Palestine: Cry My Beloved Country

As the UAE and Bahrain close ranks with Israel, other Arab states may follow too, leaving Palestine with just a clutch of supporters for its cause.

Less than a month after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) declared its intention to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, Bahrain has followed suit. In a deal brokered by the Trump administration, the two Arab states have signed the Abraham Accords, normalising relations with Israel. This is in sharp contrast to the passionate “three Nos” resolution at the  Khartoum Conference of  September 1967, which had called for "no peace, no recognition and no negotiations” with Israel.

The Abraham Accords have triggered sharp reactions from the Palestinians. Perceiving them to be a betrayal of its cause, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has quit from its chairmanship of the Arab League meetings. According to the PA, recent actions of the UAE and Bahrain contravene the spirit of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which predicates the establishment of ties with Israel on the restoration of territories lost in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Apart from demanding the recognition of occupied East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, the initiative had called for a just solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees.

These latest developments are emblematic of a larger power-play on the Middle East checkerboard. In the process, the Palestinians have been rendered a sacrificial pawn.

CALCULATED MOVE

Although the Abraham Accords have cemented a formal diplomatic relationship with Israel, Gulf countries, such as the UAE, have been drifting closer to their Jewish neighbour for quite some time. It is an open secret that many of their leaders have covertly engaged in military cooperation, trade, and cybersecurity. More tellingly, when the U.S. had recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and accepted its occupation of the strategic Golan Heights, many of the Gulf States had been noticeably subdued in their criticism.

Through the accords, the UAE hopes to tap into sectors like aviation, healthcare, food security, and tourism. More importantly, it aspires to gain access to U.S. weaponry such as the F-35 fighter jets, which have been previously denied to it. As can be recalled, Egypt had similarly secured arms from the U.S., after entering into a peace agreement with Israel in 1979.

Interestingly, the agreement has special relevance in a post-COVID era, where global oil demand would have passed its peak. As the world looks to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, Arab economies are increasingly focussing on alternative energy sectors.  

Cited by the website “The Green Prophet” on September 1,  Joshua M. Pearce, a PhD scholar and director of the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology (MOST) Lab, Michigan Technological University has remarked that “renewable energy deployment in the Middle East can be a key factor in promoting peace.  [...]  The peace deal between Israel and the UAE unquestionably benefits the $1 trillion of solar energy goal. [...]The UAE is already a solar leader in the region for PV, which now can be more easily exported in the region”.

UNITED AGAINST COMMON FOES

Many Gulf countries have secretly cherished a relationship with Israel for a number of economic and strategic reasons. However, what finally tipped the scale in favour of coming out of the closet and establishing diplomatic relations with the Zionists, is a shared interest in neutralising the growing threats from Iran and Turkey.

A Shiite Iran, with its development of ballistic missiles and use of proxies in regional conflicts, has been the common foe of Israel as well as the Sunni Arab monarchies. It’s ‘Axis of Resistance’ that seeks to bring together states like Syria and Iraq, as well as sub-state actors such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis has alarmed both the Israelis and the Arabs.

Meanwhile, Turkey has also got embroiled in regional conflicts with the UAE, through its proxies in Syria and Libya. The two states have clashed over Qatar, a country which the UAE has been seeking to isolate since 2017. At the same time, Turkey’s relationship with Israel has progressively deteriorated, after President Recep Erdogan accused Israel of committing genocide, and the latter retaliated by expelling the Turkish consul from Jerusalem.

THE DOMINO EFFECT?

Now that the UAE and Bahrain have made their moves, speculation is rife about other Arab states following suit. Some political commentators have reported that the Abraham Accords had the tacit consent of Crown Prince Mohammed-bin-Salman, the de-facto leader of Saudi Arabia. The fact that flights between the UAE and Israel were permitted to overfly Saudi Arabian airspace has added to these conjectures. However, it is unlikely that this would translate to an official agreement between the two countries, as there is a strong undercurrent of popular support for the Palestinian cause in the Arabian Peninsula. The ruling autocracy would not like to stir up a hornets’ nest at this juncture.

Any undermining of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative would allow rivals like Iran and Turkey to claim a moral high ground and reinvigorate their calls for the internationalisation of mosques in Mecca and Medina, an outcome that Saudi Arabia, as the guardian of Islam’s holiest shrine, does not desire.

The position of Oman and Kuwait continues to be ambiguous. Although U.S. President Donald Trump has announced that he expects Kuwait to normalise relations soon, the Kuwaiti government has declared that it will not do so unless Palestinian statehood has been achieved. Oman has also adopted a similar stance, even though its Sultan Qaboos-bin-Said controversially hosted the Israeli PM in 2018.

In so far as the Arab states in Africa are concerned, the Israeli Intelligence Director has indicated that Israel is about to enter into a peace deal with two of them. It is believed that he is referring to Sudan and Somaliland. The transitional government in Sudan, reeling from the economic impact of being placed on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, would expect a reprieve if it normalised relations with Israel.  In Somaliland, the autonomous government, which is backed by the UAE, has extended its support to the Abraham Accords. However, the vast swathes of Somalia controlled by Al-Shabaab are a totally different story.

Qatar continues to be an outlier by actively supporting Palestinians in the Gaza strip. Having had its diplomatic ties with Bahrain and UAE (along with Egypt and Saudi Arabia) cut off in 2017, it is unlikely to walk their path. It is more probable that Qatar will team up with Iran and Turkey to resist an Arab-Israeli axis.

THE PALESTINIAN CAUSE

The dwindling support of Arab states has proven to be a setback for the Palestinian movement. In the accords, by invoking Abraham as the common patriarch of Arab and Jewish peoples, there has been a symbolic reversal of the traditionally held Arab position that Israel has no legitimate rights on Middle Eastern land. Although the agreements require Israel to suspend annexation of the West Bank, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has already indicated that the suspension is temporary.

This does not bode well for the Palestinians. The silver lining, however, is that it might prompt their fragmented polity to come together and agree on a comprehensive national strategy to further their statehood. In fact, Turkey has already hosted unity talks between the Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas, in conflict since 2007. The two factions have finally reached a consensus on holding elections. Palestinians hope that this will be the first step towards resisting the U.S.’s ‘Deal of the Century’.

ASSESSMENT

  • Apart from securing economic and business interests, the Abraham Accords have been motivated by a shared Arab-Israeli need to counter threats emanating from Iran and Turkey. Real politics is overtaking politics of passion in the Middle East.
  • While there is a high probability of other Arab states following suit, the principal player Saudi Arabia joining the club seems unlikely.  Saudi Arabia's internal political dynamics are far more myriad than meets the eye.
  • In the entire narrative, Palestinians are the most affected, as their dream for a homeland gets even more remote.  While signs of reconciliation between the rival factions-Fatah and Hamas-are encouraging, the Palestinians hold very few cards. Their rich and most influential allies seem to be abandoning them in droves.

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