against the Palestinian population of the West Bank, accompanied by incendiary appeals from right-wing extremists. Immediately after October 7, a campaign of mass repression was launched: night raids in major cities, a series of murders and arrests, and forced evictions. For all that, Israeli extremists on the ground were supported by the military. According to the UN, 238 Palestinians were killed between October 7 and November 29 alone. The number of those arrested, as reported by Al-Jazeera, was estimated at 3,365 people. Along with this crackdown, political persecution and restrictions on civil rights for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, including Knesset members, commenced.

The policy of collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza after October 7 and the regime imposed by Israel in the West Bank are equated by most political and public figures in the world with the apartheid system. This definition emerged in the political science discourse many years ago, but it is now that this has prompted an international legal action. The Republic of South Africa (RSA) has filed a lawsuit against Israel in the International Court of Justice for a genocide against the Palestinians. South Africa accuses Israel of systematic oppression of the Palestinian people and apartheid since 1947. On January 25, 2024, the UN International Court of Justice in The Hague issued a ruling requiring Israel to cease acts “falling under the genocide convention” and announced precautionary measures to protect the Palestinian population.


Almost all of the American presidents have paid some heed to the Palestinian problem in their Middle East policy, claiming its central role in the peace process. Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama were particularly active. In the meantime, the last quarter-century has shown that the U.S. cannot be an objective mediator capable of forcing Israel to a compromise that would make it possible to establish a full-fledged state for the Palestinians while ensuring security guarantees for Israel. In the first year of Obama’s presidency, U.S. diplomacy attempted to restart Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. However, the U.S. administration was soon forced to backtrack in the face of a tough stance taken by Israel, which refused to meet even such a minimal Palestinian demand as a halt to settlement construction.

The U.S. has never been able to break free from two incompatible contradictions during this whole past time—a commitment to alliance relations with Israel based on shared values and the realization that the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict is detrimental to its interests in the Muslim world. The monopolization of the peace process by the United States, in Russia’s view, was one of the reasons that led to the horrific events in the Gaza Strip and a new escalation of tensions in the heart of the Middle East. Soon after the Clinton mediation failed in 2000-2001 and during the subsequent rounds of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations under Presidents Bush Jr. and Obama, the U.S. focused not on solving the Palestinian problem but on breaking the Arab blockade of Israel.

Trump, whose policy was characterized by randomness, improvisation and personal voluntarism, only took advantage of the situation in the region, which was favorable to Israel, to “make history” with his “deal of the century”, which appeared to solidify a new reality. For the first time, Washington essentially legitimized the occupation of the Palestinian territories by recognizing Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem as the official capital of the State of Israel. In doing so, the United States completely abandoned the “two states for two peoples” formula, which, in accordance with UN Security Council’s resolutions, underpinned the international effort in the Palestinian-Israeli settlement. Like the issue of Jewish settlements, the status of Jerusalem is by and large a fait accompli for the United States, since the president’s decision was made on the basis of the 1995 Congressional Jerusalem Embassy Act 104, which all of Trump’s predecessors did not have enough daring to enforce.

Biden’s Middle East policy, despite the general words about revision or “readjustment,” underwent no significant changes, and, as regards the Palestinian agenda, consistently continued the line of Biden’s predecessor.

The main effort was directed at Saudi Arabia, given that the U.S.-Saudi relations have markedly deteriorated under the new administration. The itinerary of the U.S. President in the Middle East in July 2022 from Tel Aviv to Jeddah, where in addition to bilateral U.S.-Saudi negotiations the U.S. President met with a number of Arab leaders in the GCC+3 format (with an addition of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan), is indicative in itself. That itinerary clearly revealed which states and what range of issues his administration intended to focus on. Saudi Arabia and Israel went first.

The Saudi leadership received assurances that this region would remain among the U.S. foreign policy priorities in conjunction with Washington’s special military-strategic and economic interests in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. These interests include regional security in the U.S. interpretation, further normalization of Arab-Israeli relations, the U.S. return to the JCPOA, warning signals to Iran, a new understanding of the nature of allied relations, conflict resolution with a focus on Yemen. In this approach, Palestinian-Israeli contacts were thus moved to the back burner. Extensive reform plans under Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision: 2030, major arms contracts and lucrative investment projects have all opened up new opportunities for cooperation with the United States, fueling Saudi Arabia’s interest in normalization with Israel.

Biden’s visit to the Palestinian Authority was more of a tourist visit, except for fleeting statements in support of Palestinian statehood, calls for dialogue with the Palestinians, and promises of humanitarian grants. These were purely formal gestures, though, more a tribute to his campaign statements. The text of the Tel Aviv 2022 Broadcast Declaration left no doubt that the United States would continue its principled commitment to Israel’s security and military dominance as “a strategic priority vital to the national security of the United States.” In this regard, additional measures of cooperation in air defense and laser technology were announced. Another important point in the Declaration was the message conveyed to U.S. partners in the region that the U.S. would “never allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons” and would work with them to counter “Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities.” Finally, the United States and Israel expressed their high appreciation of the Abraham Accords as a strong complement to Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and as “a starting point in building a new regional security system.”

Peace settlement: the specifics of the moment

Multilateral diplomacy in the Middle East has so far focused on agreeing on the terms of a ceasefire in a package with the release of hostages and Palestinian prisoners and the provision of humanitarian aid to the civilian population. In parallel, there is a discussion of scenarios for governing this Palestinian enclave after Hamas. Israel and the United States flatly deny there could be any return to the status quo, but the question persists: if not Hamas, then who? This is a very controversial issue that sparks heated debate, including in Israel’s interim military cabinet. The United States, which has unconditionally supported Israel since the beginning of the conflict, is desperately trying to help its ally find a way out of this predicament, while increasingly facing its own bottlenecks.

The international community’s perception of the civil catastrophe in Gaza is tending toward the realization that this explosion of violence was only possible because the core issue of Israeli occupation and the violation of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people had long remained unaddressed. Confidence in U.S. mediation has been seriously undermined, although the Arab states involved in the Gaza negotiations (Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan) do meet regularly with American representatives who shuttle to the region. The Arab world cannot be content with formal statements recognizing the Palestinians’ right to statehood, as the U.S. president suddenly recalled after October 7. Instead, it seeks concrete commitments.

The question of whether a “two-state” solution to the Palestinian problem is likely and feasible is currently widely debated in the international academic community. The prevailing view is that a package involving a ceasefire and determining the future of Gaza should not obscure the root cause of the conflict, which is the Israeli occupation. How to combine these two parts of the same puzzle so as to deny the U.S. any possibility to manipulate and substitute concepts is the main dilemma. In the most concentrated form, this approach was expressed on December 29, 2023, in a speech before the UN Security Council by former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan al-Muasher, as well as in a number of his articles.

The essence is that the moment has come when the lessons of the past must be heeded. Ending the war in Gaza is an unconditional priority, but a policy built on this alone will inevitably lead to new catastrophes. The Palestinian problem cannot be solved with old paradigms and scenarios that have proven unrealistic. What happened in Gaza was the result of the complete absence of a “political horizon” for the Palestinians. Previous peace efforts had no clear goal, so the process was infinite, with no end in sight, while Israel would build more and more settlements, undermining the very basis of peace settlement. The loss of time will only make things worse, including for Israel itself.

While this perspective has become widespread, especially in the Arab world, the realization of Palestinian rights in “realpolitik” is questionable. The main hurdles on this path are seen in four ways.

The first is Israel’s resolute rejection in the absence of tools to pressure its leadership, whatever reshuffling the latter may undergo. Netanyahu believes a Palestinian state would be an “existential threat” to Israel and favors retaining “full security control over the territory west of the Jordan River.” His political opponents, while not so strident, do not support a Palestinian state either.

The second is the Biden administration’s unwillingness and inability to change anything about its policy on the Palestinian issue. Especially on the eve of a presidential election. It can only be about some tactical steps to “play” on the Palestinian field, appeasing partners among the Arab states and demonstrating diplomatic activity to the American voters.

The third is the entry of Israel and the Palestinian Authority into the political transit lane. The end of the war in Gaza will only accelerate this process, but, one way or another, the question of who will be the negotiating partners on the Israeli and Palestinian sides remains uncertain.

Netanyahu’s approval ratings are low, and his political survival is increasingly dependent on the ultra-nationalist parties, threatening to withdraw from the coalition in the event of a ceasefire in Gaza before the stated goals are met. That is, as cynical as it sounds, on how long the hostilities will continue—the longer, the better for him. There is a well-known precedent with former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meyer, who was removed from her post by the decision made by a commission of inquiry formed after the 1973 war.

As for the Palestinian Authority, which is under the control of the Fatah, a crisis of legitimacy developed there after the end of Mahmoud Abbas’ tenure. The next Palestinian presidential election was due to take place in 2014, but it has not been held since then due to controversies with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as uncertainty over the possibility of voting, to be ensured for residents of East Jerusalem. Constitutional procedures related to the selection of a successor remain uncertain. Under the circumstances, rival political factions either do not want elections or can agree to them on their own terms. Meanwhile, support for Hamas has tripled since October 7, according to polls conducted by the Palestinian Research Center in Gaza and the West Bank. More than 60 percent of Palestinians favor changes in the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and a continuation of the armed struggle. In the meantime, Hamas, which does not recognize Israel’s right to existence and is considered terrorist in the West, has no internationally recognized legal standing. For its part, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has no intention of assuming responsibility for the Gaza Strip, fearing that it might be perceived as a “return at the point of Israeli bayonets.”

Fourth, according to some Arab and Western experts, there is insufficient support for the Palestinian cause among the leading Arab states, which solidarize with the Palestinians but are cautious in their behavior, preferring not to strain relations with the United States.

In the final declaration, the leaders of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, who gathered at the initiative of Saudi Arabia for a conference in Jeddah (November 2023), strongly condemned Israel, accusing it of committing war crimes in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It was reiterated that the precondition for peace with Israel and for the relations to be fixed is the cessation of its occupation of all Palestinian and Arab territories and the urgent need to establish an independent Palestinian State. Proposals by Algeria, Syria, Iran and a number of other participants in the Arab-Islamic summit to take tough measures against Israel up to boycott and support of the armed struggle were not supported by the Arab Gulf States. As a result, the solution proposed by Saudi Arabia to establish a “working group of seven” that would visit the capitals of the world’s five leading nations to discuss opportunities for international cooperation in ending the war in Gaza and resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was agreed upon.

Of particular importance in the course of Middle East diplomacy is the position of Saudi Arabia, which, together with other Gulf states, has opportunities to exert pressure on the United States and Israel. Characteristically, the Saudi leadership, in the course of its intensive contacts with American representatives, does not remove the issue of normalization with Israel from the agenda, but puts forward a number of conditions that go in line with pan-Arab demands: “First stop the war, provide humanitarian aid and commit to a just settlement and the establishment of a Palestinian state.” The Saudis do not detail what the Israeli commitments should be, leaving room for constructive negotiations.

Russia, which throughout the Arab-Israeli conflict has consistently pressed for a two-state settlement, welcomes the active participation of Arab states in a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian problem, taking the crisis in Gaza into account. At a meeting with the foreign ministers of the Arab-Islamic Group of Seven in Moscow, Sergey Lavrov said that the Middle East Quartet of mediators had failed to fulfill its functions because “Western partners were cool” to the inclusion of representatives of the Arab world in this format.

From our partner RIAC

Aleksandr Aksenenok
Aleksandr Aksenenok
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, RIAC Vice-president