By Ishaan Tharoor
September 14, 2020
And now there are four. This week, delegations from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are expected to meet in Washington with Israeli counterparts and herald a historic normalization of ties. The two Gulf kingdoms will join Egypt and Jordan — which brokered separate peace deals decades ago — as the only Arab states to formally recognize Israel. The Trump administration and its allies in Washington see the moment as part of a growing realignment in the Middle East, as more Arab states contemplate abandoning their official boycott of Israel.
“White House bullet points suggest how Trump will be framing his international dealmaker credentials for his election campaign: as a harbinger of Middle East peace and prosperity, with more Arab and Muslim countries likely coming on board to normalize relations with Israel,” noted the BBC’s Barbara Plett-Usher.
That marks a significant departure. Under the terms of the 2002 Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative, the bulk of Arab states linked normalizing ties with Israel to the creation of a viable Palestinian state and the end of Israel’s occupation. But, at least for the UAE and Bahrain, the latter no longer seems a prerequisite for the former, given how remote the two-state solution as it was envisioned two decades ago looks now. Rumours are swirling that some other countries, including Sudan, Oman, Kuwait and Morocco, could follow suit or are being pressured by the Trump administration to do so.
A meeting of the Arab League last week underscored the new realities. A resolution to condemn the UAE’s move that was presented by Palestinian officials failed to pass. Arab officials, including representatives from the two Gulf monarchies meeting with Israel this week, still repeatedly stress that they are committed to the Arab Peace Initiative and the project of a separate Palestinian state.
“The goal all our Arab countries seek, without exception, is to end the [Israeli] occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital,” Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a statement.
But Palestinians see their neighbours discarding significant leverage in the pursuit of those goals. UAE officials take credit for halting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex territory in the West Bank, but Netanyahu and his allies on the Israeli right argue that annexation remains on the table. “First we thought that the United Arab Emirates was the only country that had stabbed us in the back,” a senior Palestinian official in Ramallah told the Jerusalem Post. But now, the official added, they see “how several other Arab countries have betrayed the Palestinian people and the Palestinian issue. This is a black day in the history of the Palestinians and Arabs.”
The Palestinians’ feeling of isolation is not new. For close to two decades, they have watched the facts on the ground shift inexorably against them, as Israel expanded settlements, bulldozed Palestinian homes and steadily set about extending its control over life in the West Bank. Meanwhile, a host of Gulf monarchies cultivated de facto ties with the Israelis, establishing various areas of clandestine cooperation.
The fact that Bahrain is joining the UAE is a sign, moreover, that the tiny kingdom’s backer, Saudi Arabia, approves of these overtures to Israel. Israel formalizing ties with Riyadh would be a far greater coup than its rapprochement with Abu Dhabi.
Now that Bahrain has joined the UAE in recognising Israel, Saudi Arabia cannot be far behind. A sea-change in the geopolitics of the Middle East is underway, leaving the Palestinian leadership isolated.
The prevailing view among Middle East experts in Washington and some Trump administration officials is that the royal elites of the Gulf monarchies don’t care about the plight of Palestinians. They are far more animated by the geopolitical challenge posed by Iran and drawn to the lure of collaboration with Israel’s sophisticated technology sector.
“The leadership in the region … recognize that the approach that’s been taken in the past hasn’t worked, and they realize that their people want to see a more vibrant and exciting future,” Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, told reporters on Friday.
Part of that “vibrant and exciting future” appears to be weapons sales. The Trump administration greenlit UAE plans to purchase significant American military hardware, including F-35 fighter jets, as a reward for the UAE’s overtures to Israel. The arms deal alarmed both the Israelis and some of the UAE’s neighbours.
“We don’t want to see any escalation in the region and we’ve seen that the region needs to be more peaceful, more focusing on prosperity and development rather than buying military equipment,” said Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, in an interview with Today’s Worldview in Washington on Sunday. “We hope that anything under consideration is just to defend our countries and not to be aggressive to other countries.”
The UAE and Saudi Arabia are at odds with the Qataris, whose approach to foreign policy differs markedly with kingdoms nearby. A de facto blockade of the country by its neighbours since 2017 failed to bring Doha to heel.
Al-Thani did not criticize other Arab states for normalizing ties — the Qataris also have worked extensively with the Israelis and helped broker the latest cease-fire between Israel and Islamist group Hamas in Gaza. But he rejected the suggestion that the region’s political elites don’t care about Palestinian rights.
“If we are tired of the Palestinian issue, then what would be the feeling of the Palestinian people who are suffering … day after day from occupation and oppression,” he said, backing the long-standing goal of an independent state along 1967 lines. “We need to find a just solution for them.”
Al-Thani said the Arab Peace Initiative — unlike the Trump administration plan for peace, which cedes a huge tranche of land to Israel and doesn’t guarantee a viable, independent Palestinian state — provided the “fair basis” for negotiations. He added that Netanyahu’s right-wing government has not “demonstrated their willingness to engage in a constructive dialogue with the Palestinians.”
But he was more circumspect on what a meaningful pathway to peace would be. “It’s not up to us or to the U.S. to decide how this peace looks,” he said.
Original Headline: The Arab tide turns against the Palestinians
Source: The Washington Post
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