Middle East Eye / August 15, 2020
Washington, Israel and the Gulf states want to sharpen the Middle East’s battle lines. The Palestinian issue was in the way.
If there is one conclusion to draw from the agreement this week between Israel and the United Arab Emirates – with Israel temporarily “suspending” its threat to illegally annex parts of the West Bank in return for “full normalisation” with the Gulf state – it is this: the peace industry is back in business.
But this time, unlike the interminable Oslo Accords signed a quarter of a century ago, there won’t even be the pretence that Palestinians are needed for “Middle East peace” to proceed. This is a process that takes place over their heads, a dialogue from which they are entirely absent.
This peace process is not between Palestinians and Israel, Washington’s client in the region. It is between Israel and oil-rich Arab states loyal to the US. It is a process that allows them to end the pretence that they are enemies of Israel. It means that they can stop feigning support for the Palestinian struggle for a state – even one on the last remnants of Palestinians’ homeland.
This is a peace process that effectively rubber-stamps the occupation and the many dozens of illegal Jewish settlements Israel has built to steal Palestinian land over many decades.
This is a peace process that moves the ostensible goal posts from permanently ending the occupation to simply postponing – for a little longer – Israel’s ambition to permanently annex those Palestinian lands it has already stolen.
In short, this is a peace process in which Arab states, led by the UAE, formally join Israel in waging war on Palestinians.
In that sense, this is a continuation of the process begun by Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s Middle East adviser and son-in-law, in developing the so-called “deal of the century”.
From the start, Kushner turned to the Gulf – to which he and the rest of the US political and economic elite have long been personally close – and sought to craft what became known as the “outside-in” strategy.
That meant recruiting as many Arab regimes as possible, starting with the oil-rich Gulf states, to sign up to the Trump “peace plan” and use their weight – and money – to strong-arm Palestinians into surrendering to Israeli diktats.
A White House dedicated to the politics of the used-car lot was bound to imagine that economics could be used to bludgeon Palestinians into compliance. That was why Kushner held an economic conference in Bahrain early last summer, even before he had a peace plan to unveil.
Saudis next in line?
Sensing how this was playing out, the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas refused early on to engage with the Trump plan, and soon cut off all ties to Washington. It made no difference. This was a peace plan that did not need the Palestinian people to be involved in the haggling over their future.
The Trump plan, unveiled earlier in the year, offered Palestinians the promise of an eventual state on shards of the West Bank, after Israel had been allowed to annex swaths of their territory.
Now, Israel has put this move on temporary hold in return for normalisation with the UAE. Kushner says other states are expected to follow. Bahrain and Oman are likely to be close behind.
The agreement states: “The United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates are confident that additional diplomatic breakthroughs with other nations are possible, and will work together to achieve this goal.”
The real coup would be Saudi Arabia, which is presumably waiting to see how the deal with the UAE is received. It is hard to imagine, however, that the UAE’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, took this step without first getting the green light from Riyadh.
By contrast, the previous Saudi ruler, King Abdullah, championed a regional peace agreement in 2002 that offered Israel full recognition by the Arab states in return for Israel conceding Palestinian statehood in the occupied territories.
That offer exposed the true colours of Israel and Washington. Israeli leaders ignored the Saudi plan, and, taking their cue from Tel Aviv, US leaders refused to seize the opportunity to advance the bold Saudi offer as the basis for a peace agreement.
Biden jumps on board
Under Trump, things have rapidly worsened for Palestinians. Millions of refugees have been starved of aid; the US embassy has been moved to Jerusalem; Israel’s illegal annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights has been approved; and illegal settlements have continued to expand.
And yet, Israeli intransigence is paying off. The Gulf is ready to offer Israel normalisation, not just without any meaningful concessions, but at the same time as the situation for Palestinians deteriorates significantly.
Trump has called the Israeli-UAE pact “a historic peace agreement between our two great friends”. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, described the UAE’s normalisation with Israel as “a significant step forward for peace in the Middle East”.
But anyone who imagines that this is simply a floundering, implausible last move by a lame-duck president – assuming Trump fails to win the presidential election in November – is likely to be in for a disappointment.
Joe Biden, his Democratic challenger, has also excitedly jumped on board. He described the agreement as “a welcome, brave, and badly needed act of statesmanship,” adding that the alternative – annexation – “would be a body blow to the cause of peace”.
In one sense, this is a victory, even if a very bitter one, for the Palestinian leadership. They denounced the agreement. Palestinians’ belated refusal to engage with the Trump plan – after long colluding in a US-dictated Oslo peace process that was designed from the outset to negate their right to live in dignity in their homeland – has flushed the real US-Israeli agenda out into the open.
Even with the best interpretation of the Oslo Accords, Palestinians were never going to be allowed the semblance of a sovereign state, even on the remnants of their original homeland.
They were to have no control over their borders, their airspace, the electromagnetic spectrum, or their diplomatic relations with other states. And of course, they were most definitely not going to be allowed an army.
The peace process was always about keeping Israel in control of the entire space, with a segment of Palestinians allowed to live there as a caged, dependent people. They could either willingly agree to their subordination, or face further repression from Israel to crush their spirit.
Now, all of this is no longer being disguised, even if politicians and diplomats in Washington and the Gulf wish to mislead the rest of the world that this should still be called a “peace process”.
Signs that they may get away with this monumental deception were evident in the responses of major European capitals, which welcomed the agreement. Germany called it “an important contribution to peace in the region,” while Boris Johnson in the UK said it was “hugely good news”.
The message sent by Israel, the US and the UAE is that committing war crimes and violating international humanitarian law can pay handsome dividends over the long run.
A shared agenda
The gains in this deal for the UAE and the other Gulf states – assuming, as seems likely, that they follow suit – are simple. The Sunni Gulf has long wanted fuller integration into the US-Israeli security nexus in the Middle East.
The US, Israel and the Gulf states share a deep hostility towards Iran and its Shia co-religionist factions in the region – from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Yemen.
Israel opposes these Shia actors because they have proved most ready to resist it, as well as Washington’s imperial designs, centred on control over the region’s oil.
The Gulf, meanwhile, as the birthplace of Sunni Islam and the supposed guardian of its honour, has a separate interest in securing its sectarian hegemony in the region. Gulf states have been developing close, if semi-covert, ties to Israel in recent years while engaging more actively in wars across the region, either through proxies in Syria and Iraq or directly in Yemen.
They have been keen to go public with normalisation so that they can gain greater access to US-Israeli intelligence and improved military technology, which would naturally flow from increased levels of trust.
Aside from the bland, positive diplomatic wording, the agreement does not veil this goal: A new “Strategic Agenda for the Middle East” will be developed to “expand diplomatic, trade, and security cooperation”. The US, Israel and the UAE “share a similar outlook regarding the threats and opportunities in the region, as well as a shared commitment to promoting stability”.
Repackaging its role in this entirely self-interested deal, the UAE can also still present itself as the champion of the Palestinian cause and the two-state solution, delaying annexation to another day.
The advantages to the Gulf run deeper still, however. Washington’s imperial agenda inevitably feeds and needs enemies, especially in an oil-rich region such as the Middle East, to justify endless wars and endless profits for its “defence” industries.
The Gulf states want to be on the right side of that military-industrial divide as the US moves into choppier waters ahead, facing oil shortages, a deterioration in the global climate, and the rise of China as a superpower.
Washington’s interests in the deal, and Trump’s, are similarly clear. Pushing ahead with annexation has proved much harder than the Trump administration expected. European and Arab capitals were adamantly opposed to a move that would deprive them of the two-state cover story that, for more than two decades, had allowed them to pretend they were committed to Middle East peace.
And it became ever harder for Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to muster support from the Israeli public for annexation as the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changed priorities.
Months from a presidential election he is predicted to lose, Trump needed a diplomatic coup in the Middle East after promising so much and achieving so little with his much-trumpeted “deal of the century”. Now he has it.
This move will placate his large Christian evangelical electoral base, which is devoted to Israel and supports whatever it wants. Evangelical leaders lost no time in saying they were “elated” by the announcement.
It can also be spun, as his officials began vigorously doing from the outset, as an “historic peace agreement” – equivalent to the deals Israel signed previously with Egypt and Jordan. That can be used on the campaign trail to sell Trump to the wider electorate as one of the great US statesmen.
Sharpening the battle lines
But there are wider benefits for the bipartisan Washington foreign policy elite. They have long wished to cement ties between Israel and the Gulf states, having the US’ two most reliable regional allies publicly cooperating.
As the Gulf states have become more deeply and obviously enmeshed in wars across the Middle East – from Syria to Yemen – an agreement allying them to Israel helps Washington’s improbable narrative that they are really the good guys. It will sharpen the region’s battle lines and, it is hoped, convey greater legitimacy on these theocratic dictatorships.
The US hopes, too, that the agreement with the UAE – and other Gulf states later – will once again provide a plausible cover story as Israel entrenches its occupation, steals more Palestinian land and intensifies its repression of Palestinians.
It will allow Washington to revive its bogus claims of being an “honest broker,” seeking the best for Palestinians, even if their leaders are supposedly too dim-witted to understand what is good for them.
Pitting the Palestinian leadership against the Gulf – as well as other Arab states, such as Jordan and Egypt, that dare not antagonise their oil-rich neighbours – will further isolate Palestinians. They can now be presented more convincingly as entrenched opponents of peace, at best – or, if they resist, as terrorists.
Netanyahu bailed out
Lastly, Netanyahu, who is in deep trouble, hopes this agreement can dig him out of his hole. He is up against a wave of protests that have rallied large sections of Israeli society, including on the right. He faces an unprecedented corruption trial. His handling of the Covid-19 pandemic looks increasingly catastrophic. The Israeli economy is imploding.
In this context, his focus on West Bank annexation alienated much of the Israeli public, and even failed to satisfy sections of the settler community, who want all of the Palestinian territories, not just large parts. A deal with the UAE, and implicitly one with the rest of the Gulf, allows him to climb down from an unpopular annexation plan.
Netanyahu has long declared himself Mr Security, the protector of Israel’s interests, and the only Israeli leader capable of making dramatic moves on the global stage. Here, he appears to have done both. It has even forced his political opponents to praise his achievement.
Netanyahu has managed to pull all this off while being able to argue that annexation was still “on the table,” placating his supporters among the settlers.
The agreement may yet set the stage for him to win a winter election he is widely reported to be preparing for.
No price to pay
The abandonment of annexation, temporarily or otherwise, will not, of course, interrupt Israel’s continuing capture of ever more Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, nor its relentless campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Netanyahu has demonstrated to Israelis that he was right. Israel could violate international law, steal land, commit war crimes – and western and Arab states would stomach it all. Israel would have to pay no price for its behaviour.
Haaretz recalled on Friday that, when asked in 2018 whether concessions to Palestinians initiated in the Oslo Accords had gradually led to improvements in relations with the Arab world, Netanyahu responded that it was the “exact opposite”.
By first recruiting the West and Arab regimes to Israel’s side, he said, Israel would “become so strong” that it would force Palestinians to “understand that they have no choice but to compromise with us” – his term for absolute submission.
For Netanyahu, a strategic alliance with the Gulf – at the expense of Palestinians – has always been about more than just grabbing the occupied territories. It is central to his vision of an unreformed, maximalist, ethnic supremacist, Israeli state secure in the Middle East, serving as a regional hegemon alongside US global power.
Now, with this deal, Netanyahu believes he is in sight of the finishing line.
Jonathan Cook, a British journalist based in Nazareth since 2001, is the the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he is a past winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism