In October, the White House may well be holding an event it has not seen for a quarter of a century: an Arab-Israeli treaty normalising relations. A month away from the presidential elections, US President Donald Trump will be able to watch on Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince of the UAE, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sign their names to the treaty.
In March 1979 Jimmy Carter oversaw the signing of the groundbreaking Egyptian Israeli peace treaty. In 1993 Bill Clinton hosted the signing of the Oslo Accords. A year later came the signing of the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. Clinton went on to try hard, but failed, to secure a final Palestinian-Israeli deal and a Syrian-Israeli deal.
“Clearly, this is going to be a big day for Trump. He could claim that he had secured a breakthrough in Arab-Israeli relations that had eluded his predecessors for 25 years despite endless rounds of negotiations,” said one Middle East-based foreign diplomat whose country has been involved in the history of the Arab-Israeli struggle since the 1948 Nakba.
He added, however, that the real crux of the issue will not be holding an impressive signing ceremony, or even securing further Arab-Israeli normalisation treaties, but ensuring such treaties impact positively the complex situation prevailing in the Middle East.
Last week, to the surprise of many around the world, not least the Palestinians, Trump broke the news: Israel and the United Arab Emirates had agreed to start normalising relations. The deal between the two countries, which have neither a common border nor a history of armed conflict, was trailed by those involved as helping to secure Middle East peace by virtue of securing a temporary suspension of Netanyahu’s plans to annex 30 per cent of the West Bank in line with the Trump “peace plan”, and encourage Palestinians to agree to resume negotiations suspended for over a year due to Israel’s settlement policies.
The news of the signing of a normalisation agreement received immediate support from several capitals, with Cairo giving a nod to the planned signing. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi used his Twitter account to praise the work that had led to the upcoming agreement and expressed the hope that it would help bring about peace and prosperity in the region. Several Gulf capitals, especially those considering normalisation with Israel like Manama and Muscat, also praised the political development.
For his part, Netanyahu promised that normalisation “on the basis of peace for peace” would go beyond the agreement with the UAE and, in press statements, insisted it would get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The Palestinians seemed more than dismayed by the news. A communiqué issued by the office of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas called on Abu Dhabi to reverse course. Palestinian officials and politicians from both the PA and Islamist resistance groups for once were on the same page, qualifying the deal as a betrayal of Arab support for the Palestinian cause.
In a rare show of its displeasure the PA withdrew its ambassador to Abu Dhabi for consultations. And in an equally rare aggressive statement, PA senior negotiator Saeb Erekat called on Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit to issue a statement to denounce the agreement or resign.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohamed Shettayah called on the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to reject the agreement and pressure the UAE to cancel plans for its signing, saying the treaty violates the principle of land-for-peace set out in the Arab Peace Initiative.
But as a Ramallah-based Palestinian source said in a telephone interview, “The PA, and all Palestinians, know very well this will not happen. Nobody is going to support the Palestinians on this matter.”
Arab countries that have traditionally supported Palestinian demands, such as Algeria and Sudan, are unlikely to speak out against the agreement, and not just because of Abu Dhabi’s influence across the Arab world. The fact is that many other Arab capitals are weighing up the possibility of reaching similar agreements with Israel, some as early as this year.
Neither the PA nor the Hamas leadership seem to have a plan about what to do next. Speaking from Ramallah, a Palestinian source said that Palestinian groups considering their next move believe it will depend largely on whether or not Trump is re-elected.
“Trump has taken very harsh measures against Palestinian rights, including moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and issuing an extremely unfair vision for settlement. We will have to wait and see,” he said.
According to a number of foreign diplomats in the region, the desire of some Arab capitals to improve Trump’s election chances may be one reason behind the UAE-Israel deal, but it is not the most important, playing second fiddle to UAE interests.
Anwar Gergash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, has insisted the agreement was prompted by national security interests, as by the UAE’s wish to give a push to the long-stalled peace talks.
It is an open secret that Bin Zayed and Netanyahu enjoy an excellent working relationship covering a wide range of regional and international issues. The agenda of mutual interests includes pressuring Iran, suppressing Islamist resistance groups and political Islam in general, and supporting strong regional leaders willing to do business with Israel.
In remarks earlier this year a UAE government source said that the time has passed when the Arabs could have pressed for a full Israeli withdrawal from the territory it occupied during the 1967 War and it would be best for everyone, especially the Palestinians, to try to salvage whatever is left, “before there is nothing left at all”.
“This is why a number of Arab capitals, together with Israel and the US, want to see Abbas replaced by someone who is more realistic, capable of cutting a deal with Israel and benefiting from the economic support that the US and the Gulf countries are willing to offer,” said a Cairo-based European diplomat. Whether this is going to be possible is another story, he added.
In the view of many current and former Middle East diplomats, there are serious questions about the prospects for Middle East peace and for Palestinian statehood, with or without this deal.
Beirut-based Palestinian writer Jean Said Makdisi is willing to contest this projection, arguing that “the dream of a Palestinian state has nothing to do with the current events.”
Makdisi, born in Jerusalem in 1940 only to be forced from her homeland, is certain “this Palestinian dream is not a dream in the sense of being unreal.
“On the contrary, it is very real in the minds and hearts of Palestinians; it has been for three or four generations” since the Nakba.
It is only the Palestinians who can realise their dream, says Makdisi, by “resisting surrender”.
“Resistance is not just an act for politicians; it is also for artists, writers… we see resistance every day, from men, women and children, despite the coercion of the Israeli occupation.”
“I don’t know how and I don’t know when, but I know that no matter what that Palestinians will dream — it is very real.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly