by Imad K. Harb
The recent agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Sudan will not help the cause of regional peace.
On August 13, President Donald Trump boasted of shepherding the so-called “Abraham Accords” for normalizing relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel. Almost a month later, the president announced that Israel and the Kingdom of Bahrain will follow suit. Less than two weeks before the US presidential election, he added Sudan to the list of normalizing countries. The three will become the third, fourth, and fifth Arab states, respectively, to normalize relations with Israel after Egypt and Jordan. The UAE also announced on August 29 that it will suspend its participation in the decades-old Arab boycott of Israel and establish economic relations and cooperation with it; and Bahrain and Sudan have done the same.
The Emirati and Bahraini agreements became official on September 15 when President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Emirati and Bahraini foreign ministers Abdulla bin Zayed and Abdul-Latif al-Zayani signed them while declaring that they will help peace in the Middle East. President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have also floated the idea of others supposedly lining up for normalization. Despite Sudan joining in on October 23, however, there are clear indications that some of the other potential normalizers – such as Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Morocco — are balking at the prospect. While the big prize appears to be Saudi Arabia, this has not yet come to pass and may not happen, at least not before the U.S. presidential election.
But given that the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and other suggested countries were not actively at war with Israel, signing such agreements is mere wheel-spinning away from the real arena of peacemaking. Indeed, only serious negotiations leading to an equitable and fair resolution that guarantees the Palestinians’ national and human rights can achieve the goal of peace in the Middle East. The more Israel and the United States continue to bury their heads in the sand about the centrality of the Palestinian question for said peace, the more likely it is that instability and deadly and costly conflict will persist in the region.
The Agreements Do Not Secure Peace
While President Trump thinks Israel’s agreements with the three states are historic and expects them to lead to a long-awaited and sought-after peace in the Middle East, the reality is that they are anything but. Only a peace between Israel and the Palestinians will serve the ultimate goal of giving the Middle East the respite it has sought for over seven decades. To be sure, Israel has already become normalized with some Arab officials for quite some time, in political, economic, security, and other terms. The question remains as to whether said normalization will become popular and change the Arab public’s opinion about Israel, which has expanded and continues to threaten further expansion at the expense of the Palestinians.
In a public opinion poll conducted between 2019 and 2020 in 13 Arab countries totaling more than 300 million people, a full 89 percent of respondents said Israel represented the greatest threat to the Arab region, followed by the United States (81 percent) and Iran (67 percent). A full 88 percent rejected recognizing Israel and only six percent welcomed establishing diplomatic relations with it, citing its expansionist policies and its racism toward Palestinians. Seventy-nine percent said Palestine remains a major concern for all Arabs. The above-mentioned poll showed that 79 percent of Sudanese oppose relations with Israel before it ends its occupation of Palestinian lands and allows the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. These figures have been practically unchanged since 2011. It is thus no wonder that the Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli peace treaties of 1979 and 1994, respectively, remain examples of a cold peace decades after they were signed. And it will not be surprising if the latest agreements fail to change this reality.
There also has been no state of war between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, or Sudan that the new agreements could end. In fact, the normalizing states’ old commitment to a belligerent stance toward Israel has generally been limited to obligatory solidarity at the United Nations and an Arab economic boycott. Many Palestinians believe that the UAE leaders’ contention that the normalization project was to circumvent Israel’s annexation of occupied West Bank territories is a ruse and that Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed uses Palestinians as a fig leaf. It sure didn’t take long before the UAE’s claim of stopping annexation was shot down by Netanyahu’s declaration that Israel will merely suspend it instead of abandoning it altogether.
Moreover, the three states’ normalizing relations with Israel is a violation of their commitment to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API) that remains the official position of the League of Arab States. The API stipulated an end to conflict between the Arab world and Israel in exchange for the latter’s withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. That the normalizers still agreed to diplomatic relations with Israel despite the latter’s ignoring the initiative since it was launched is testament to their headlong rush to please Trump and Netanyahu, not to serve the cause of long-term peace. Indeed, their normalization decisions were only made to serve their own interests, Palestinian rights be damned.
From what transpired in the Sudanese case, a clear quid-pro-quo was the main ingredient for the deal. President Trump announced that he intends to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism because Khartoum made required changes and agreed to pay $335 million in restitution to families of victims of terrorist attacks in East Africa in 1998. It is hard to see how Sudan––suffering from serious economic problems––can come up with $335 million without assistance from Gulf states, such as the UAE, that are eager to normalize with Israel.
The Iran Scare Is a Ruse
The Trump administration and its supporters hope that the new agreements will create an alliance of like-minded states, supported by the United States, against Iran. This contention is merely instrumental and used to market normalization. It is doubtless that Gulf countries have trepidations about Iran and its behavior and activities in the Gulf or around the region, but no Gulf state is interested in ratcheting up tension with the Islamic Republic, especially with armed conflict, prompting it to request Israel’s help. Even if Iran aims to challenge its Gulf neighbors militarily, it is facetious to assume that Israel will rush to their defense or be needed to do so. The Gulf states’ military capabilities and tens of thousands of American troops armed with the latest and most lethal military equipment provide a formidable and necessary strategic deterrent.
On the other hand, even if other Gulf states are willing to openly normalize relations with Israel, it is not clear they will be ready to join any purported effort to confront the Islamic Republic. For instance, the UAE is a key trading partner of Iran, and Oman maintains its traditional mediator role between Iran and the world. Since the start of the Gulf crisis in June 2017, Qatar has sought closer relations with Iran while Kuwait prefers to maintain cordial relations with it. Finally, given Saudi Arabia’s quagmire in Yemen and the kingdom’s economic woes following troubles in the oil market, it is unlikely that King Salman bin Abdulaziz or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are eager to launch another dangerous policy choice in the Gulf region.
Agreements Are at the Expense of Palestinians
If anything, the Emirati, Bahraini, and Sudanese agreements with Israel are testament to Netanyahu’s tenacity and success in pursuing what has been called the “outside-in” approach to peace with the Palestinians. Plainly put, the approach seeks direct Israeli-Arab peace followed by Arab help to bring the Palestinians along to a peace deal that is unlikely to address their legitimate demands. It allows the Arab states to expropriate the Palestinians’ right to speak for themselves and ends Israel’s responsibility to make the necessary concessions in a peace deal. Essentially, however, it peels off the veneer of the Arab world’s commitment to provide the Palestinians the support and leverage of fellow Arabs in negotiations with Israel.
So far, Arab countries have either supported the normalization or stayed on the sidelines. A few have rejected it outright, such as Qatar and Algeria, before addressing the issue of a Palestinian state. But what was a clear indication of most of Arab officialdom’s real position on the issue was the rejection of a Palestinian resolution to condemn the UAE deal with Israel at the latest meeting of the League of Arab States in Cairo. In essence, and despite Arab regimes’ pontification about the commitment to Palestine, the Palestinians realize that they are on their own. Perhaps Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Ishtayeh was right to recommend to President Mahmoud Abbas that he reconsider the Palestinians’ relationship with the league because “it has become a symbol of Arab inaction.”
The Palestinian Authority recalled its ambassadors from the UAE on August 13 and from Bahrain on September 16 while Palestinian leaders slammed the Sudanese accord as a stab in the back. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met virtually with faction leaders in Ramallah and Beirut after the UAE-Israel deal and they agreed on a set of steps for moving forward, albeit all know that their options are limited. To be sure, the agreements with Israel make the Palestinians’ inability to influence events even more pronounced because they represent an abandonment of an already-weak interlocutor in whatever negotiations might take place in the future. If more Arab states decide to take the new normalization path, the Palestinians will feel even more abandoned.
What is more dangerous and hurtful is that said abandonment comes as the Israeli project of colonizing more occupied Palestinian territories is becoming more real every day. Netanyahu will continue with his annexation gambit of 30 percent of the occupied West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, since neither the UAE nor Bahrain made their normalization contingent upon his abandoning it. Indeed, no one should be fooled into believing that Israel’s colonization project is limited to that part of the West Bank. Israeli settlements dot the whole occupied territory and new building permits are regularly issued for expanding them to accommodate hundreds of thousands of settlers already living there. On September 25, Netanyahu ordered the construction of 5,000 new settlement units in an Israeli Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.  On October 14 and 15, another 4,948 homes were approved. The Israeli activist organization Peace Now puts the number of new settlement units in the West Bank at more than 12,000, making 2020 a banner year for settlement expansion. So much for the UAE’s pledge to check Netanyahu.
A system of apartheid has been established under a brutal so-called Civil Administration that, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, makes Palestinians’ life unlivable.
Instead of Peace, Agreements Likely to Foment More Strife
Included in the announcements on UAE-Israel and Bahrain-Israel normalization was one statement––copied from the former and inserted almost verbatim in the latter––that addresses the signatories’ commitment to free access to holy sites in Jerusalem. According to the announcements, “all Muslims who come in peace may visit and pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem’s other holy sites should remain open for peaceful worshippers of all faiths.” Any lawyer worth his degree can see that this violates the status quo set forth on al-Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem since 1967. Only Muslims are allowed to pray there. If Jews gain that right, it is not hard to see a slippery slope leading to the destruction of Muslim sites in preparation for the rebuilding of the Jewish Third Temple over their ruins. If this is not a serious casus belli, what else could there be?
UAE and Bahraini leaders have full-heartedly and with conviction entered into these normalization agreements with Israel for their own reasons and interests. So did Sudan, despite much trepidation. These run the gamut: from cozying up to President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu to satisfying Mohammed bin Zayed’s dream of acquiring the American F-35 fighter to lifting Sudan off the state sponsors of terrorism list, and other things in between. Two specific goals will most assuredly not be served by them: helping the cause of regional peace or guaranteeing the legitimate national and human rights of the Palestinian people.
Dr. Imad K. Harb is Director of Research and Analysis at the Arab Center Washington DC. Previously, he was Adjunct Professor of Middle East studies at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, and taught political science, international relations, and Middle East studies at the University of Utah and San Francisco State University. Between 2006 and 2013, he was Senior Analyst at the Abu Dhabi, UAE-based Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research. @Harb3Imad
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