Did Arab normalisation boost Israeli settlement building?

Bassem Aly , Tuesday 3 Nov 2020

Palestine experts argue that normalisation agreements between Israel and three Arab states have had little impact on Israel’s settlement construction policy

Did Arab normalisation boost Israeli settlement building?

The Israeli government will build about 5,000 new settlements in the West Bank, bringing the total number to more than 12,150 new settlements in 2020. These are the highest rates for the construction of settlements since 2012, according to the estimates of Peace Now. According to the UN Human Rights Office, Israel “continues to devour the land that is meant for the independent Palestinian state”. 

Israel also demolished 177 properties in July, August and September, after destroying about 186 others during the first six months of this year. In September only, Israel destroyed 76 “Palestinian-owned structures” and displaced 136 Palestinians, affecting the lives of 300 others, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced, based on Palestinian rights reports.

Israel has been building settlements — which is considered illegal activity under international humanitarian law — since 1967. But while Israel signed  normalisation agreements with three Arab states in recent months, the impact of these agreements on Israel’s Palestine policy is something to be questioned. 

Gilbert Achcar, professor of international relations at SOAS, does not believe that growing Arab recognition of Israel is the major catalyst behind building new settlements. Instead, this is mainly related to the US presidential elections. Israel wants to benefit as much as possible from the days remaining for Donald Trump as US president, for the situation would be more difficult if Joe Biden arrived at the White House, argued Achcar. 

“Under Biden, there will be no radical change to US foreign policy. Instead, change would rather be within the parameters of US foreign policy. Obama’s administration saw tense relations with Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu — unlike that of Trump,” Achcar said. He added that Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president, will restore the situation extant under Obama, and it would be a provocative act if Netanyahu built settlements while Biden is in office.

The Palestinian-Israeli peace process practically collapsed in 2014. Ahead of reaching this stage, Obama imposed pressure on Israel to freeze the building of settlements, which Israel temporarily acceded to in late 2009, clashing with Netanyahu over this issue. But Obama failed to maintain his pressures on Israel across his two-term era. 

By all means, the election of Trump was a game-changer for Israel. Trump moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem — the eastern part of which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state — and recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided capital”. 

By virtue of Trump’s controversial peace plan, the Palestinians would have a capital only in East Jerusalem’s northern and eastern neighbourhoods, under absolute security control of Israel. The plan also stipulates that a very limited number of Palestinian refugees will be allowed to return to their homeland. Furthermore, Trump ended US funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), which amounted to $300 million. UNRWA offers health, educational and social safety net programmes for about 5.3 million Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jordan, and Syria. The impact of this decision remains hard to quantify.

Rex Brynen, professor of political science at McGill University, said that there is “very little pressure” on Israel, whether by the US or Arab states, to stop settlements, though normalisation is not a key factor in the equation.

“Normalisation is an indicator of that, although it’s not really the cause. Internal political dynamics within Israel also mean there is little incentive to change policy,” Brynen said.

“I think a Biden administration would be a little less willing to allow Israel to do whatever it wanted, and would certainly be opposed to formal annexation of Palestinian territories. However, I’m not convinced they would do much to advance a real peace process or the establishment of a Palestinian state,” Brynen added. 

For Joel Beinin, professor of Middle East history at Stanford University, the three recent normalisation deals that Israel struck with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Sudan positively impacted the situation for the Palestinians. “In order to normalise relations with the UAE and Bahrain, Israel agreed to suspend its plan to annex a large part of the West Bank (the Jordan Valley and perhaps also settlements). I don’t believe Netanyahu actually wanted to do this because there has long been a de facto annexation and making it de jure would only create problems. Nonetheless, the settler lobby wanted de jure annexation. So, approving new housing blocs — at the highest rate since they began being recorded in 2012 — is a way to placate the settler lobby while taking steps that further consolidate de facto annexation,” Beinin said. 

Gaining the recognition of Arab states has always been a major objective for Israel’s successive governments. In September, Trump told reporters that Israel will also normalise relations with “seven or eight or nine” other states “at the right time”, including Saudi Arabia. 

In September and October, Trump brokered normalisation agreements for Israel with the UAE and Bahrain, which were followed by another agreement with Sudan. The so-called Abraham Accords between the UAE and Israel involves the “establishment of peace and diplomatic relations”, “mutual understanding, cooperation and coordination between them in the spheres of peace and stability” and cooperation in a wide range of activities.

Cooperation includes areas of healthcare, science, technology and peaceful uses of outer space, tourism, culture and sport, energy, environment, education, maritime agreements, telecommunications, agriculture and food security, and water and legal cooperation.

The vice president of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, recently emphasised that “we are not the first country to normalise relations with Israel,” adding that the Palestinians themselves have relations with Israel. 

He did, however, stress Sudan’s support for resolving the Palestinian cause. Dagalo also said that normalising ties with Israel will bring lots of benefits to Sudan, including ending its isolation and facilitating cooperation with Israel in political, security and economic affairs. He specifically referred to the need of Sudan to benefit from Israeli agricultural technology.

Jasmin Habib, associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “there isn’t any evidence” that suggests a connection between Israel’s settlements policy and normalising relations with Arab states, noting that no change will likely occur in the situation of the Palestinians in the short run. 

“Should these Arab states take genuine interest in international conventions and the rights of Palestinian I can imagine a time when they may well have greater leverage and place some pressure on Israel. It does not appear they have those interests in mind at this time, however. Nor in light of these developments does the Palestinian leadership (to the extent that it represents Palestinian interests) have any leverage either,” Habib said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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