Imad K. Harb
Al-Jazeera / August 15, 2020
Full normalisation with Israel cannot be achieved until the oppression of the Palestinian people comes to an end.
After years of taking steps towards informal normalisation, but falling short of breaking from the long-standing Arab position and officially signing a peace deal with Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) finally announced its decision to establish full diplomatic relations with the country on Thursday.
The move was long in the making. In the last few years, the Emiratis have hosted Israeli ministers and athletes, participated in maritime security conferences alongside Israeli officials, supported technological cooperation agreements between Emirati and Israeli companies, and even invited Israel to the Dubai Expo.
These and other ventures made Abu Dhabi’s intention to normalise its relations with Israel clear. What stood in the way of a deal was the Israeli government’s intention to annex some 30 percent of the occupied West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, which would have made official rapprochement with Israel too politically costly for the Emirati leadership.
But on June 12, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, offered Israel a face-saving trade-off. In an op-ed published in Israel’s largest Hebrew language daily Yedioth Ahronoth, al-Otaiba warned Israeli leaders against annexation, saying that such a move would “reverse all of the Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and the United Arab Emirates”. In essence, the Emirati ambassador announced to the world that the UAE was ready to sign a peace deal with Israel, if it drops its annexation plan, even for a short while.
The Israeli government clearly got the message, as it announced on Thursday that it agreed to suspend “declaring sovereignty” over the occupied West Bank as part of its normalisation deal with the UAE.
Annexation has already taken place
The UAE is using Israel’s decision to put its annexation plans on hold to justify its move and shield itself from accusations that it betrayed the Palestinians by establishing relations with Israel to please the US and strengthen its hand against its regional rivals. However, considering how Netanyahu has previously reneged on agreements with the Palestinians and Arab leaders, this so-called suspension is not worth the paper it is written on.
To be sure, there is a good possibility that once diplomatic relations are formally established between the two countries, Netanyahu will renege on the suspension promise. After all, he needs the support of Israeli settlers to remain in power, and they want the colonisation of the West Bank to continue unabated.
Moreover, Netanyahu’s American friends who brokered the deal – Trump’s Middle East point man Jared Kushner, US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo among others – expect nothing less. After all, they are defenders of settlements and believers in a literal interpretation of scriptures giving Israel the right to control the area in perpetuity.
In fact, the annexation Netanyahu agreed to “suspend” has already taken place. Some 600,000 Israeli settlers live in settlements, all illegal under international law, strewn across that same 30 percent of the occupied West Bank, and no agreement with the Palestinians, the UAE or any other Arab state can dislodge them.
Today, settlers are attacking Palestinians, burning their crops and undermining their livelihoods regularly, unimpeded by the Israeli army, even in areas supposedly reserved in the Oslo Accords for a rump Palestinian state. A promise to suspend an annexation that has already taken place in practice serves no purpose other than allowing the UAE to save face, and Netanyahu to secure a peace deal that can help save his political future.
Netanyahu is facing protests for failing to efficiently respond to the coronavirus pandemic and the downturn in the Israeli economy. A corruption investigation, slated to take place early next year, is also hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles. With this supposed diplomatic victory, he could very well announce a new round of parliamentary elections that could net him more support in the Knesset, which would give him significant leverage in his upcoming legal and political battles.
The agreement will not save Trump
Just like Netanyahu, Trump is also relying on the UAE-Israel normalisation deal to turn his political fortunes around. It was obvious from his enthusiastic Oval Office announcement about the agreement that he thinks the Emirati move will help him secure the support of pro-Israel sectors of the American electorate in the upcoming presidential election. Indeed, declaring a foreign policy victory – especially one that pleases Israel – may help Trump at a time when he is trailing far behind the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in almost every election poll.
But any extra support the deal provides for Trump will likely be inconsequential in determining the result of the election, given his significant failures on the domestic front. Foreign policy has never been a major concern for the American electorate, even in good times. Today, what most Americans care about is the coronavirus pandemic and its detrimental effects on the economy, high unemployment, and Trump’s clear assault on American democracy and the integrity of elections. Scoring a goal for Israel in its relations with the Arab world is unlikely to be seen by voters as a deciding factor in their choice for president.
It is all for naught
In the coming days, following further negotiations led by the US, Thursday’s announcement will undoubtedly result in the much-anticipated establishment of diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel. As the UAE becomes the third Arab country – after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 – to officially make peace with Israel, it is not unreasonable to expect other Gulf countries to follow suit. But there should also be no doubt that in the end, it will all be for naught.
These normalisation efforts may provide some short-term political relief for Netanyahu, Trump and Gulf leaders who need the support of Israel and the US to subdue their regional rivals. Nevertheless, they will not provide any real normalisation for Israel.
Egypt and Jordan’s peace deals with Israel failed to garner popular support in many decades, despite relentless efforts by these governments to convince the masses they rule over to accept and normalise Israel’s existence in the region.
Full normalisation with Israel cannot be accomplished until it agrees to end its occupation of Palestine and oppression of the Palestinian people. Any deal between Arab leaders and Israel will not be accepted by the peoples of the region until Israel redresses the legitimate national and human rights of the Palestinians. What UAE leaders have just done is to simply betray these goals without gaining anything in return.
Imad K Harb is Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.