This week the Israeli press was excited about a visit by Abdel-Fattah Al-Borhan, chair of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, to Abu Dhabi. For most Israeli newspapers, the visit was a prelude to a possible normalisation of relations between Sudan and Israel.
According to the Israeli press, the UAE would use its financial weight to reach out to the interim Sudanese political regime in return for a Sudanese show of engagement towards normalisation with Israel.
And according to a Cairo-based Western diplomat, the UAE has offered to pay on behalf of Sudan the full amount of the compensation due to the families of the victims of the two explosions masterminded in Sudan against the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar Assalam in the 1990s, such that the US can then remove Sudan’s name from its list of countries sponsoring terrorism in return for a “sign from Sudan towards Israel”.
This, the diplomat said, was not necessarily the signature of a peace deal as was the case with the agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, but it could be the “announcement of the beginning of talks on diplomatic relations”.
Mubarak with Arafat, Barak and Albright
According to an official statement issued in Khartoum a few weeks ago, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok told visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the interim regime in Sudan was not in a position to take a decision on normalisation with Israel.
The statement was part of a larger debate that included statements by the spokesman of the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, in which he indicated keenness for the establishment of diplomatic ties between his country and Israel, arguing that these would be “more consequential” than the relations Israel has with Egypt.
The spokesman for the Sudanese Foreign Ministry lost his job on the basis of the statements, which were said to “reflect his own views.” However, a political source speaking from Khartoum said that the spokesman was not in fact only speaking his mind, but had been repeating what was being discussed in the offices of government officials in Khartoum.
“He just said too much a bit too early,” the source said.
Normalisation, he added, was “going to happen” and was just a matter of time. Sudan, he said, was one of the countries that US President Donald Trump has referred to in statements as “coming round” to deals with Israel.
According to this source there was “obviously” apprehension on the part of government officials on the move out of concerns over possible negative reactions in Sudan, either from the left, important on the Sudanese political scene, or from the country’s Islamists, who were closely aligned with the regime of Sudan’s ousted former president Omar Al-Bashir.
The latter, the source said, might use such a move to start demonstrations and blame the transitional regime for pursuing normalisation with Israel. But nobody was expecting nation-wide demonstrations over the matter, when and not if, it happens, he added.
Sudan in 2020, he said, was very different from Sudan in 1967, when the country hosted an extraordinary Arab summit meeting in the wake of the defeat of the Arab armies by Israel to announce their resistance and defiance.
“Things have changed a great deal. We are living in a different time now, just like the rest of the Arab world,” the source said.
He added that even though the Sudanese might not be happy about the issue of normalisation and were unwilling, unlike their counterparts in several Arab Gulf states, to visit Israel, they would not go far in expressing their disappointment because they knew that much had happened since the 1960s.
Much had happened even since the late 1970s when the late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat went on his visit to Jerusalem to start a process of negotiations that was concluded with the signing of the first ever Arab-Israeli peace treaty with Egypt, the then leading country of the Arab world, whose military might had been obvious in the 1973 War.
THEN AND NOW
In 1977, Mohamed Tawfik, Egypt’s former ambassador to Washington, was doing his engineering studies at Cairo University. Like many of his generation, he was shocked and disappointed at the news of Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and was equally unsupportive of the peace treaty that Egypt signed with Israel in March 1979.
“This was happening right after the October 1973 War, and we were still convinced that Egypt could lead the Arab world to free the territories that were occupied by Israeli forces,” Tawfik said.
Netanyahu, Obama and Abbas
“At the time, we had not understood what Sadat must have seen very clearly back then — that the 1967 War had dealt a very serious blow to the whole cause of pan-Arabism that was championed by the regime of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and that defeat had come at a very heavy price to the Arab world and Egypt,” he added.
In retrospect, Tawfik, having served in a diplomatic career that included countries called the “frontline states,” or those bordering Israel, is now convinced that Sadat was “right to pursue an Egypt First choice, simply because by then Egypt could not have led the Arab countries through more wars, and it had to pick up the pieces from long years of war and pursue development.”
According to Abdel-Moneim Said, a political commentator who also made a U-turn on account of Sadat’s choice of a negotiated deal with Israel, the state of international relations at the time had allowed Sadat to have a deal that was not popular either in Egypt or the Arab world, making considerable political gains including the liberation of occupied Egyptian territories and sparing Egypt from military confrontations that had damaged the economy and vitiated development.
For Mohamed Esmat Seif Al-Dawla, a political commentator who remained committed to his opposition to Sadat’s choice of a “unilateral deal with Israel”, the inevitability of the choice was far from obvious. The question for him lies elsewhere: without the decision of Sadat to pursue a deal with Israel, the path of the Arab-Israeli struggle would have been different, he said.
This is a view that several Palestinian sources, including officials from the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah and members of the Gaza-based Hamas and Jihad movements also subscribe to.
However, unlike Seif Al-Dawla, who believes Sadat’s pursuit of peace with Israel was devastating not just to the Palestinian cause but also to Egypt’s leadership, and who thinks it led directly to the Oslo Accords between the Palestinians and Israelis in 1993 and the recent twin Arab Gulf normalisation deals with Israel, the so-called “Abraham Accords”, the Palestinian sources believe that what Sadat did was not as devastating as the recent agreements, at least on the Palestinian question.
OSLO TO ABRAHAM
In the words of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, the Abraham Accords are only the latest of a series of “poisoned daggers stabbed in the back of the Palestinian question”.
“In 1979, when Egypt signed its treaty with Israel, the Arab regimes put pressure on Egypt to demonstrate their dismay at this unilateral deal, and the Arab countries sided fully with the Palestinians and gave strength to their ability to show steadfastness. But today this is not at all the situation: the Arab countries want to rush to establish relations with Israel, no matter what happens to the Palestinian cause,” he said.
However, in the words of one US source, there is hardly a big difference between the Oslo Accords signed in September 1993 between the Palestinians and Israelis and the Abraham Accords signed this September between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. Both, the source said, were broad understandings designed to serve the interests of Israel and both the Palestinians and the two Arab Gulf countries.
The chances are, the same source said, that the Abraham Accords will be more effective than the Oslo Accords simply because the new deals with Israel are clearly based on joint interests, both economic and intelligence, and do not come with any expectations of major sacrifices from either side. This is unlike in the Oslo Accords, which wanted the Palestinian leadership to forgo its commitment to regaining all of historic Palestine and for Israel to let go of some of the territories, defined in Biblical terms as Judea and Samaria rather than the West Bank.
According to the official UAE narrative shared by a well-placed source from Abu Dhabi, the Abraham Accords came 27 years after the Oslo Accords and against the backdrop of “the total failure of the Palestinian leadership to live up to the expectations of its own people and an incredible increase in corruption.
“We have our own national interests in relation to facing up to the Iranian threat and Turkish expansionism. It is our right to have an alliance with the devil, if we so wish, in order to serve our interests, and in any case we were not the first to go to Israel. We cannot pay the bill for the failure of the Palestinian leadership to see that the world is changing and that we are living in a region with new threats and new dynamics,” he said.
Seif Al-Dawla agreed that there were new dynamics, but he takes a different perspective on them. “It has been a new region first since the Arabs decided to overlook the established perception that Israel was not just a power of occupation of the Palestinian territories but also a serious threat to the stability and liberation of the Arab countries as it is just a manifestation of the colonial scheme for this part of the world,” he said.
He added that with the failure of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to win the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s and his decision to later invade Kuwait, the Gulf countries as early as 1990 had decided to prioritise their own security, which “for them seemed dependent on US military support, as it still does,” he said.
THE GULF MOMENT
According to Seif Al-Dawla, the assumption in the Gulf has been that there is a need to do more than buy weapons from the US to secure the security alliance.
“These countries felt they also needed to normalise relations with Israel and pursue security deals with Israel against the powers or countries that the US labels as terror groups or terror states,” he added.
Informed sources in the Gulf, the US, and Egypt agree that the idea of a possible framework of security and military cooperation that brings in the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, and the US was in the works during the past two years, but it did not succeed owing to Egypt’s objections at including Qatar in any joint security and military cooperation.
Accordingly, the project has been suspended, and there is no room for the inclusion of Israel in any security pact in the region for now.
While the Egyptian sources insisted that the scope of security cooperation between Egypt and Israel was strictly framed by the requirements of the peace treaty between the two countries, the source from the UAE said the Gulf counties had not rejected wider security cooperation.
Western diplomats in the Middle East and Arab diplomats in Washington have been speaking of the wish of the UAE to assume a bigger regional role. They argue that for the UAE to secure this status, it would have to get into direct talks first and then fully diplomatic relations and now possibly security and military cooperation with Israel.
In the view of UAE commentator Abdel-Khalek Abdullah, now is “the Gulf moment” in fact. In a series of articles published during 2018 and 2019, Abdullah argued that given that the traditional powers of the Arab world were now consumed with their internal affairs and were unable to lead, it was the moment for the Gulf to lead and consequently to take bold initiatives.
One of these was the decision of Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and effective ruler of the UAE, to give the go ahead to the engagement with Israel.
The UAE move, the same sources noted, was only one step beyond what was in 2002 a revolutionary move by the then crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and later its monarch, king Abdullah, who proposed an Arab Peace Initiative that offered Israel full normalisation in return for its withdrawal from the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
There are various readings of the rationale behind the decision of Bin Zayed to go public about his country’s long relations with Israel, which had had many security and economic dimensions and had allowed, according to several informed sources, the country to pass serious political decisions by the White House during the past seven years and get Israel to expand its place into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, including Saudi Arabia.
Whatever the motives, sources agree that Bin Zayed wants to promote his country’s interests as he perceives them: a medium-sized state with large regional influence, more space within the GCC, a closer alliance with the US and its regional partner Israel, and more economic opportunities.
Facing up to Iran and Turkey and eliminating the radical Islamist groups are also on the agenda and are clear motives for Bin Zayed’s home and foreign policy choices, according to the same sources.
“I think that with the new leadership in the Gulf coming to assume responsibilities at a time when the traditional powers are busy with many internal issues, it was expected that some of these new leaders would be thinking of alternative solutions for old and stagnant problems like the Palestinian question,” argued Mohamed Anis, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Relations.
According to Anis, the decision of the UAE to offer Israel normalised relations did not just give a chance to the two-state solution in historic Palestine, as proposed by the Arab Peace Initiative. Moreover, Anis added, the UAE move could keep an increasingly frustrated US engaged with the Palestinian question.
“The Arabs had got into a pattern of saying and doing the same thing over and over again without getting anywhere. Now with this bold move from the UAE, there is a new dynamic that could, if well invested, help the Palestinians in their pursuit of a fair settlement,” Anis argued.
But he would not wish to compare the decision of Sadat to visit Jerusalem and pursue a negotiated deal with the Gulf decision to pursue full diplomatic relations with Israel. The comparison, he argued, does not stand, not just because the UAE was never in a war with Israel, but also because the times are different.
Bin Zayed and Pompeo
Said agreed, saying that “back in the 1970s the idea of talking with Israel, much less to having a peace treaty with Israel, was not even on the table. Moreover, those were different times, with the Cold War still on and prior to the IT Revolution.”
In the words of some Arab, mostly Egyptian, diplomatic sources, including some who knew both Sadat and the UAE leaders, the comparison is impossible. Sadat, they argue, was a sharp politician and military leader who won a war against Israel. He went through long and hard negotiations for years to get a peace treaty concluded, and he had to do this against a backdrop of internal opposition and regional unease.
Bin Zayed, they add, did what could almost be qualified as a “business deal”. And he did not even go to the White House to sign it himself.
Ultimately, according to Mohamed Abdel-Alim, a senior commentator at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, the issue is not about Sadat and Bin Zayed, because Sadat represented Egypt, “the big prize”.
“Egypt had just proved its military abilities in the October War, and Israel would have thought it was a dream to have a peace deal with Egypt. This is a very different context from the one of the UAE-Israel deal,” he argued.
According to Said, the comparison between one charismatic political leader of the 20th century and one typically conservative one of the 21st is unnecessary, except in assessing its impact on regional developments. For Anis, Sadat managed to have an impact on Israeli public opinion with regard to the prospects for peace. It would be very significant if Bin Zayed could do the same, with Israel now leaning a lot more towards the right.
BEYOND NETANYAHU AND TRUMP
The agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain came practically on the eve of the US presidential elections scheduled for 5 November, and there is debate within diplomatic quarters on whether these two deals and maybe any subsequent Arab-Israel normalisation deals could give Trump an electoral boost.
The re-election of Trump in November is clearly something that the UAE and its closest Arab allies, and for that matter Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would wish for and even try to support.
The question is whether such foreign-policy deals can really help Trump to get re-elected, given the typical home-focus of US voters. According to Arab and European diplomats who have served in Washington, the deals could help Trump in the sense that they could get him more support from the influential US Jewish lobby and even help the economy if they come with new arms packages that the UAE and Bahrain are hoping to get, now without Israeli opposition.
According to Tawfik, the pursuit of regional arrangements that could bring together Israel and some Arab countries is something that Washington will pursue whether Trump is re-elected or not.
“This is an objective that the US has been working on since the administration of [former US president] Barack Obama,” Tawfik argued.
He recalled former US secretary of state John Kerry coming to the Middle East in pursuit of this objective. “Under the Obama administration, the US was hoping for a political cover for this arrangement at the time the Obama administration tried to push for peace negotiations. With Trump, things became more blatant, but the idea was the same: a settlement of the Arab-Israeli struggle that could lead to some form of regional security arrangements and allow the Palestinians some economic gains,” he argued.
“This is not new at all; in fact, [former Israeli politician] Shimon Peres is said to be the godfather of this idea,” he added.
The question does not seem to be about the outcome of the US presidential elections as such. It might be more, according to regional diplomats, about whether or not Netanyahu can survive his legal problems, as he is facing three cases of corruption charges with a hard political game on top.
Many Middle Eastern diplomats argue that it is highly unlikely that Netanyahu will be able to hold off beyond the US elections on carrying out the annexation of all, or at least most of, the territories allocated to Israel by virtue of the Trump plan.
If Trump is out of the White House in November, they add, Netanyahu might not be able to benefit from the Trump plan or to get away with the annexation of territories on the West Bank that are, according to international law, occupied territories seized by military power in 1967.
Once this is done, they add, it is unlikely to change anything in the position of the UAE, which had promoted its deal with Israel, in part, as stopping the annexation. Nor would it necessarily halt for long the trail of Arab-Israeli normalisation that has been forecast to include Oman and maybe even Sudan.
But with the annexation of the Palestinian Territories, Netanyahu, the same sources add, might not be able to survive his legal and political problems. And if his term in office comes to an end, Netanyahu would still have been the prime minister that had got Israel the US move of its embassy to Jerusalem, two successive normalisation deals with two Arab Gulf countries, and extra territories on the West Bank without giving anything in return.
This might put him in the same league as former Likud Party prime minister Menachem Begin, who struck the first peace deal with the first Arab country to pursue a negotiated settlement with Israel, Egypt.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: From Egypt to the UAE