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Interview: Peace deal ‘a definite game changer’, says Mideast diplomat

INTERVIEW: Prominent Middle East diplomat and expert Hesham Youssef argues that the Israeli Palestinian conflict is once again at a historic defining moment

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 19 Sep 2020
Hesham Youssef
Prominent Middle East diplomat and expert Hesham Youssef (Photo: Ahram Online)
Views: 7788
Views: 7788

In 1991 when the Madrid Peace Conference was launched to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict, two tracks were established for negotiations, a bilateral and a multilateral track. In the early nineties, Hesham Youssef, an Egyptian diplomat, was in charge of a number of working groups in the multilateral track that examined a range of possible Arab-Israeli economic cooperation that could be pursued once a peace settlement was reached.

A couple of years later, he served as the Official Spokesman of the Arab League during its Summit in Beirut, when the Arab Peace Initiative, presented by then Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, was adopted. For many subsequent years, as Chief of Staff of the Arab League Secretary General, Youssef attended and followed endless rounds of simply inconclusive and failed negotiations.

This week, Youssef, currently a Senior Fellow at the Washington-based US Institute of Peace, was carefully following the most eventful development of a twin-deal for normalization that Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu signed at the White House with both the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain.

These agreements are a definite game changer for the region and for peace prospects in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Youssef said.

Speaking to Ahram Online on the phone from the US capital, hours after the White House signing that saw US President Donald Trump promising that another five or six Arab states would be soon joining the normalization path with Israel, Youssef offered that these agreements have upset a decades-long working paradigm for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For decades, it was assumed that incentives and gestures from Arab countries toward Israel would move the Israeli public to call on its leadership to constructively address the conflict with the Palestinians, making room for a historic compromise to take place.

This paradigm, he added, was dealt a huge blow by Netanyahu this summer, as the Israeli Prime Minister has portrayed these agreements as achieved under a framework of “peace for peace,” requiring no concessions from Israel in return. This narrative, while perhaps accurate for Bahrain, so far, is not true in the case of the Emirates, but the key question today is whether the old paradigm can survive because it is not clear if it can be easily replaced.

Youssef believes that with these normalization steps the Arab states are significantly ceding leverage toward a long-articulated goal of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and realizing the Palestinian right to self-determination. The current approach appears to set aside old paradigms in order to pursue a host of more pressing national interests. It also comes at a time when Israel has become much stronger in the region, the Palestinians are becoming much weaker, and the gap between their positions on all final status issues is becoming unbridgeable Ð making a negotiated agreement harder than ever to achieve. “The erosion of these cornerstones for peacemaking is a precursor for an eventual new crisis,” Youssef warned.

According to Youssef, the Palestinians have legitimate reasons for concern over the recent decisions of Abu Dhabi and Manama to normalize relations with Israel at a time when the prospects for a fair and just settlement for the Palestinian cause seem dim.

“Palestinian concern over the recent normalization is justified,” he stated.

Still, Youssef argued that given that one of the key obstacles to the establishment of a Palestinian state has been the progressive entrenchment of Israeli presence in Palestinian territories in the West Bank, through fast-growing illegal settlement activity and more recently via the annexation scheme that Netanyahu was planning to implement. Therefore, one should not underestimate the importance of the Emirates securing a halt to annexation momentum, particularly if it is “off the table” as President Trump indicated. Youssef recognized that while stopping annexation was due to many factors, the Emirati deal was also instrumental.

Obviously, crucial questions arise about the permanence of the annexation halt, and whether it could last long enough to allow a fresh start for negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis on the basis of the two-state solution. Youssef noted that even after the White House ceremony, David Friedman, the US Ambassador to Israel, stated his belief that annexation will still happen as proposed by the Trump Administration’s Vision for Peace.  Still, Youssef believes that given the popularity within Israel of the normalization steps with the Emiratis, combined with an American “stop sign” and the lack of strong Israeli public push for annexation as a priority, it would be difficult for Israel to proceed with annexation in the near future if it were seen to threaten the normalization process with the Emirates and the prospect for additional deals with other countries.

“I am not saying that if the halt remains for a few years that this means that a deal between Palestinians and Israelis would be easy, obviously not,” Youssef added. “However, the question today is one of political will. There are two possibilities Ð these developments can either constitute a bridge to help achieve peace or a bypass around the Palestinian cause,” he said.

US President Donald Trump is joined by (L-R) US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, US Vice President Mike Pence, senior adviser Jared Kushner and US special representative for Iran Brian Hook in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on Sept. 11, 2020. AFP

Youssef indicated that the Emirates have taken a number of significant steps towards normalization already and that more steps are on the way. Bahrain is expected to take steps in the near future. Whether these steps will be confined to achieving mutually-beneficial bilateral gains, or whether the two Arab countries will seek to leverage these steps to secure Israeli concessions in favor of the Palestinian people remains to be seen. To help Palestinians in their quest, several options could be contemplated from freezing settlements, to ending collective punishment practices such as Palestinian home demolitions, among numerous other issues. “An approach of that nature would make it more of a bridge, but if the focus remains limited to bilateral interests and agreements these agreements will ultimately be a bypass road around the conflict.”

Both the Emirates and Bahrain have reiterated their traditional positions regarding the conflict as well as their support to the Palestinian people and their continued adherence to the Arab Peace Initiative and its principles, Youssef added.

At the same time, Youssef argued, there is a sea change of developments in the region. For the first time in recent history, the Arab League denied a Palestinian leadership request for support of its position.  The Palestinians’ inability to mobilize Arab support to criticize the Emirati step is quite significant. The Palestinians have also witnessed explicit support for the Emirati and later the Bahraini steps from Egypt, Oman and others, and tacit acceptance and even gestures from Saudi Arabia, which opened its airspace for Israeli flights. A number of additional Arab countries, such as Jordan, took a more nuanced position more clearly aligned with the API framework. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that if Israel dealt with the UAE deal as an incentive to end occupation, it will move the region towards a just peace.

While the Palestinian question cannot be wished away, and hundreds of millions around the world would still voice support for their cause, the Palestinians need to recognize the significant nature of these fundamental developments, Youssef said. “Denying the reality of these steps, withdrawing PLO ambassadors, and boycotting the Dubai Expo is not a strategy. The Palestinians badly need a unified and effective strategy to achieve their legitimate rights,” he added. 

Youssef recalled the controversial debate in Egypt and all over the Arab world when President Sadat went to Jerusalem in 1977. Youssef pointed out that while there was still strong opposition to the agreement when it was inked, many years later he believes a majority of Egyptians would think that Sadat was a visionary after all and that what he did ultimately served Egyptian interests.

Of course, Youssef agreed, there are major differences between that deal and the ones Israel, the UAE and Bahrain just struck; chief among them that Egypt had been in direct conflict with Israel, over the Israeli occupation of Egyptian territories, and sought through the deal to end Israeli occupation of Sinai.

“However, it remains the case that people in the Arab world will likely debate the normalization steps taken by the Emirates and Bahrain for decades to come,” he added.

Youssef agreed that with the Trump plan earlier this year, the API is challenged, but he does not believe it is no longer relevant. He noted that Donald Trump’s chief advisor Jared Kushner admitted that all the Arab leaders with whom he met spoke about the API. “Even in the wake of the UAE and Bahrain deals, almost all Arab countries, and the Palestinian leadership, reconfirmed their commitment to this peace initiative,” Youssef added.

Having been in the negotiating rooms in which Palestinians and Israelis were brought together on many occasions over the years, Youssef knows well that it will take a long time before Israel makes the concessions necessary to bring about the independent and viable Palestinian state, as stipulated by the API 18 years ago.

According to Youssef, “Palestinians argue that their significant concessions over the years remain unrecognized by Israel and by this US administration. They have accepted a future Palestinian state on only 22 percent of “Mandatory Palestine.” They agreed to land swaps around the 1967 borders, expressed willingness to allow Israelis to remain as residents in Palestine, and agreed to only a symbolic return of refugees. From the Palestinian perspective, there isn’t a single comparable Israeli concession.”

Youssef acknowledged that more challenges remain. There are major hurdles to overcome associated with the Palestinian divisions; Hamas unilateral control of Gaza away from the Palestinian Authority; the Israeli siege on Gaza; the desperate situation of the Palestinian Authority that is on the verge of collapse; and the volatile Israeli political context that witnessed three elections in one year, with a fourth possibly imminent. Beyond that of course, Europe is preoccupied, perhaps even overwhelmed, with its own challenges, and the world awaits the outcome of the US elections in a few weeks.

“On the American side, the Trump administration is making the best use of the extent to which many Arab countries are unwilling to confront it, particularly at a time when these countries have several more urgent priorities than the Palestinian question and when, above all, they firmly believe that the Trump Plan has no chance of leading to a resolution of that conflict,” Youssef said.

Should President Trump get re-elected, the dilemma posed by the plan will come into sharp focus. Palestinians, across the political spectrum, rejected the Trump Plan. And, the current Palestinian leadership will not go to negotiations on the basis of this plan. Meanwhile, an Israeli right-wing government will not go to negotiations except with the Trump plan on the table, a dilemma that will not be easily resolved, he said.

(L-R)Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan hold up documents after participating in the signing of the Abraham Accords where the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognize Israel, at the White House in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020. (AFP)

Moreover, he added that some Arab countries have real concerns with the Trump Plan also noting the Arab League resolution that rejected it. Jordan, a crucial partner to the US, Israel, and the Palestinians, is a country that sees real danger in this plan, particularly as some Israeli right-wing circles have recently revived the narrative that Jordan is an alternative homeland for the Palestinians Ð an argument that was virtually abandoned after the signing of the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty in 1994. King Abdullah of Jordan has also fiercely rejected settling more Palestinian refugees in Jordan. But, with an empowered right-wing government in Israel, the Kingdom is increasingly concerned that Israel may try to resolve its demographic problem at Jordan’s expense.

Jerusalem is another key factor. Jordan, along with many Arab and Islamic countries, could not accept Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, to include the Al-Haram Al-Sharif, as stipulated in the Trump plan. He added that recent statements from the US administration indicating that Muslims from all over the world coming in peace can go through Abu Dhabi or Manama to pray at the holy site, under Israeli control, altogether miss the point of Arab and Islamic countries’ interest and concerns on this issue.

Where does this leave the key stakeholders and the pathway forward?  The view from the US will be shaped by the election outcome, Youssef said. If president Trump wins, Youssef cautioned, there is a risk that the administration runs in persisting in an assumption that the plan has a realistic diplomatic path forward. This would not only lead to a dead end but can also undermine the prospects of peace and the possibility of the US playing a credible and effective role going forward, Youssef argued.

According to Youssef, if Joseph Biden is elected, there may be efforts to roll back some - though by no means all - of the decisions made by the Trump administration, unless a military confrontation or a crisis erupts. He however added that the growing consensus in Washington is that a Biden administration will be extremely preoccupied with numerous more pressing internal and international issues and unable to dedicate meaningful attention to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, at least not immediately.

As for the Palestinians, Youssef believes that they are facing one of the most difficult times since the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993. They can no longer rely on automatic dependable Arab support as they once did. Now they need to overcome their division and focus their effort, with the help of the international community, on conducting elections, agree on a strategy, and recognize that good governance is their only way to gain the support of donors and public opinion. The lack of progress on these fronts is the reason behind the steep declining popularity of the Palestinian leadership.

On the Israeli side, according to Youssef, the government is embracing a plan that cannot lead to a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Accordingly, Israeli society finds itself at a historic crossroads, facing a choice between its democratic and Jewish characters if it pursues an extreme right maximalist position toward control of the occupied territories and its Palestinian inhabitants. Israel’s decisions today will forever affect the state’s long-term trajectory.

Israel is also facing another daunting challenge:  Netanyahu, the prime minister on trial, has presented his public with a narrative that achieving normalization with Arab countries requires no concessions; and, Benny Gantz, the prime minister in waiting who, even if he assumes that position, will be hard pressed to compete with this narrative as someone whose positions have long nodded toward the necessity of compromise to resolve the central existential conflict for Israel with the Palestinians. In the current climate, with the right wing in ascendancy, persuading public opinion with this proposition will require nothing short of a miracle.

The growing and warming Israel-Gulf embrace, and the eagerness to advance ties, to include people to people relations, will likely strengthen calls from the younger generation in Palestine to abandon the pursuit of statehood in favor of a rights-based approach that would seek a bi-national state in the whole of Mandatory Palestine. This is non-starter for both the Israeli government and the public.

The question today, therefore, is what next? According to Youssef, the new US administration, regardless of who resides in the White House, will need to rebalance the current policy if the goal is a just and sustainable peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

Arab countries who have more immediate and pressing concerns, whether confronting Iran,  wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria, the pandemic and its devastating economic implications, not to mention a host of other national challenges of diverse nature and intensity, have to reconfirm that resolving this conflict is still a sine qua non for regional peace and stability.

According to Youssef, there was a recent ray of hope for effective diplomatic paths forward with the emergence of a “new Middle East Quartet”.  In the first week of July, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, France and Germany held a videoconference to discuss Middle East developments and adopted a firm position that denounced annexation plans and warned Israel of the repercussions of such a step. Arguably this also contributed to those plans being put on hold, and a formalized version of this grouping could serve both as a balance and a bridge in the international and regional management of the Israeli-Palestinian and broader Arab-Israeli conflicts.

“These four countries, in particular, have an important role to play,” Youssef elaborated. “Egypt and Jordan were the first two countries to have peace treaties with Israel, treaties that have endured for over 40 and 25 years, respectively. On the European side, both France and Germany are the most influential countries in Europe in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and their good relations with the Palestinians, Israelis and the US suggest an ability to serve an important mediating role.

Youssef argued that this new quartet can work with the US on securing a constructive start for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in order “to allow for a settlement without which the Middle East could never really claim that it can live in peace, stability, security, or achieve prosperity”.

The Emirates and Bahrain need to take a step towards the Palestinians. There are many prominent Palestinians who would be willing to work with them on trying to work out a modus operandi for the coming period to see how the normalization step can help advance peace and become a solid and sturdy bridge rather than a detrimental bypass to a conflict that will not go away. Perhaps Egypt can play a role in this regard.

Youssef stressed that the input of any group of countries is no guarantee at all that things would necessarily take the right course. No one step by any power, whoever this power is, would be enough to achieve a breakthrough in the current impasse. There is a need for a package of steps to be taken by all sides in an orchestrated manner for the conflict to move along the right path toward resolution.

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