Reuters / September 15, 2020
JERUSALEM – The diplomatic accords the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are due to sign with Israel on Tuesday in a ceremony hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump have been subject to intense spin and partisan scrutiny.
They are the first public rapprochements with Israel by Gulf Arab states and come decades after it signed peace deals with Egypt and Jordan, countries that, unlike the UAE and Bahrain, had faced Israel on the battlefield.
The countries involved have hailed the new “Abraham Accords” as ground-breaking. But Palestinians say there can be no resolution of the core Israeli-Palestinian conflict unless they are involved.
Here are some of the points of controversy and uncertainty.
On Monday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signalled that the agreements may be works in progress, while a senior Trump administration official briefed that they were “roughly complete or complete” for the ceremony, without giving specifics.
The official said the UAE document, announced on August 13, would be more detailed than the Bahrain one unveiled a month later because of the time elapsed, but that the documents would not be released until after the ceremony.
The word “normalisation” features prominently in Israeli and American comments, but it has very different connotations on opposing sides of the Middle East conflict.
For Israel, the United States and other western countries it signifies a welcome public thawing of relations in a region from which Israel has long been isolated and where some even question its right to exist and want no dealings with it.
“Normalisation is about giving everybody an opportunity, respecting each other’s faith and having a more stable region,” Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, told the Emirates News Agency, WAM, in August.
“If you are against normalisation then what are you standing for? You are standing for extremism, division, intolerance.”
But for many Palestinians and Arabs the word has overwhelmingly negative associations.
The trilateral statement issued by the United States, Israel, and the UAE on August 13 spoke of the “full normalisation of relations” while the nearly-but-not-quite Bahraini equivalent on September 11 instead opted for “the establishment of full diplomatic relations.”
There was some domestic opposition – Bahraini political and civil society associations issued a statement saying: “What results from normalisation will not enjoy popular backing.”
A campaign also circulated on Arabic social media asking people to sign up to the ‘Charter of the State of Palestine,’ and declaring “normalisation in all its forms is treason.”
“Normalisation is a bad word for the Palestinians because it means power for Israel,” Palestinian political analyst Khalil Shahin said. “The Palestinians are suffering an imbalance in all fields… normalisation means deepening such imbalance.”
Israeli and U.S. officials have both talked of “peace” deals, Netanyahu consistently favouring the phrase “peace for peace.”
That wording pointedly contrasts the new deals with the old “land for peace” formula that long underpinned decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations but which is detested by many of Netanyahu’s right-wing voter base because they oppose land concessions to Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s Likud Party made the contrast explicit, saying: “For the first time in history, Prime Minister Netanyahu broke the ‘land for peace paradigm,’ securing a ‘peace for peace’ deal.”
But Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary General Saeb Erekat said the Emirati and Bahrain deals were really about “’Peace For Protection’… Kushner told them you either normalize with Israel or lose U.S. protection.”
On Tuesday, ahead of the ceremony, he referenced the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, tweeting: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”
A discrepancy between the English and Arabic versions of a trilateral UAE, Israel and U.S. statement last month was seized upon by Palestinians to suggest that the UAE overstated Israeli readiness to drop West Bank annexation plans.
The English version of a joint communiqué said the accord “led to the suspension of Israel’s plans to extend its sovereignty”.
But the Arabic version read: “the agreement … has led to Israel’s plans to annex Palestinian lands being stopped”.
The UAE has portrayed the accord as a means to halt Israeli annexation of occupied West Bank lands, where Palestinians hope to build a future state.
An Emirati official said the difference in wording was merely a translation issue.
But Hanan Ashrawi, a senior PLO official, claimed that was disingenuous. “The Arabic translation is a way of misleading Arab public opinion by saying they have succeeded in stopping the annexation, while actually they suspended it,” she told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington, Aziz El Yaakoubi, Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ali Sawafta, Rami Ayyub, Dan Williams and Matt Spetalnick, Editing by William Maclean