Normalising tensions

Manal Lotfy , Thursday 17 Sep 2020

The signature of normalisation agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain this week will lead to further tensions in the region

Normalising tensions

In historic scenes in Washington this week, the UAE and Bahrain signed normalisation agreements with Israel after US sponsorship. US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the deals as “a historic breakthrough,” and those supporting normalisation say they will open the way to peace and prosperity in the Middle East.

However, sceptics warn that the deals complicate matters for the Palestinians. The principle of “peace for peace” put forward in the agreements removes the incentive for Israeli governments to work for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they say.

“For bilateral relations between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, this is a good day, but in terms of peace there is no conflict that is being resolved here,” Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) in London, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

What enthusiasts and sceptics do not disagree about is that the signing of the normalisation agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain will change regional dynamics. States neighbouring Israel have expressed concerns over the move, with the foremost of them, Jordan, saying that necessary steps to achieve a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should have come from Israel first.  

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said in a statement that Israel should stop undermining the two-state solution in historic Palestine and end the illegal occupation of Palestinian land.

For many Jordanians, the diminishing chances of a two-state solution based on UN Resolutions constitute an existential threat. Israeli officials have long repeated the idea of an “alternative homeland” for the Palestinians in countries in which they have taken refuge and population exchanges to protect the notion of a “Jewish state”.

Jordan is not the only country in the region to be troubled by the shrinking chances of a solution based on two states, as Iran will be worried too. The US administration has not hidden its desire for the normalisation agreements to turn into a regional alliance against Iran. Although the UAE and Bahrain deny that their normalisation with Israel is related to the establishment of such an alliance, officials in Tehran are concerned.

Contrary to the US-Israeli view that normalisation will help bring stability and prosperity to the region, Tehran believes that it will most likely exacerbate regional tensions. Among the agreements to be discussed between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel are ones related to security and intelligence cooperation.

The normalisation deal also opens the door for the UAE to purchase advanced weapons from the US, including the F-35 fighter and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft. This also poses a challenge to Iran, which is strengthening its security and military cooperation with countries including Russia and China.

Iran’s leaders have warned against targeting the country or encircling it with new alliances in the region, but the country’s options are limited. It is facing difficult economic conditions, an outbreak of the Covid-19, and mounting problems among its regional allies in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

However, no one will be as worried by the normalisation agreements as the Palestinians. For Palestinians under Israeli occupation, who have long relied on Arab backing, the agreements are seen as a setback to their attempts to increase international pressure on Israel. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh said that Tuesday’s signature of the agreements in Washington was a “black day” and “added to the calendar of Palestinian pain.”

“The main question after these deals is: does it make it easier or harder to resolve the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians? I think it will possibly make it harder because the Israeli right-wing in power will see this as a get-out from ever having to make a genuine deal with the Palestinians. Israel now can enjoy the end of its diplomatic isolation in the region without paying any price,” Doyle said.

Trump and Netanyahu pushed hard for the signing of the agreements to ease pressure on Netanyahu at home and to help Trump in his re-election campaign. But there are few indications that their signing will change public opinion in America and Israel in the way they hoped for.

“We now have two historic peace agreements, with two Arab countries, which were established in one month,” Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting on Sunday before departing for the United States. “We are at the threshold of a new era.”

But opinion polls in Israel indicate that the issue of normalisation with the Gulf states is not of central importance to Israeli voters. The vast majority are preoccupied with the resurgence of the new coronavirus, which has forced the authorities to impose a second national lockdown in Israel.

Israeli academics and journalists such as Avi Shlaim, Gideon Levy, Amira Hass and Chemi Shalev, among others, say that Trump and Netanyahu have inflated the significance of the agreements to aggrandise themselves and draw attention away from their monumental failures in the battle against the coronavirus.

Shalev called the deals “a shameless propaganda ploy” in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Nonetheless, the “peace for peace” doctrine is undeniably a diplomatic breakthrough for Netanyahu, others say. “For Netanyahu, it is win-win. For Trump, it is win-win as he tries to look like a great deal-maker. He is definitely exaggerating what this means for the region,” Doyle said.

Many European diplomats fear that the “peace for peace” slogan might complicate their ability to continue policies based on the two-state solution, along with their refusal to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, and its annexation of parts of the West Bank.

“The European Union has been on the side-lines since Trump came to office. The EU nations have a different approach to the Palestinian issue. Also, the EU has different views on Iran. These differences continue, but the EU is not in a position to change the reality on the ground in Palestine. Having said that, pressure from the EU clearly played a role in halting, for the moment, the Israel annexation of parts of the West Bank,” Doyle said.

Netanyahu, in trouble domestically, will continue to play up the normalisation deals.

Trump sees the signing ceremony at the White House as a blow against the “land for peace” doctrine that was the starting point for earlier Arab-Israeli talks. He will also see them as a boost for his strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran.

But few Americans are likely to see the deals as something that concerns them. The focus of American voters is on the economy and the response to the coronavirus.

Should Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden be elected president in the November elections to replace Trump, he will also not change all aspects of Trump’s Middle East policy, Doyle said. “Biden will not change the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, but there will be changes in tune and approach. He will resort to traditional diplomacy and will open up talks with the Palestinian Authority, which of course does not talk to the Trump administration at the moment.”

“Biden will also resume funding for a lot of UN programmes, including [the Palestinian refugee agency] UNRWA. But all that does not mean Biden will side completely with the Palestinians. He will try to navigate between both parties, but his record is very pro-Israel.”


*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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