Last September, former US president Donald Trump hosted in great pomp the signing of the first “Abraham Accord” between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. The accords were meant to herald a new era of peace. It was unprecedented for a Gulf country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. The Emirates became the third Arab country to reach such a deal after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
On the same occasion, Bahrain signed a Declaration of Principle to the effect that it would soon follow in the footsteps of the UAE. A few weeks later, it became the second Gulf country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. In the following months, another two Arab countries made similar moves and signed their own peace treaties with Israel, namely Morocco and Sudan.
The underlying premise was that these treaties would facilitate the resolution of the Palestinian question. Many doubted that this would be the case, but a few clung to the faintest of hopes that this premise could come true. It goes without saying that the four treaties did not follow the Arab Peace Plan, which states that diplomatic relations between the Arab countries and Israel will only come after the establishment of a state of Palestine as an independent and sovereign state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
A few months later, and despite the illusionary peace between the Arabs and the Israelis, the Palestinian question has come to haunt everyone from the Arab countries that have reached peace accords with Israel to the new US administration that succeeded Trump. The administration of new US President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has made no secret of the fact that peace in the Middle East is not on the list of its strategic priorities in its approach to the region. The overriding objective has been to negotiate the return of both Iran and the United States to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement with Iran.
However, the Palestinian question, as is usually the case, has nevertheless erupted, this time at one of the holiest places in Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and in East Jerusalem in the wake of the Israeli eviction of some Palestinian families. On 10 May, a major military confrontation took place between Hamas and the Israeli army in Gaza. At the time this article was written, no truce was in sight, although Egypt and some Arab countries, with the support of the Biden administration, have been pushing the two warring parties to halt the fighting.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, operating in a caretaker capacity and at the end of his political career and facing the prospect of being put on trial, stressed on 15 May that the Israeli offensive against Hamas would continue until its objectives were met. Never mind that there were no clear-cut objectives laid down before the Israeli people before the offensive started. An undeclared objective is the reinstatement of Netanyahu as “king of Israel” once more. However, times have changed.
The Palestinian Resistance Movement (Hamas) despite the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip from 2007 onwards has proved resilient and capable of developing missiles that can reach deep inside Israel. Unlike previous military confrontations between the two in 2008-2009 and 2014, the present conflict has seen running battles on the streets of some Israeli cities between Jews and Arabs who remained in what had previously been Palestine after 1948. The Israelis have talked of a “civil war,” and to this should be added the fact that Israel is facing a serious governance crisis.
After four elections in the country in the span of two years, it has still been difficult for Israel to form a government that can enjoy a parliamentary majority. There is talk of the Israelis heading towards a fifth general election. Some believe that the end game of Netanyahu is to push for a fifth election with a “military victory” against Hamas behind him, meaning that he could win comfortably and be in a position to form a government with a solid majority in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
Egypt has been pushing hard with both the Israelis and the Hamas leaders to stop the shooting and to start talking. However, the Israelis are not in a listening mode, particularly since the US administration has not put enough pressure on them to accept a truce. It has sent Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hadi Amr, in charge of Palestinian and Israeli relations at the US State Department, to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials and to try to work out a ceasefire agreement to restore “calm,” according to a spokesperson.
Principal Deputy Spokesperson at the State Department Jalina Porter said last Friday that the United States was “actively engaging Egypt as well as other regional partners to work towards achieving a sustainable calm in the region.” For its part, Egypt wants more than calm this time around, because it believes that in the absence of a negotiated political resolution of the Palestinian question it is only a question of time before the next round of devastating fighting will erupt.
Biden has talked by telephone with both Palestinian Authority (PS) President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu. He has called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and reaffirmed the US commitment to the two-state solution. The three leaders have expressed “their shared desire for Jerusalem to be a place of peaceful coexistence for people of all faiths and backgrounds.”
Biden also reiterated his “support for steps to enable the Palestinian people to enjoy the dignity, security, freedom and economic opportunity that they deserve.” In his conversation with Abbas, Biden “underscored his strong commitment to a negotiated two-state solution as the best path to reach a just and lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Once a truce is achieved, the challenge will be how to translate such positions in concrete terms into reality on the ground. It will need strong American will to get involved in the peace negotiations and to lead the Palestinians and the Israelis to a negotiated solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The future will tell whether the Biden administration is ready to expend political capital in this regard.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council, chaired by China, failed to adopt a declaration on the situation in Gaza when it met in an emergency meeting on Sunday. According to the Chinese, the American delegation did not agree to the statement. This failure on the part of the council, despite the warning of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that the military offensive in Gaza could widen on the regional level, sends the wrong signal to the Israelis, namely that the US administration is not yet determined to push seriously for a ceasefire, notwithstanding claims made by senior officials to the contrary.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly