By the time you get your copy of Al-Ahram Weekly this week, the White House would have hosted an unusual ceremony whose results would transform the Middle East that we have known for decades.
In fact, it was a ceremony with a strategic objective; namely, the signing of a peace agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Hebrew state, Israel.
A couple of weeks ago, US President Donald Trump announced that a “historic deal” had been reached among the United States, the UAE and Israel, stressing that other Arab countries would tread the same road, albeit without naming them. Speculation had it that the next Gulf country to follow the UAE in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel would be Bahrain. Last Friday, 11 September, President Trump confirmed the news from the Oval Office, announcing that the Kingdom of Bahrain would follow suit, calling the peace agreement with Israel and the Gulf state “historic”. Meanwhile, he said other Arab countries from the Middle East and North Africa were expected to do the same.
Arab reactions to the Friday announcement were muted save, of course, reactions from the member states in what is called the “Arab Foursome” that is Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi congratulated those who worked for peace between Bahrain and Israel, expressing the hope that the agreement would bring “stability” to the Middle East.
Jordan, the second Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel back in October 1994, (after Egypt in March 1979), affirmed in an official statement that the next steps to achieve peace should be taken by Israel. In other words, the signing of Arab-Israeli peace agreements with Israel will not achieve peace in the Middle East unless Israel takes the necessary steps to implement Security Council resolutions pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as the two-state solution, entailing establishing an independent and sovereign Palestine living in security side-by-side with Israel.
Needless to say, Israeli official statements on the occasion did not refer to these Security Council resolutions, but dealt solely with the “breakthrough” in relations of Israel with Arab countries. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of Arab investments pouring into the Israeli economy, and cooperation in the fields of security, technology, commerce, money and banking, and tourism. Some press reports spoke of “thousands” of Israelis looking forward to visiting Dubai once direct air links between the UAE and Israel become operational. They are scheduled to start before this month’s end.
The Palestinians who, expectedly, feel betrayed by some Arab brethren were furious and condemned the move by Bahrain as a “stab in the back” of the Palestinians. A few days earlier, the Palestinian Authority put out a directive calling on all Palestinian officials not to attack in person the leaders of Arab countries who would sign peace treaties with Israel. This directive came out after some harsh Palestinian comments in the wake of the announcement of the normalisation of relations between the UAE and Israel. The reactions, that were personally directed at the crown prince of the UAE, were nasty, and as a matter of fact counterproductive to the Palestinian cause.
Both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have been emphasising in their official declarations that their peace agreements with Israel would give great impetus to the Palestinian question. The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of the UAE Anwar Gargash said last Saturday that old policies by the Arabs were ineffective in delivering the peace that the Arabs and Palestinians aspired to, and that the time had come to try new policies to achieve peace in the Middle East. His arguments in this respect, were almost a carbon copy of what the son-in-law of President Trump, Jared Kushner, has been claiming in the last three and a half years, particularly in selling the Trump administration’s “Prosperity to Peace” initiative last January.
The signing ceremony at the White House on Tuesday, 15 September, was, without doubt, a strategic breakthrough for American and Israeli strategies in the Middle East, especially from the standpoint of the Trump administration, that has worked tirelessly to help extremist Israelis, headed by the Israeli prime minister and his Likud Party, to decouple the Palestinian question from overall peace in the Middle East. Not only this, but also to ignore the two-state solution, save Kushner paying a lip service to the idea once.
In addition, the Trump administration conceded a very precious strategic present to the Israeli extreme right when it incorporated in its official Prosperity to Peace Initiative the right of Israel to annex Palestinian territories in the West Bank, and to annex the Jordan Valley, thus bringing Israeli forces face-to-face with the Jordanian Army once the annexation is decided. It was to be announced 1 July, but American pressure postponed it. The reasons for this were probably related to the American wish not to derail its persistent campaign with Gulf countries to normalise their relations with Israel. Moreover, the Trump administration apparently linked annexation to peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Be that as it may, the Middle East in the morning after the signing ceremony at the White House, 15 September, entered into uncharted waters for the Arabs and the Palestinians, and indeed for the whole world.
Will the American and Israeli peace drive end the more than century old Arab-Israeli conflict and bring about historic reconciliation between the Arabs and the Palestinians, on the one hand, and Israelis on the other?
The answer lies probably in the official Jordanian reaction referred to above that stated that the next steps to achieve peace rests solely on future Israeli policies. Personally speaking, I doubt very much that the Israelis are ready to relinquish Arab and Palestinian territories that they occupied back in June 1967.
With the peace agreement signed last week in the US capital, and the one signed with Bahrain, the Arab-Israeli conflict enters a new phase of uncertainty, which would become more problematic if President Trump is re-elected 3 November.
The irony of the whole scene in the Middle East was quite apparent in the fact that neither the Americans nor the Israelis, and nor for that matter the Palestinians, celebrated the anniversary of the Oslo Accords between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (the PLO) and Israel, dating 13 September 1993 at the White House. The ceremony back then was chaired by a US president from the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton.
The reason is that Israel, after the assassination of former prime minister Yitzak Rabin, who signed the accords with the late Yasser Arafat, never intended to honour its commitments inked in the accords. One of the Israeli politicians then who had led a fierce campaign against the accords, and was indirectly and morally responsible for removing Rabin from the scene for good, and consequently the idea of peace with the Palestinians, was a politician by the name of Benjamin Netanyahu.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly