Since Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the geopolitics of the Middle East and North Africa region have been undergoing an upheaval.
Most recently, Palestine has applied to join the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) bloc alongside seven Arab countries: Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Morocco. At the grouping’s Johannesburg summit in August, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt — along with Iran, Ethiopia and Argentina — were formally declared as the next entrants into BRICS.
Yet while Palestine wasn’t invited to the summit, and is not among those who will join the grouping soon, BRICS could help bring — and in some ways already is bringing — the issue of Palestinian statehood to the international centre stage. After years of hiatus due to the abandonment of the peace process by the United States and Israel, and Washington’s emphasis instead on brokering peace normalisation deals between Israel and Arab states, this is welcome.
For while BRICS’s support for Palestine is not new, the recent context is.
The Johannesburg summit concluded with a declaration calling for direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine based on international law and the Arab Peace Initiative, towards a two-state solution, leading to the establishment of a sovereign, independent and viable State of Palestine. The text echoed that of the Palestinian-Chinese Strategic Partnership signed in June. Days before the summit, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa emphasised support for Palestine’s liberation.
The Palestinian leadership has expressed support for the BRICS’s call to start direct negotiations with Israel and without US involvement. The message to the US? The era of American unilateralism is ceasing.
Signifying the revival of the issue through the Arab Peace Initiative and backing the BRICS’ steps, Saudi Arabia appointed its first-ever non-resident ambassador to Palestine and consul general in Jerusalem without consultation with Israel.
On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit China in the coming few months partly to discuss a China and Russia-led negotiation process with the Palestinians. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited China in June where he met Chinese President Xi Jinping who iterated China’s commitment to supporting Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu also visited China in May.
In effect, BRICS countries are tacitly rejecting the US Abraham Accords-driven stance on Palestine. This is not to say they do not support the accords, but rather that they believe that the absence of a clear and sustainable position on resolving the Palestinian issue will end the possibility of the two-state solution.
Second, Palestine’s warmer ties with BRICS come amid a growing domestic crisis engulfing the very existence of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Palestinian decision to drop the US as a mediator is a demonstration of worsening ties with Washington and Israel. It reveals a belief by the Palestinian leadership that Washington and Israel’s newly elected far-right government have decided to weaken or dismantle the PA and abandon the peace process in pursuit of annexing the occupied West Bank.
Over the past few years, the US has cut aid to the PA substantially. Israel continues to withhold tax revenues and the imposition of other sanctions that have negatively affected the PA’s ability to spend its budget leading to salary payment delays and reductions for public servants and reduced public services. This has resulted in deteriorating public support for the PA and growing discontent with the status quo.
The lack of a political horizon coupled with economic pressures and a domestic legitimacy crisis are increasing the internal tensions for the PA. Young Palestinian fighters are increasingly confronting what they see as excessive settler violence and encroachment on their communities in the occupied West Bank.
This has led to clashes between them and the PA, which under the Oslo Accords, conducts extensive security coordination with Israel, including preventing armed attacks. All of this is forcing the PA to seek in BRICS a vehicle for negotiations that can help it restore lost domestic support.
Given the continuing Russian influence in Syria, and the central Chinese role in mediating a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Palestine is also seeking to capitalise on the intensifying great power competition in its neighbourhood to kickstart a new, non-aligned peace process.
That is easier said than done.
For the moment, BRICS support for Palestine remains mostly rhetorical. BRICS, collectively or as individual nations, has not declared any increase in aid for the PA. Nor has the grouping given Israel any financial incentive to Israel to entice it to join negotiations. There is no question of the BRICS nations involving themselves militarily in the conflict.
The BRICS bloc appears, for the most part, unwilling to tackle the key cause of the Palestinian crisis — Israel’s illegal occupation and policies that global human rights groups have described as apartheid. Against that backdrop, it is natural to wonder if the solidarity extended by the BRICS to Palestine will stay symbolic and on paper.
Israel’s overwhelming military and economic power, coupled with the unwavering support of the US that it has, mean that it will not be under any serious pressure to engage in direct negotiations. Israel also has strong ties with individual BRICS members — especially China, India and Russia. And there is no evidence to suggest that they will risk those ties to push Israel into talks.
The Palestinian national divide will also hinder the potential success of any negotiations even if they do occur.
Still, it is important to remember that BRICS’s commitment to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in its nascent stage. Now, the bloc must be ready to deploy hard or soft power tools if it is to meaningfully emerge as a player capable of prodding Israel into direct negotiations. Without that, BRICS will not be able to prevent Israel from annexing the West Bank and abandoning the two-state vision.
And a test could arrive for the grouping before too long. Hamas and Israel have been preparing for a multifront war which both claim will change the regional balance of power. In such a scenario, BRICS could play a greater and more meaningful role in ending the conflict.