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Palestinian question remains in limbo after Arab-Israeli embrace

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Bahraini FM Abdullatif al-Zayani (left); Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu; US President Donald Trump; and UAE FM Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan at the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House in Washington, September 15.


• Normalisation Agreements A Shaky Foundation For Enduring Peace In Middle East —Akinterinwa

Israel’s historic diplomatic pacts with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain marked the dawn of a new Middle East. The agreements, however, do not address the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The bilateral agreements formalise the normalisation of Israel’s already thawing relations with the Saudi Arabia and some Gulf Arab states in line with their common opposition to Iran.

While specific details of the agreements are not yet public, The Guardian gathered that there would be embassies, commercial deals and the opening of travel links between the countries.

From the Palestinian perspectives, however, the pacts constitute a stab in the back from fellow Arabs, and a betrayal of their cause for a Palestinian State, hence they have been condemned by the Palestinian leadership, which described last Tuesday as a “black day” for the region.

The leadership also added that developments on ground in the occupied West Bank and Gaza could still derail these new relationships.

Largely, the move marks a major threat to long-standing Arab demands that Israel ends its decades-long occupation and agree on a two-state solution with the Palestinians.  

The two-state solution closely corroborates the Arab Peace Initiative, which was proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002. The initiative called for normalised relations between Israel and other Arab states in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel, from lands it occupied in the 1967 war, including the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The peace initiative was re-endorsed over the years by the Arab League but never implemented, as Israel continued its occupation and settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Before the UAE and Bahrain, the only other Arab countries in the Middle East to recognise Israel officially were Egypt and Jordan, that signed peace treaties in 1978 and 1994, respectively.

Mauritania, a member of the Arab League in North West Africa, established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1999, but severed ties in 2010.

With the recent developments, the Palestinians may have to endure much longer or quickly seek other alternatives in their relationships with Israel.

The fact is, there is a new generation of rulers in some Gulf countries who do not have the same affinity for the Palestinian cause as their elders did, and have other priorities at home and abroad.

These normalisation deals are also a reminder that the balance of power in the Arab world has shifted from traditional powers hostile to Israel, such as Syria and Iraq, to smaller powers on the periphery.

However, outside foreign workers, Bahrain and UAE’s population account for less than two million of 422 million Arabs. The nature of the political systems in both countries allows the political leadership to conclude such normalisation deals by force, if needed, with US support and now with reinforced Israeli direct consent.

Also, the approach to normalisation is a quick-fix or an attempt for a quick win and it is unlikely to change the Arab public’s mindset towards Israel.

Neither Bahraini nor Emirati soldiers fought with Israel on the battlefield, hence their normalisation does not have a significant impact on the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Similarly, and given its symbolic role in Islam and the potential political pressure at home, Saudi Arabia is not ready yet to undertake normalisation.

But given how much the Saudi leadership owes US President Donald Trump for its diplomatic survival after the killing of a journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudis helped with getting Bahrain to do their biddings, instead.

International relations experts also feared that the normalisation deals would prop up Arab authoritarianism and restore the pre-Arab Spring role of the United States as a protector of Arab regimes appeasing Israel.

The deals are seen as symbolic agreements that will only deepen regional divisions instead of mitigating them. The UAE might try to bring other Arab regimes to this axis to expand the coalition against Iran and by extension Turkey. This can potentially increase regional tensions from the Levant to North Africa.

Experts also pointed out that previous top-down Arab normalisation attempts with Israel failed miserably, and ended in either conflict, as was the case in Lebanon, or cold peace in the Jordanian case.

Saudi Arabia’s Role
WHILE Saudi Arabia is not expected to follow the example of its Gulf allies any time soon, remarks from influential spiritual and political leaders could be a clue to how the Kingdom is warming up to Israel.

In a sermon broadcast on Saudi state television on September 5, 2020, Imam of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, Abdulrahman al-Sudais, called on Muslims to avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” towards Jews.

The call came three weeks after the UAE agreed to the deal to normalise relations with Israel, and days before Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, followed suit.

It was also a marked change in tone for someone who has shed tears preaching about Palestine in the past. Sudais, who in past sermons, prayed for Palestinian’s victory over the “invader and aggressor” Jews, spoke about how Prophet Muhammad was good to his Jewish neighbours, and argued that the best way to persuade Jews to convert to Islam was to “treat them well.” 

Appointed by the King, Sudais is one of Saudi Arabia’s most influential figures, reflecting the views of its conservative religious establishment, as well as the Royal Court.

Be that as it may, some are of the view that the dramatic agreements with the UAE and Bahrain constitute a coup for Israel and President Trump, who is portraying himself as a peacemaker before the US November elections.

But the big diplomatic prize for an Israel deal would be Saudi Arabia, whose king is the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, and rules the world’s largest oil exporter.

While the UAE and Bahrain’s normalisation has allowed Saudi Arabia to test public opinion, a formal deal with Israel may, however, prove too high a mountain to climb for the kingdom, for now.

The cleric’s plea to shun intense feelings is a far cry from his past when he wept dozens of times while praying for Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque – Islam’s third-holiest site located in the occupied territory of Jerusalem.

Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de-facto ruler, has promised to promote interfaith dialogue as part of his domestic reform.

The prince previously stated that Israelis are entitled to live peacefully on their land on the condition of a peace agreement that assures stability for all sides.

Saudi Arabia and Israel’s mutual fear of Iran may be a key driver for the development of ties.
 


United States’ Role
LIKE Saudi Arabia, both the UAE and Bahrain are historically close allies of the US, with each country hosting a significant US military presence.

The US Air Force has deployed F-35 fighter jets to an air base in Abu Dhabi, while the Navy’s Fifth Fleet and Central Command are based in Bahrain.

That military presence has drawn the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain closer to the US, and invariably, because of the anti-Iran alliance, closer to Israel.

With the November election in the horizon and dwindling domestic ratings, the Trump administration saw an opportunity in the shifting Middle East and took advantage of it.

Unable to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a report by international cable television station CNN, said Trump and his advisors shifted focus to the rest of the region.

For decades, the United States has been the key player in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. On September 17, 1978, it was US President Jimmy Carter who stood between Israel’s Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, after 12 days of secret negotiations at Camp David.
 
On October 26, 1994, US President Bill Clinton brokering a peace treaty, held the hands of Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and King Hussein of Jordan.

On September 15, 2020, it was the turn of Trump, America’s 45th president to stand between Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain.

Under Trump, the US vision of the Middle East hardly includes the Palestinians. Trump invited the Palestinians to the negotiating table, but only under a vision of the Middle East heavily skewed towards Israel and against the Palestinians.

Impression was created that if the Palestinians don’t want to engage, the Trump-led administration seems more than happy to leave them behind.

The fact that the latest deal was masterminded by the US is another entry on the growing list of grievances that Palestinian leaders have against the Trump-led administration.

The Palestinians had cut off contact with the US government after the Trump administration moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem and took other pro-Israel steps.

ASKED what he makes of the normalisation agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, a former Director-General, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Prof Bola Akinterinwa said: “Let me note, for sure, that it is not an agreement that has formalised the normalisation of the relationship between Israel and the two Arab countries. On the contrary, it is an agreement aimed at normalising the relationship. In other words, it is about an intention agreement.

Second, the agreement constitutes a good attempt to lay a shaky foundation for the quest for an enduring peace in the Middle East. I say a shaky foundation, because of two main reasons: the agreement is designed to isolate Iran diplomatically, which seems to me to be more of a dream. Iran cannot but remain a critical factor in any peace-making equation in the Middle East. 

“Additionally, anyone claiming to be a Christian but without Jesus Christ, is simply fetching water into a porous African basket. To me, the signatories are, at best, diplomatic jokers by believing that they can forge ahead without constructively factoring into their strategic calculations the Palestinian question. The peace broker, President Donald Trump, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel have critical domestic issues and have timed the signing of the agreement to help mitigate the hostilities with which they are faced back home. It is the re-election saga for Donald Trump and corruption charges against Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. In essence, it is an agreement whose time may have not come, but which is still welcomed to work with.” 

Akinterinwa, who admitted that true, the agreements have the potential to change the course of history, added that this is only subject to a normal circumstance. Unfortunately, circumstances are hardly normal in international relations. International politics is necessarily a conflict system. The current environmental conditionings in the Middle East do not lend any credence to any possible change. The truth of the matter is that there are many critical questions still left unattended to. They include the unresolved issue of a sovereign State of Palestine. Since William Balfour of the UK declared the need for a homeland for both the Israelis and the Arab Palestinians in 1917, a State of Israel was created in 1948, but that of Palestine is still on the altar of politics. The part of Jerusalem, which Palestinians intend to use as their political capital has been occupied by Israel. The Palestinians made efforts to join the United Nations, the United States and Israel led the frustration of the efforts. There is also the outstanding issue of occupied territories by Israel, etc. It is quite difficult to think of changing the course of history without first addressing these issues.”

The former NIIA boss disagreed with the notion that the agreements would serve as a foundation for a comprehensive peace across the entire region, stressing that instead, “the agreements will not serve, but can serve, as a foundation for a comprehensive peace across the Middle East, if the agreement is not executed only in the protection of the national interests of the signatories, and to the detriment of collective regional security interests.

“Again, the Arabs and the Israelis may be getting tired of the recidivist tensions of insecurity and may now want to truly seek peace. This is quite possible if the frontline stakeholders are carried along. The outcome of every order and counter order is always an encounter. An encounter in which parties operate not on a level playing field, but vertically. The outcome cannot, but be also disorder.

On the level of boost that the search for world peace has received by this ‘intention agreements’, Akinterinwa, who is the President, Bolytag Centre for International Diplomacy and Strategic Studies said: “It is still difficult to quantify the impact of the initiative. The agreements were done in the strong belief that others would follow. While a major stakeholder like Saudi Arabia, and a major ally of the United States can be easily cajoled to join the moving train, the same cannot be done for Iran, which currently has a very frosty relationship, especially in terms of the Iran nuclear deal. One untruth most people unfortunately take as truth is the belief that powerful countries truly want world peace. Global insecurity is necessary for the arms and weapons industries to thrive. In whose interest is any search for world peace? Certainly, in the interest of the weak and not in the interest of the strong.

“The normalisation agreement with Israel does not mean that it would be easier for the UAE to acquire F-35s fighter jets from the United States. Sale of fighter jets is not simply about doing business. It is essentially about a political instrument to control countries in which US interests are at stake. If you think that there is much importance in establishing diplomatic missions between Israel and the UAE or Bahrain for instance, is the relationship between Bahrain and the United States stronger than Nigeria-US relationship? 

“Besides, the UAE and Bahrain are just preparing to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, while Nigeria’s diplomatic relationship with Israel is in terms of decades. And yet, when Nigeria placed an order for the same fighter jets from Israel, the United States blocked it. When Nigeria again turned to South Africa, the United States still blocked it. And yet again, Nigeria’s diplomatic ties with the United States are still described as very warm. Please there is no big deal with declaratory political statements. It is all about politics of self-survival and the fittest.”

With this new inroad of relationship into the middle east, will a lot more countries within the Arab states start working closely with Israel, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, said even during the Israel and Arab disputes, there were a lot of Arab states, who behind the scenes had cooperative relationship with Israel.

“What is only happening now is that, they are sufficiently bold enough. Circumstances have arisen, especially the fear of Iran has spurred a lot of Arab states into perceiving that they now have a community of interest with Israel and that for existentially reasons, they should come out and the relationship should come out from under the shadow, as they now have a lot to gain from an open relationship with Israel strategically, economically and technically. And the fact that for how many years, 30, 40 years, the empty chair of diplomatic stance of the Palestinian in dealing with Israel has actually been disastrous for the Palestinians.”

He noted that Palestine has lost more land, lost all the encounters with Israel. He added that, with Israeli Prime Minster, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinians were running the dangers of losing all lands and presented with a fate accompli, where two nation states arrangement was no longer to be visible.

“I think one should not be too condemnatory of these Arab states coming out of the shadow and seeking open cooperative relationship with Israel,” Akinyemi said.


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