London Review of Books / January 19, 2021
It seems a long time since May 2018, when Trump moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Under his administration, prospects for the Palestinians grew steadily worse. In September 2018 Trump stopped US funding for UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) and closed the PLO office in Washington. In 2019 the economic part of his preposterous peace plan was released, followed in January last year by the political dispensation, which makes ‘the state of Palestine’ anything but an independent sovereign state. Benjamin Netanyahu echoed Trump’s description of the ‘peace plan’ as ‘the deal of the century’, and called him ‘the greatest friend that Israel has had in the White House’. The Israeli prime minister also continued his efforts to disenfranchise Palestinian citizens of Israel. During the 2015 elections, he had urged Likud voters to go out to vote since ‘the Arabs are heading to the polling stations in droves’. In the 2019 elections, Likud hired 1200 activists to attend Arab polling sites (illegally) with hidden cameras and recording devices, allegedly to expose irregularities but really to deter Arab citizens from voting. Following the 2020 elections, Netanyahu argued that the right-wing bloc had won a majority because the fifteen seats won by the Joint List shouldn’t be taken into consideration.
Meanwhile, in the last six months of 2020 – the death spiral of the Trump presidency – a series of peace deals and normalisation agreements were signed between Israel and Arab countries: the UAE and Bahrain came first, in September, followed by Sudan and Morocco. Rumours are that Oman will be next. In November, Netanyahu went to Saudi Arabia to meet the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. Apparently, while most countries were counting the minutes till Trump’s term would be over, Israel and a few monarchies and dictatorships in the Arab world were squeezing the most out of his last weeks in office. Each delegation asked Trump, as if he were the Wizard of Oz, for what it most wanted in return for normalising relations: to be taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism (Sudan); to have its illegal occupation of other people’s land recognised (Morocco); to buy a few squadrons of F-35s (UAE); to put the Palestinian cause to sleep (Israel); possibly along with other promises we will never hear about.
These deals didn’t open relations, so much as make them public. Israel and Morocco exchanged diplomatic missions from 1994, after the first Oslo Accord, until 2000, when the Second Intifada broke out. Even after that, Israeli tourists were allowed to enter Morocco as long as they were part of a group – or belonged to one on paper – and about 50,000 visited in 2019. The two countries have had continuous economic relations, trading in agriculture and food, as well as in Israel’s biggest industry: security. In January 2020, the Moroccan military reportedly received three Heron drones built by Israel Aerospace Industries, in a deal (mediated by a French firm) worth $48 million.
Israel and the UAE also had under the radar relations for many years (though they became public from time to time). Israeli officials visited the Emirates to participate in international conventions and in 2015 Israel also opened a semi-official diplomatic office; ‘semi’ because Israel said it was official and the UAE described it as part of the International Renewable Energy Agency. The Israeli company Logic Industries, which specialises in homeland security, operated in Abu Dhabi from 2007 to 2015, for an estimated $6 billion. According to Bloomberg, Logic Industries was contracted to equip oil refineries and ports with security systems, installing ‘thousands of cameras, sensors and licence-plate readers along the UAE’s 620-mile international border and throughout Abu Dhabi’. Israel also supplied planes to spy on Iran, and software that allows the UAE to monitor the phones of anti-regime activists and dissidents. Since 2015, according to Middle East Eye, ‘every person’ in Abu Dhabi ‘is monitored from the moment they leave their doorstep to the moment they return to it.’ According to different sources, the Saudis, too, have been supplied with Israeli software, which they used to spy on the journalist Jamal Khashoggi before they murdered him in Istanbul.
Joint interests – such as monitoring Iran – have allowed Israel to push through deals with the Gulf countries without making any concessions to the Palestinians and, under Trump’s aegis, to normalise relations with Arab countries with nobody even mentioning the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the occupation of the West Bank, the settlements, the ongoing siege of Gaza, the Nakba, the Palestinian refugee question or the situation in East Jerusalem. The Gulf countries claimed that they normalised relations because Israel was ready to suspend its annexation plans in the West Bank. But Netanyahu gave the lie to this on the very same day: ‘There is no change to my plan to extend sovereignty, our sovereignty in Judea and Samaria.’
The Knesset vote to approve the ‘normalisation agreement’ with the UAE had the unanimous support of eighty Jewish-Israeli members and was opposed by thirteen MKs only: all of them from the Arab-led Joint List who believe the deal undermines the Palestinian cause. That Arab countries are ignoring the unanimous voice of Arab-Palestinian elected officials in Israel should come as no surprise. Israel has always, as the Arabic saying goes, been skilled at ‘fishing in troubled waters’. Israeli intelligence services have tarnished the Iranian regime and successive governments have also depicted the Palestinians – not Israel – as the obstacle to peace (as if they were the occupying, annexing, besieging, militarily hegemonic power). Over the course of the Trump administration, with mounting reports of increasing collaboration between Israel and the Gulf states, it began to look as if the main goal for the Arab countries was not to get closer to the US via Israel, but to get closer to Israel via the US.
Henry Kissinger once said that ‘Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics.’ Referring to the political slogan ‘Land for Peace’, meaning Israel has to end its occupation to gain peaceful relations with the Arab world, Netanyahu claims to have invented ‘Peace for Peace’ (or as some have called it, referring to the US recognition of Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara, ‘Occupation for Occupation’). Unlike former prime ministers – Menachem Begin, who withdrew from Sinai to make peace with Egypt; Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, who negotiated with Syria on withdrawing from the Golan Heights; or Yitzhak Rabin, who negotiated with the Palestinians on the basis of creating a Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank – Netanyahu bragged about getting money, recognition, arms deals, vacations, flights over Arab countries and more without concession or circumscription of Israel’s activities. He also took all the credit himself; all in order to make his ongoing corruption trial seem minor next to these historic deals. Strikingly, his political rivals – the defence minister, Benny Gantz, and foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi – heard about the peace treaties from the media.
The relationship between Israel and the UAE is based on mutual economic and security imperatives, but there is another factor too: mutual fascination. There is a longstanding Orientalist predilection in Israel for the Arab noble savage, or Arabs in white jalabiyas, while Emiratis admire the Israeli security apparatus, and the ‘Sons of Abraham’ rhetoric of Netanyahu and others. Unlike Egypt and Jordan, whose peace treaties with Israel (from 1979 and 1994 respectively) have remained stalled by deadlock over the Palestinians, the Emiratis don’t ask for anything in return. This is partly a matter of civil society – Egyptian and Jordanian citizens wouldn’t allow their governments simply to embrace Israel and abandon the Palestinians – but it’s also a matter of ideology. The common cause that links the interests of Palestinians with those of Arabs across the region has little meaning in a Gulf country such as UAE, rich from oil, close to the US and with a tiny privileged citizenship (around 1.4 million people) and six times that number of foreign residents. More generally, the Arab regimes that have made or are making formal peace deals with Israel have long since signed up to the notion of ‘economic peace’, the American-oriented business approach to foreign policy (which fits Netanyahu like a glove) that turns solidarity into collusion, and self-determination into GDP. The moral compass here isn’t MBS (Muhammad bin Salman) or MBZ (Muhammad bin Zayed al Nahyan) but MBA.
Tens of thousands of Israelis took a trip to the Gulf in December, just before the third Covid-19 lockdown began. It takes three hours and costs around $200 to get from Tel Aviv to Dubai, flying over Saudi Arabia. Some two hundred flights were scheduled by Israeli airlines in the first month of the agreement and, according to the CEO of flydubai, the number of Emirati flights was double that. Things have become so strange that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi recently bought a 50 per cent stake in Beitar Jerusalem, the only major Israeli football team never to have had an Arab player (Netanyahu is a supporter). Beitar fans are infamous for such chants as ‘Death to the Arabs’ or ‘May your village burn,’ and for insulting the prophet.
The consequences of all this are unclear. For the first time in the history of the region, Israel has open relations with Arab countries entirely disconnected from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ongoing occupation. There are those who argue that this may improve Jewish-Israelis attitudes to Arabs. I beg to differ. At best it will only give new life to Netanyahu’s distinction between depoliticised, post-Palestinian, pro-business ‘good Arabs’ and the hard-headed, politically engaged, Palestinian-concerned ‘bad Arabs’.
Ahead of the general election on 23 March (the fourth in less than two years), Netanyahu is already using the agreements to divide and rule the Arab citizens of Israel, encouraging them to see the economic fruits of the deals, pushing individual profit over collective rights. He is also presenting a strategic shift; trying to break up the Joint List and bring some of its Arab MKs into his own coalition – those he considers Emirati-in-spirit ‘good Arabs’.
It is hardly likely that the new agreements will give Palestinians in the Occupied Territories greater leverage. Other countries in the region will surely be less inclined to press their cause even on a symbolic level. On 5 November, less than two months after the normalisation ceremony between Israel, UAE and Bahrain was held in the White House, Israel carried out the biggest demolition of a Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank for a decade, at Khirbet Humsa, in the occupied but (officially) unannexed Jordan Valley. Some 73 people, including 41 children, were made homeless overnight. Business with UAE – in all senses – continued as usual.
The Arabic word tatbi, meaning ‘normalisation’ with Israel, has turned from a curse word, a symbol of betrayal, a description no one in the Arab world wanted to be associated with, into a badge of honour and a way of life for some of the region’s leaders. A few weeks ago, on the fifth day of Hanukkah, a ceremonial lighting of the candle was held by the Western Wall, opposite the al-Aqsa mosque. According to the Israeli website Ynet, those taking part included the Israeli health minister, Yuli Edelstein; the Rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar; a delegation from UAE and Bahrain; and ‘liberators of the Old City, IDF veterans from the 55th Paratroopers Brigade’, the first Israeli troops to enter East Jerusalem in June 1967. This apparent contradiction, Arabs from the Gulf with no interest in an Arab-Palestinian connection, celebrating a Jewish holiday at the Western Wall alongside an IDF commemoration of the 1967 War, is a clear image of the new reality.
Yonatan Mendel teaches in the Middle East Department at Ben-Gurion University