UAE’s and Bahrain’s normalisation of relations with Israel could be an opportunity for Palestinians
30 Sep 2020|

Israel’s normalisation agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, signed on 15 September, signify a potentially tectonic shift in the Middle East and represent perhaps the greatest advance towards peace there in 25 years.

These developments have been broadly welcomed by those who aspire to a better, safer and more prosperous Middle East. Predictably, they have also been condemned by those who measure success in the region not by the welfare of its population, including the Palestinians, but by how bad things are for Israel.

Unlike Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians, the partners in Israel’s three previous agreements, neither the UAE nor Bahrain has ever had an armed conflict with Israel. Both theoretically observed a total boycott of Israel, but it was an open secret that they had been cooperating under the table on matters of mutual interest for some time out of concern about Iran.

Iran has been an increasingly destabilising influence in the Middle East as it adheres to the doctrine of exporting its Shia fundamentalist revolution throughout the region. In pursuit of this aim, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force has established and supported proxy forces, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, various powerful militia forces in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The IRGC also took the lead in buttressing the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s bloody civil war. And Tehran has been pursuing nuclear weapons, despite its claims to the contrary.

The Gulf states felt increasingly threatened by this Iranian activity and, with the US withdrawing forces from the region, have been seeking a regional power with the ability and willingness to stand up to Iran. Israel was the obvious candidate.

It has long been clear to them that Israel poses them no threat, unlike Iran, and there’s been ongoing, if covert, cooperation on matters of defence and intelligence.

The UAE and Bahrain also have much to gain from Israel beyond security. As rich and technologically advanced nations, there’s great potential for mutually beneficial trade, and shared high-tech development.

Other Muslim countries, such as Oman, Sudan and Morocco, may also be ready to conclude deals with Israel in the near future. Saudi Arabia may be more reticent given its position in the Arab world, but it has quietly demonstrated that it supports the arrangements.

The paradigm of the Arab states had long been that there could be no normalisation with Israel until there was a deal establishing a Palestinian state. This, however, has been counterproductive, as rejection by the Palestinian Authority has always been the principal obstacle to a two-state peace.

Giving the Palestinian Authority an effective veto over Israeli relations with other Arab countries simply encouraged this rejectionism, which saw Yasser Arafat refuse offers of a state in 2000 at Camp David and 2001 at Taba. Current president Mahmoud Abbas rejected Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2008, and has refused, since torpedoing negotiations in 2014, to even engage in peace talks.

The Palestinian Authority has virulently condemned the normalisation deals as a stab in the back for Palestinians. Iran and Turkey have made similar statements.

While US President Donald Trump’s peace plan released early this year may need some fine-tuning before it could be the basis of a two-state peace, the Palestinians could have taken advantage of its promise of a state as a starting point for negotiations. And the Trump administration’s efforts did help facilitate the UAE deal, allowing leader Mohammed bin Zayed to counter any regional backlash by pointing out that he had prevented Israel from extending its sovereignty to some areas of the West Bank, as the Trump plan permitted.

The normalisation between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain could be a significant opportunity to kickstart the Israeli–Palestinian peace progress, for a number of reasons. First, if the Palestinian leaders recognise that time is no longer on their side, they should prove more willing to genuinely negotiate difficult compromises. Despite the recent history of Palestinian rejectionism and terrorism, the majority of Israelis still support a two-state peace if it does not compromise their security.

The UAE and Bahrain have made it clear that they still support the Palestinians and their aspirations for statehood, and history proves that states that have normalised relations with Israel are far more effective intermediaries than those who deny Israel’s right to exist. Egypt and Jordan have been effective advocates for Palestinian interests on numerous occasions, as well as successful brokers of various temporary arrangements.

In addition, Israelis have genuine and well-founded concerns about their security after the establishment of a Palestinian state. Having friendly Arab states willing to act as guarantors should help assuage those fears, again making a Palestinian state more achievable.

Finally, the deals will lead to a stronger regional front against the threat to peace posed by Iran, which is funding and arming numerous groups dedicated to sabotaging any progress toward Israeli–Palestinian peace, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.

Increased interaction between Israelis and citizens of Arab countries will also lead to greater mutual understanding, greater cooperation and less hostility. This can only be a benefit for all those in the region who aspire to a peaceful and prosperous future.

If the Palestinian leadership genuinely wants a Palestinian state, it should act now to take advantage of changing but potentially propitious circumstances. It would be a tragedy for the Palestinian people if the ageing leadership’s inability to rethink entrenched positions—such as rejection of any normalisation with Israel—were to cause them to miss yet another opportunity to advance a two-state peace.