The Israeli agreements with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain represent a dramatic development, marking a watershed in a decades-long Israeli effort to gain acceptance in the Middle East.
All sides emphasized the historic significance by referring to the framework agreement as the “Abraham Accords”, a reference to the common biblical ancestor of Arabs and Jews.
It is unclear whether other Arab states will follow suite but it is a distinct possibility. President Trump insisted that “seven or eight or nine” countries were in line, including Saudi Arabia which he believed would normalize relations “at the right time.”
If these claims are true, the majority of the Arab League will soon recognize Israel. An unbelievable turn of events for an organization that began boycotting Israel before it had even come into existence. Indeed, the Arab League met on September 9 to discuss these developments. Despite significant Palestinian pressure to condemn the agreement, the measure was voted down by a majority of member states.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reason to celebrate. He oversaw one of Israel’s crowning diplomatic achievements. The Prime Minister crowed, “Israel doesn’t feel isolated at all. It’s enjoying the greatest diplomatic triumph of its history.”
Those who are feeling isolated, says Netanyahu, “are the tyrants of Tehran.” With the vast majority of the Israeli public supporting these deals, it has provided welcome relief from increased pressure on the premier for his poor handling of Covid-19, which has led to a significant resurgence in cases.
The agreement is also a significant boon for the Trump administration. The ceremony which took place on the White House lawn represents what is arguably the only true foreign policy achievement of the administration. This is a badly needed boost in advance of the presidential elections in November.
One of the most talked about, but least understood, aspects of the plan, is its impact on prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The agreement does not dwell on the topic. It does not refer specifically to a two-state solution, due to Israeli opposition to the use of that term. Rather it commits all sides “to continuing their efforts to achieve a just, comprehensive, realistic and enduring solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
However, both Bahrain and the UAE insist that they remain committed to the Arab Peace Initiative which is based on the creation of an independent Palestinian state and a return to the 1967 borders. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs insisted that “the UAE today has not changed our political position, it remains the same.
That position is in support of Palestinian rights to a viable, independent state and East Jerusalem that is their capital,”
United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan insisted that “this Accord will enable us to continue to stand by the Palestinian people, and realize their hopes for an independent state within a stable and prosperous region” and that “a just, comprehensive and enduring two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be the foundation, the bedrock to such peace.”
His Bahraini equivalent, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani , insisted that “Bahrain always stresses its firm and constant position towards the right of the fraternal Palestinian people, which are at the top of its priorities. The Palestinian people must obtain their complete legitimate rights.”
The divided Palestinian political leadership does not agree often, but both Fatah and Hamas insist these assurances are worthless and labeled them a “stab in the back.”
They point to the fact that the two Gulf States violated the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which called on all member states to withhold normalization until a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based on a return to the 1967 borders had been signed. Hamas also responded by launching rockets at Ashdod, injuring two Israeli citizens.
On the face of it, there is strong distaste for this agreement in Palestine. The true picture is more complicated.
Some prominent Palestinians outside the occupied territories have refused to condemn the peace agreements. Suha Arafat, the widow of former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, posted an apology “in the name of the honorable among the Palestinian people, to the Emirati people and their leadership for the desecration and burning of the UAE flag in Jerusalem and Palestine, and for insulting the symbols of the beloved UAE.”
Meanwhile, Mohammad Dahlan, a former top security official in the PA, has been working closely with Abu Dhabi and reportedly participated in brokering their agreement with Israel. This is particularly noteworthy: Dahlan is a mover and shaker in Palestinian politics, and is a possible successor to Abbas.
The wider population does not seem particularly opposed to the deals either. Despite calls for mass demonstrations from the leadership, scant few showed up to the gatherings which took place. A prominent Palestinian Authority (PA) official told Asia Times on the condition of anonymity that there was not much interest in the issue among a population concerned about Covid-19 and rampant unemployment.
He added that “most Palestinians have completely given up on diplomatic solutions for the end of the occupation, and are just hoping for an improvement of their economic condition.” Having seen the diplomatic front of resistance put up by its leaders totally fail, there is not much enthusiasm to continue along the same path.
In addition, many Palestinian view protests against normalization with Israel as a form of hypocrisy. The PA recognizes Israel and has cooperated closely with it economically and strategically for almost three decades. It also has close ties with Jordan and Egypt despite their normalization of ties with Israel. The righteous indignation of the PA seems like more of a facade than anything else.
At this point there is no doubt that the traditional Palestinian policy of relying on Arab refusal to coerce Israel into concessions has failed. Instead, its initial rejection by most states in the region played a part in creating a paranoid and aggressive Israeli foreign policy.
In addition, Israel has long used Palestinian rejectionism as an excuse to ignore the Palestinian issue and focus on establishing better relations with other regional states. It is hard to argue with the end result: Israel is now more integrated into the region than ever, while the Palestinians dwell in unprecedented isolation.
However, these developments are not necessarily negative for the Palestinians or the cause of peace for that matter. Sure, it is easy to dismiss Bahraini and UAE claims that they will uphold Palestinian interests as lip service. And certainly, Palestinian issues are not at the top of their agenda. But the issue is not that simple.
The Gulf States will be itching to prove to their citizens, in particular religious circles opposed to the deals, that they are using their now official access to Israel to work towards the end of the occupation.
In addition, a great deal of the policy of the Gulf states will depend on the American approach to the peace process. If Biden is elected, there will be pressure on them to support a renewal of peace talks and avoid supporting Israeli expansionism. It is also possible that if Trump wins, his administration will pursue a more serious Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
A testament to the possibility that normalization may actually help the Palestinians was seen in the UAE’s significant role in stopping the Israeli annexation of large parts of the West Bank. The UAE insisted that the cessation of that process was absolutely essential for the process of normalization to continue apace.
This agreement has had a very real influence on Israeli settlement policy. A senior source in the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, told the Asia Times on condition of anonymity that since February all plans for settlement expansion have been postponed or declined. This is a de facto settlement freeze, something the Palestinians have long pursued.
The source said “I have nothing against the UAE and Bahrain, but not at the expense of our constituency.” He also voiced concern that “annexation is dead and buried, and we also suspect that there will be a settlement freeze for awhile. If the Democrats win, who knows how long that freeze will last.”
Shai Alon, the mayor of the settlement of Beit El went further, telling the Asia Times that “this deal was a betrayal of our principles.” The settlers certainly do not see normalization as a beneficial process to them. The are concerned that following normalization, Israel will increasingly take Arab interests into account.
The settlers may be right. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who served as special envoy to the Middle East for the Quartet, responded to the agreements by noting he “had long come to the conclusion that if we want to see a fair resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the basis of two states, there had to be a complete reversal of the idea that the Arab world should refuse contact with Israel until a peace agreement was made.”
If they lose the backing of the Arab League for their current rejectionist stand, the Palestinian Authority may be forced back into serious talks. Something it has avoided since the George W Bush years. Trump explained the philosophy behind this in simplistic but clear terms on Fox News.
If they do not join, they will be “left out in the cold.” Trump added that “We’re going to have a lot of other countries joining us very soon. And the Palestinians will ultimately come in too. And you’re going to have peace in the Middle East without being stupid and shooting everybody, and killing everybody, and having blood all over the sand.”
If overseen by a more understanding Biden administration and facilitated by the UAE, Egypt and other Arab countries trusted by Israel, this process may actually enjoy more success than previous attempts.
As the Middle East endures the growing pains of a new regional order, there is no reason to assume that the new constellations will be less conducive to Israeli-Palestinian peace than the previous order.
After all, it is hard to imagine how the future could be worse than the past.